Through an event hosted by Stony Brook University’s Political Science Society, Bridget Fleming visited the Student Activities Center Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 12 to speak with members of the community. Fleming is the Democratic candidate for New York’s 1st Congressional District — the district that includes Stony Brook’s campus. She briefly introduced herself, explained her policy priorities, and took questions from a group of around 100 students. Her visit comes a month after Nick LaLota, her Republican opponent and current Suffolk County Legislature chief of staff, visited the campus. These events showcase efforts to raise awareness about the Nov. 8 midterm election and persuade the Stony Brook student body — a powerful electoral force of over 20,000 people — to go out and vote.
In 2019, The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education reported that during the last midterm elections in 2018, 7,897 Stony Brook students voted, representing only 36.8% of the more than 21,000 eligible voters on campus. The same year, the 1st District’s congressional race was decided by just a little over 11,000 votes. This means the 2018 race was decided by a margin that represents only half of Stony Brook’s electoral power. While it is likely that a number of students are not registered in the 1st District, both campaigns recognize that in a close election, Stony Brook students have the power to make a significant difference.
Accordingly, experts project that the 1st District’s election will be close. Politico has called the race a “complete toss-up on paper.” With incumbent Lee Zeldin leaving his House seat to become the Republican candidate for governor, the district is left wide open for the taking. The incumbency advantage has disappeared, sparking Democratic hopes that the district could elect its first Democrat since 2014.
This competitiveness has also been partially caused by a chaotic redistricting process following the 2020 census. The process kicked off in January, when the New York State Legislature approved a congressional district map that would have reduced the number of Republican members of Congress to only four. In April, the New York Court of Appeals decided that this new map was gerrymandered and threw it out, establishing an independent commission to create a fairer balance. Congressional primaries were delayed until August as this commission finalized a new map.
This tumultuous period led to voter confusion about district residency and the timing of elections. The process also led to disagreements within the Democratic Party. Two sitting members of Congress, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, faced off against each other in the same district. The chair of the powerful Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Sean Patrick Maloney, faced criticism for leaving his old district to run instead in New York’s 17th Congressional District, pushing progressive congressman Mondaire Jones out of office.
The effects of redistricting on the 1st District are especially significant. In 2020, Donald Trump won the presidential election in the district by a fairly clear margin — 51% of the vote to Joe Biden’s 47%. However, in the newly redrawn district, President Biden would have won 50.1% to 49.9%, an incredibly close margin. This year’s midterms are shaping up to be similarly contentious. Currently, The Cook Political Report has listed this district as one of its “competitive races” — though slightly right-leaning.
During the August primary, three GOP candidates competed to secure the party’s nomination. LaLota, who faced criticism over not living in the district, emerged as the clear winner with 47% of the vote. On the Democratic side, a crowded field of seven candidates narrowed down to one. In an unusual move, the Democratic primary was canceled, and Bridget Fleming secured the nomination uncontested. “Democratic unity is the most important thing we can bring to the fight to flip NY-01 this year,” said Kara Hahn, a leading primary candidate.
This turbulent primary season has finally settled down to a grinding, competitive general election. LaLota and Fleming’s staunch policy differences have dominated the rhetoric of the race.
Both candidates adhere to their party’s electoral brands. LaLota won the GOP primary by emphasizing his allegiance to Trump. One of his opponents was Michelle Bond, a cryptocurrency trader endorsed by Long Island Loud Majority, an extreme anti-government group. LaLota and Bond frequently fought over who was more pro-Trump. Bond accused LaLota of being a career politician and GOP-endorsed insider. In response, LaLota emphasized his alignment with Trump’s ideas in a now-removed campaign ad, casting himself as a “trusted Trump conservative.”
LaLota is the former Republican commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections, and on his campaign website, he lists election integrity as a top issue, pushing for voter identification laws and rallying against the “proliferation of absentee ballots.”
He has also centered his campaign around traditional Republican talking points of inflation and crime.
“Governments spend, spend, spend and that leads to taxing, taxing, taxing,” LaLota said in a recent debate. He supports shrinking the government budget and increasing oil drilling on federal lands. He has even brought up potentially supporting the re-establishment of the Keystone XL pipeline.
In a similarly conservative vein, LaLota has also embraced a pro-life stance. On his website, he proclaims his support for banning second and third trimester abortions. However, he has taken steps to soften his position, recently adding the statement “I do not oppose abortion in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life” to the site.
His campaign has also emphasized his background in the Navy — his campaign logo features a saluting naval officer. He supports maintaining the “most lethal military on the planet” and has advocated for the upkeep of international military bases and expanding the development of military technology.
In sharp contrast with LaLota, Fleming, a current Suffolk County legislator, holds many staple Democratic views. When speaking to students, the first policy priority Fleming mentioned was her intention to fight for the elimination of “the cap on our state and local taxes,” arguing that Suffolk County was experiencing a housing crisis and additional tax dollars could be used to build affordable housing.
In a recent debate, Fleming also praised student loan forgiveness as an important step to help Americans facing “crushing economic debt.” LaLota, on the other hand, has described Biden’s program to cancel 10,000 in student loans as a “bribe.”
This focus on the economy reflects recent poll data showing that inflation and the economy are top priorities for voters this year.
During the event in the Student Activities Center, Fleming also described herself as “an environmentalist,” stressing that “we are 1,000 miles of coastline in Suffolk County.” She praised the South Fork Wind project, “the first commercial-scale offshore wind project in the United States,” and she highlighted her own work to fund efforts to identify vulnerable coastline areas and increase access to public transportation.
She also showcased her background as a sex crimes prosecutor, vowed to fight for the codification of Roe v. Wade and criticized LaLota’s abortion stance as out of line with the realities of the criminal justice process. She stressed that cases of rape or incest need to be investigated, go to pre-trial hearings and then trial, a long, difficult process that raises questions about the practicality of abortion ban exceptions.
Notably, police unions — including the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association — have endorsed Fleming’s campaign. In fact, she is the only Democratic congressional candidate endorsed by the Police Conference of New York, a statewide police union. LaLota has faced criticism over his move to cut funding for the Amityville Police Department, supporting a policy that would have eliminated pensions for some officers.
When Jason Rose, a Stony Brook University political science professor, asked Fleming about the international threat to democracies from authoritarian regimes, Fleming acknowledged the threat that countries like China, Venezuela and Russia pose and commended the work of U.S. ambassadors to ensure the unity of NATO countries. However, she was quick to pivot to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, stressing that Trump’s refusal to “accept the results of a free and fair election” played a role in inciting domestic violence. She argued that Americans should acknowledge the significant internal threat the U.S. is facing before focusing on international conflicts.
One factor that both candidates have in common, however, is their acceptance of funding from special-interest groups and PACS. Fleming leads fundraising totals with $2,157,602 to LaLota’s $913,833. According to OpenSecrets, LaLota’s top donors include several real estate and venture capital firms, along with the conglomerate “Red Apple Group,” which owns energy assets and real estate. Meanwhile, Fleming’s commanding lead in fundraising has been driven by unions, law firms, several finance firms and even media companies like Disney. Interestingly, Fleming’s highest individual donor is the State University of New York system.
Early voting for the midterm elections starts this Saturday, Oct. 29. Neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to lose a large number of seats with an evenly divided Senate and a narrowly-controlled Democratic House of Representatives. Our corner of Long Island has become a congressional battleground that could sway the direction of the nation for years to come.