Though they each pledged to work in a bipartisan fashion if elected, the two candidates for the new Sixth Congressional District seat outlined different visions of how government should operate during last Thursday's debate in Middle Village hosted by the Juniper Park Civic Association, the Times Newsweekly and the New York Daily News.
Assemblywoman Grace Meng and City Council Member Daniel Halloran, the respective Democratic and Republican nominees, touted their past histories of reaching across the aisle with their colleagues in the state and city legislatures. But in answering questions from the panel and the audience, they revealed their contrasting positions on issues such as health care reform and immigration.
In answering the first question from panelist Azi Paybarah of Capital New York regarding examples of bipartisanship, Meng—a two-term assemblywoman from Flushing—noted that she was "known as someone who is independent," pointing out that she worked on 99 pieces of legislation with Republican members of the Assembly and State Senate.
As one example, Meng noted that she partnered with Republican State Sen. Marty Golden of Brooklyn on a bill to correct problems related to a previously-approved piece of legislation which she said unfairly punished landlords and homeowners. She stated that she would bring that same spirit of bipartisanship to Washington, if elected, to work with Republicans on bills to improve the quality of life for veterans.
"I believe that our veterans deserve more attention," Meng said. "We need to make sure that they can get jobs" upon returning home from their service overseas.
Halloran, who is in his first term as City Council member, noted that despite being one of only four Republican members of the City Council, he brought back to his Bayside-based district "more capital and discretionary funds than my predecessor," State Sen. Tony Avella, "who was in the majority."
If elected to Congress, Halloran said that he would reach out to Democrats on reforming the Social Security system, which is in danger of becoming insolvent in the next few decades. He added that "there are good ideas on the Democrats' side that Republicans should take a look at."
"We can't allow [the government] to go into the general fund and take money out," Halloran said. "There are a lot of Republicans who want to reduce it to a private savings program. That's not going to work either."
Paths to immigration reform
The political differences between Meng and Halloran began to be revealed in their answers to a question by panelist Joe Anuta of the Times-Ledger Newspapers about immigration reform.
Halloran stated that he wanted to see immigrants to assimilate into American society as a melting pot rather than a mosaic—"Mosaics remain unique and distinct and don't ever become part of the whole," he explained—and to follow the proper legal process for American citizenship.
"We're not going to round up three to six million people, but we need to know they're here," the City Council member said, adding that the government should give every illegal immigrant the chance to register for citizenship and pay related fines, or face deportation.
"If you come here illegally, you will never be a citizen of the United States," Halloran added. "If you pass the security checks, we will make you a resident. ... Too many immigrants have done it the right way, have stood online and paid the fees."
Halloran also informed residents that he opposed the DREAM Act, which offers a path to citizenship and financial aid for undocumented students who arrived in the U.S. as a minor. Meng, however, claimed that Halloran told Newsday in a prior interview that he would support the DREAM Act, which she defended as an important part of "comprehensive immigration reform."
"America doesn't have the money to deport all of" the illegal immigrants currently here, Meng said. "There are families and there are people who have come to this country legally and waited on line. They should come first."
Halloran rebutted Meng's claim by stating that he would "take another look" at the DREAM Act if provisions to offer financial assistance to illegal immigrant students were removed from the bill.
The Council member also brought up a provision in a "good government amendment" which he plans to introduce into Congress which would establish English as the official language of the U.S. Meng added that she has worked on bills to compel businesses to post English language signs, adding that more needs to be done to encourage immigrant families to learn English.
Differences on health care
Turning to health care reform, panelist Sam Goldman of the Times Newsweekly asked for their thoughts on the Affordable Care Act which became law in 2010 and their ideas for tweaking the legislation.
Meng stated that "there are parts of the law which show that it's a great step in the right direction," noting as one example a provision allowing parents to keep their children on their health insurance plans up to the age of 26. She also explained that senior citizens will save money on their prescription medication as a result of the law.
The assemblywoman, however, conceded that the law wasn't perfect and that she would work in Congress "to make it ideal." One idea she pitched was expanding dental care for more Americans.
"The Affordable Care Act provides increased coverage for children who need dental care, but provides zero coverage for adults," Meng said.
Halloran, on the other hand, charged that the health care reform law "has created as many problems as it's going to solve," pointing to mandates on coverage which may force businesses to close. He also stated that the law also did not institute tort reform or lift barriers preventing individuals from purchasing policies across state lines.
As for his ideal health care reform law, the Council member stated "the first is that this is not the role of the federal government," as he believes the matter of health care is a "state-level issue." As such, he suggested that other states look to implement their own health insurance reforms, using New York's "Health Plus" program as an example, which he said is "solvent and hasn't depleted" the government.
"The American Medical Association is opposed to this law. The doctors know they're going to find themselves in a bigger hole," Halloran said. "When doctors say this isn't going to work, maybe we should
Meng countered that leaving the states to create their own health insurance systems would cause more problems, as states with better plans may find themselves overwhelmed by patients from other states seeking cheaper health care.
"If New York State had a better Medicaid than neighboring states, it would be just like the situation that we face in the emergency rooms and hospitals, where people can just go for care and the burden [for paying for it] falls on you and me," she said.
Questions from the crowd
During the audience question portion of the debate, both Meng and Halloran were asked on their views regarding the nation's counterterrorism efforts, specifically what they might ask the president to do to help secure the nation and prevent another attack.
Halloran suggested that the U.S. should stop providing financial aid to nations which support terrorist groups. He added that before commencing with new rounds of peace talks between Israel and Hamas, the president should refuse to talk with Hamas until they agree to "put the rockets down and stop shelling Israel."
Meng offered that the president should use foreign aid "as a leverage to make sure other countries are allies." She also suggested that the NYPD should work more closely with other communities "to try and root out situations which are sensitive."
On the topic of resolving quality-of-life problems related to increased train and air traffic in Maspeth and Middle Village, Meng said she would work with federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that proper regulations are being followed.
Halloran stated that he would help to find alternative technologies to reduce freight rail problems and put pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration to abandon its changes to flight patterns to and from LaGuardia Airport. The Council member claimed that the changes were designed to increase traffic at the airport, which he said is not equipped to handle so many arriving and departing flights.
"LaGuardia was never intended to become an international airport. It was supposed to be a regional airport. It's grown well beyond its size," Halloran said in responding to a follow-up question on the airport asked by Paybarah. "There's some times when you've got to say, 'Having jobs is not more important than public safety.' You can't fit 300 pieces of airplane into a 200-piece airport and expect something good to happen."
Meng, however, stated that she wanted to see "LaGuardia grow without disturbing" nearby residents, adding that she has proposed a plan to connect LaGuardia directly to the subway system. She said that this idea would help boost tourism in Queens and throughout the city.
Both candidates offered similar answers to an audience question read by debate moderator Lisa Colangelo of the New York Daily News on helping small businesses succeed. Halloran and Meng stated that the government needs to cut "red tape" that prevents small businesses from obtaining loans and lines of credit.
Halloran added that tax reform should also be instituted to ease small business costs, while Meng offered that all three levels of government should work cooperatively to ensure businesses, specifically those owned by women and veterans, have necessary tools to expand and profit.
The candidates also found themselves in agreement on reforming the United States Postal Service (USPS), with each pledging to support legislation removing a requirement that the quasi-public institution pay its pension obligations years in advance. They claimed that his regulation is costing the USPS billions every year and forcing it toward insolvency.
Quizzing each other
Each of the candidates had the opportunity to ask their opponent one question regarding an issue addressed on the campaign trail.
Meng asked Halloran how many bills he had passed in the City Council. The Council member responded that he passed three primary pieces of legislation, two of which affected the Douglaston historic district. He added that he also co-sponsored over 130 other bills and worked with Democrats on supporting government reform.
With his opportunity, Halloran asked Meng to explain her attendance record in the Assembly during the Congressional primary campaign this spring, claiming that she missed 75 percent of the session in Albany. The assemblywoman stated that she had to "make a very quick, sudden decision" to run for office, as Rep. Gary Ackerman declined to run for the seat the day before the petitioning process could begin.
"Prior to April 2012, my attendance record was over 92 percent," Meng said, pointing out that during her primary campaign, she participated in a host of local debates held by various civic associations in Queens. "I had to make a choice whether to come to important forums like this ... and talk about the issues. I had to make a tough choice."
"I'm still paying rent for my apartment in Albany," she added. "Nobody wanted to be there more than I did."