NEW YORK – There were moments when the debate hosted by The National Herald on October 30 between Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and challenger Nick Di Iorio, liberal Democrat and moderate Republican candidate respectively in New York’s 12th Congressional district, was a throwback with hope for the future.
In contrast to bitter partisan gridlock in Washington that disturbs Americans and shocks a world anxious about America’s leadership, the conference room at TNH headquarters was the stage for two passionate and well-informed candidates just as eager to work together for the common good when they agree as they are to fight the good fight when they believe their opponents’ ideas go against the interest of their community and America.
But the aim is to defeat one’s opponent, and there were tough moments.
When the 28 year-old Di Iorio, perhaps straining under the weight of having to prove himself as a talented newcomer against an incumbent with a long track record snapped, “A few scattered successes over a period of 22 years is not the sign of a star performer, it’s the sign of someone who has not been doing enough for our community,” Maloney retorted that US News & World report has listed her among th most productive members of Congress.
But incumbents also feel the pressure of proving to constituents that he or she is the exception to career politicians who provoke demands for term limits. ”This is not rhetoric,” she said after ticking off her accomplishments. “These are things I have done…It’s not glamorous. It’s hard work, and it has helped people, Queens and the overall economy…I have authored more bills than any other member of Congress…some have been landmark bills.”
She proudly said “ I have brought billions of dollars back to the City of New York…the two largest transportation projects in the country – the LIRR East Side access and the second avenue subway project – are in the district I am proud to represent. They are creating good jobs and are investments in the future of New York.”
THN EXTENDED INVITATION
Both candidates have come a long way to plant their roots in New York. Maloney, who was first elected to Congress in 1992, was born in Greensboro, NC, and Di Iorio grew up in Rhode Island.
The candidates accepted the invitation of Antonis Diamataris, TNH Publisher-Editor, to express their views on local and national issues and matters of special interest to the Greek-American community. On October Maloney and Di Iorio thanked TNH for being the host. Although it was not organized as a public debate, a number of press outlets were welcomed, including the New York Daily News.
There were genuine moments of mutual respect when the impression was given that the obligatory opening handshake was more than just a photo opportunity.
The candidates alternated being the first to respond to TNH’s questions. Each was permitted a two-minute response and a one-minute rebuttal.
Maloney won the coin toss and while the first question was about immigration reform, the discussion about the United States’ relations with Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, which was last, was the most substantial, for which extra time was provided.
CANDIDATES OUTRAGED BY TURKEY AND THE US RESPONSE
Both proved to be well versed on the topic and both spoke out strongly against Turkey’s recent violation of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Republic of Cyprus that shut down the UN reunification talks and raised tensions in a region already roiled by the rise of ISIS.
“The message should be that Turkeys’ behavior is unacceptable. On October 8 the President of Cyprus sent a message to the UN saying they have been blackmailed and threatened by the Turkish warships and messages from their foreign affairs community,” Di Iorio said, adding, “On Oct. 9th if I were in congress, if I were representing Astoria…I would have been dancing up and down and waving my arms saying this is absurd, that we have a Cypriot president who hasn’t been getting the support from the U.S.”
Di Iorio continued, saying, “The U.S. needs to be a vigilant ally, not merely equating Turkey and Cyprus but making sure Turkey does not continue to impede upon the EEZ of Cyprus…its urgent the Turkish government know it cannot do what it continues to do.”
As with other issues, Maloney, the incumbent, could cite her record, and her knowledge of the levers of power and influence in Washington, implying that moving those levers requires more than words, which she suggested is all the fledgling candidate can point to at this time.
She noted that during the Imia crisis of 1998 that almost led to war in the Aegean Sea, “I constantly went to the floor of Congress to defend Greece and Cyprus, but I also reached out to the Greek-American community’s leaders and said ‘I want to form a Hellenic Caucus. With Archbishop Iakovos’ blessing, Congressman Michael Bilirakis and I founded the caucus that is now one of the largest in Congress with 135 members.”
She said that once the bi-partisan group was created “no pro-Turkey initiative has passed the U.S. Congress.”
Maloney was also at the forefront of the U.S. visa waiver program for Greece that passed in 2010, and pushed for Cyprus to join the EU.
Regarding the current crisis, Maloney said that when it broke out, she and Gus Bilirakis – who succeeded to his father’s co-chair role in the caucus – wrote a letter the Secretary of State Kerry imploring him to become more active in protecting Cyprus’ EEZ.
They have not heard back, but they are also circulating a letter that will add the full weight of the caucus to their communications.
Maloney also noted that the strengthening and deepening of relations between Greece, Israel and Cyprus – she is also a member of the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance – is a vital development which has resulted in energy, commercial and military cooperation and which supports U.S. interests.
Di Iorio countered that “we need to be clear, with no ambiguity in our relationship with Cyprus, and this State Department has not done that…Congressman Maloney needs to do more and I will do more,” regarding Cyprus, and to make sure there is “no space between the [positions of the] Israelis and the Americans.”
One of the testiest moments of the debate came when Di Iorio suggested, based primarily on the fact that “her party and her president have done [much] to hurt the relationship between the U.S. and Israel,” that she was not a strong supporter of Israel.
“I will [not] be silent,” he said. “We have to stand with Cyprus and Israel, not because they are nice people…but because it is in our vital national security interest.”
“Just google my record on Israel and Greece and Cyprus,” Maloney shot back. “I have always voted for aid to Israel… have a 100 percent pro-Israel voting record.” She cited her support for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system: “It has been a terrific success. The president supported it, Congress funded it.”
Maloney continued that it is Di Iorio who has been silent and said, “I have spoken out, to the highest powers in our country” explaining that “you have to coordinate and work with people to make things happen.”
“But you are free to make a statement,” she told Di Iorio/ “Where is your press statement? Where is your letter? Before he tells you what he’ll do, ask him what he’s done,” she said rhetorically.
RUBBER STAMP OR PRINCIPALED AND CONSISTENT?
The Tea Party tenor of Di Iorio’s attacks on the Obama administration were in contrast with his moderate policy positions.
During his introduction, Di Iorio tried to keep the focus on the travails of the Democratic Party and on Obama rather than on the record of a popular incumbent, but he emphasized the need to transcend partisan politics.
“This campaign…has been about putting people before party and before politics,” and he pledged that “In Congress I will work with both sides because you can’t begin a conversation by think about what party you are in…working with both sides and compromising is how we are going to get things done again.”
When Di Iorio called her a rubber stamp for Obama, Maloney countered vigorously: “I am very proud of the Democratic Party and what it stands for on the national level, both historically and this present congress.”
ARE THEY LISTENING?
While at one point Di Iorio said “Congresswoman [Maloney] has done a great job representing the Astoria community,” he also declared that although “I appreciate the fact that the congresswoman has done much work, but there are some necessities here, and it begins with listening, taking the time to listen to the concerns of the people.”
He said, “I can tell you that the people in this district are hurting. They are worried that government is corrupt, concerned the economy in not growing fast enough, if at all, and they are concerned about national security.”
A shocked Maloney answered, “I do listen to people. I listen to people all day long. I listen to people in the housing projects I’ve built. I visit the schools’ that I’ve built, but I not only listen, I actually go to work and do things and get things done to help people, to help the community.”
She said she has demonstrated that she works in a bi-partisan way. “How else to you pass bills with a Democratic minority…if you don’t work together and listen to each other’s concerns, when government switches back and forth and the first thing they do is take out what you did.”
WHICH COMES FIRST, THE PATH OR THE WALL?
The debate’s first question asked how each would move the immigration reform process forward, a matter of great concern in the Greek-American and wider New York community.
“Regrettably immigration reform has been stalled in Congress,” Maloney said. “I support the McCain-Kerry Democrat and Republican bill…that provides a pathway to citizenship… it passed the Senate,” but not the Republican-controlled House.”
“We cannot begin to talk about any part of the immigration reform issue until we secure the border,” Di Iorio countered, and said he thinks there would be bi-partisan support once the border was closed.
“We all support secure borders,” said Maloney, “but we also support helping immigrants who come to this nation…my office works incredibly hard helping all communities, including the Greek-American community.”
Di Iorio retorted while it is commendable to help people who come to America, it is not fair to devote resources to illegal immigrant and take them away from American citizens.
During the discussion about neighborhood safety and policing practices in particular, Di Iorio said it is important that people recognize the good things the NYPD has done to protect their communities, and noted there is “uptick in crime” since the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is opposed to what Di Iorio called “stop, question, and frisk.”
Maloney said “I am supported strongly by police…I support them ….including authoring the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, also called the Zadroga act named for police officer James Zadroga, that helps 9/11 first responders and their families whose health has suffered from their presence at Ground Zero. “It was an important bill for New York City and the country,” she said.
“I commend the Congresswoman for work on the Zadroga Bill,” her opponent said, but added “I met with the Detectives Endowment Association and they are concerned the bill does not cover enough. In Congress I would extend coverage and expand funding for it.”
Maloney informed the gathering that, “Built into the bill is a way to expand it. There is healthcare review board.”
Di Iorio connected local law enforcement and national security issues – for which he repeatedly faulted the Obama administration. Maloney affirmed her national security focus and noted that she chaired the bipartisan 9/11 Commission and worked on homeland security legislation. “I am proud to have been part of the team that helped write those important bills.”
IS EBOLA BEING HANDLED PROPERLY?
A fascinating discussion followed the question about the government’s response so far to the Ebola crisis.
Maloney said “I believe that New York did everything right, but of course we learned from what happened in Dallas….we have two vaccines in medical trials as we speak and we know that the best way to control it is to contain it and eradicate it in Africa.”
Di Iorio was not buying it. “America’s response to the Ebola crisis has been delayed. It’s been abysmal.” He said that Maloney, who district includes Bellevue hospital, should tell the President Nigeria should be included in the travel ban and that the CDC has not helped calm down New Yorkers.
Maloney explained that experts believe that a wider travel ban would not be helpful, because people trying to evade it would be harder to track. She said experts believe that the policy of voluntary quarantines with mandatory twice-a-day testing by healthcare workers is appropriate, but Di Iorio pointed out three medical professionals have already broken their quarantines.
BOTH AGREE TO FIX, NOT TRASH OBAMA-ROMNEY CARE
Di Iorio acknowledged that “The affordable care act strives to solve a problem, which is a good thing. Every American deserves health insurance and should have the opportunity to get the plan they want, not the one that is forced upon them.” He said three things need to be done: 1) deregulate the system so individuals can buy plans across state lines, 2) make sure subsidies continue for low income individuals, 3) raise the retirement age by three months every year “which will help reduce our healthcare costs and deficits, “ he said.
“Overall, universal health care is a good thing…I have first-hand knowledge for what healthcare means for people on Medicare, Medicaid and social security – my older brother is on social security already at 33. He has a debilitating disease and needs help from the government,” he said.
“I appreciate the Congresswoman’s comments about Republicans being seen as wanting to cut benefits. As a member of congress I will work not only to make sure the safety net is secure, but will be expanded to make sure [people] have the insurance they need and the medical coverage they deserve,” he concluded.
Maloney noted there has been long time bi-partisan support for covering all Americans. “The affordable care act is a step forward. It has many positive things,” she said, including pre-existing conditions, and lowering costs in many instances. “Unfortunately,” she said, “the Republican majority just votes to repeal it, well over 50 times… an their proposal is not to improve, or to have a constructive debate on how we can make things better, which Congress does all the time…but to repeal it.:”
She also declared that it was the Democrats who created the safety net, usually over Republican opposition.
The two candidates were completely opposed regarding the act’s impact on small businesses.
Di Iorio said that higher costs have forced them to limit hiring and work hours.
But Maloney said, “Many small businesses,” which she called the backbone of the U.S. economy and its most important job creator, “have told me that the act has lowered their healthcare costs and that the subsidy has allowed them to hire more people.”
Both expressed strong support for helping businesses, large and small, and both supported wage supplementation and lowering the corporate tax rate to bring the U.S. in line with its competitors.
Maloney said small businesses would also benefit from properly funding the Export-Import bank, and extending the terrorism risk insurance program, and she is “mystified” why the Republican majority is blocking those important measures.”
She insisted that, “President Obama has called for corporate tax reform and lowering our corporate tax rate dramatically and the Republicans thwarted that.”
Maloney is especially interested in affordable housing projects, schools and senior citizen housing , which she is proud to have helped build in Queens.
Speaking of the project she has fostered, she emphasized that she has was worked “jointly with other elected officials for the betterment of our community. Concrete actions that have resulted in improvements in the qualities of life, good playing jobs and investing in the future of the economy of the community.”
One of the biggest flash points occurred when Di Iorio suggested she skipped a
Congressional trip to Israel out of indifference, saying that she went to Asia “pretending to bring back a panda from China.”
“I have been to Israel many times but I was in China on an economic development project,” Maloney replied firmly. “We have a huge trade imbalance and we have to increase our trade…I went with there with three companies who were trying to increase our trade with China.”
She said tha the trip had a specific goal, the support of an endeavor that she expects to soon be announced that will amount to “hundreds of millions of dollars, and hundreds of jobs created…it will be one of the most important things I have ever done.”
Di Iorio’s candidacy also the backing of the conservative, independence and libertarian parties in Queens.