One of the most hotly contested congressional races in New York state is in the lower Hudson Valley, which includes the northern suburbs of New York City. The 17th congressional district includes all of Putnam and Rockland counties and portions of Westchester and Dutchess counties. The only debate between the two candidates, incumbent Sean Patrick Maloney, 56, the Democrat and Assemblyman Mike Lawler, 36, the Republican, was held remotely; the two candidates were not in the same room.
This set the stage for one of the most rock ‘em, sock ‘em debates this political season. During the hour-long debate the candidates came prepared, locked and loaded with attacks and counterattacks for the 13 topics covered in the debate, including abortion; the economy; climate change, which broke down into the state issue of congestion pricing; immigration and security of the southern border; aid to the disability community; diversity, equity and inclusion; access to the internet via broadband; veterans’ healthcare; mental health; the role of the federal government in public education; road map to peace; gun safety, which became a side debate on the state issue of cashless bail as well as fair elections, and accessible voting.
Maloney tried at every turn to frame his opponent’s position, sometimes incorrectly and sometimes before his opponent stated it. Lawler did the same with Maloney’s positions. Lawler’s catchphrase during the debate was “The reality is …” and Maloney’s catchphrase was “It’s mainstream versus the MAGA movement.”
The debate eventually erupted into schoolyard attacks, with Lawler calling Maloney a “liar.” Maloney, in turn, kept belittling Lawler with phrases like “talk is cheap,” and when it came to the economy, “Mike Lawler should be ashamed of himself for playing politics with this issue.” By the mid-point of the debate, the moderator had to admonish the two by stating, “Abusive language and interruptions are not permitted.”
During his opening remarks, Lawler attacked Maloney for “gallivanting across the globe raising money for Nancy Pelosi while I’m out campaigning, talking to voters, listening to their concerns and they are concerned about affordability and public safety. That’s what this campaign is about,” Lawler said.
When answering the first question for the first topic of discussion, Roe v. Wade, Maloney argued, “He [Lawler] said a national ban makes sense. I think that’s crazy. I think individuals should be in charge of their own reproductive decisions, not politicians like Mike Lawler. I’m the mainstream guy who will protect Roe v. Wade and respect women’s reproductive decisions. My opponent is going to join the MAGA movement and ban it.
Lawler countered: “There he goes again. He can’t defend his own record on anything in this campaign so he spends an entire campaign lying about mine. What I have said from the beginning is that I oppose a national ban despite my opponent’s lies and that I do believe in exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. That’s a position I’ve always held despite his false narratives and lies.”
Lawler said his wife suffered through a miscarriage two years ago, added, “That really informs my perspective on it. It reinforced my view that it is life.”
On the economy, Lawler focused on SALT, the elimination of the state and local tax deduction that was passed under the Trump administration.
“I would lift the cap on SALT,” Lawler said. “Sean Maloney has been in Congress for 10 years. He has failed to make it more affordable for hard-working Hudson Valley families. He said he would lift the cap on SALT. Democrats control everything in Washington and he has failed to deliver.”
Maloney did not answer the charge about lifting the cap on SALT; instead, he focused his counterargument on seniors.
“This is important folks,” Maloney emphasized. “Mike Lawler opposes the Inflation Reduction Act. That’s what’s giving you a $2,000 cap on your prescription drugs in Medicare. That is the most important thing protecting Social Security and Medicare for working middle class families. Mike Lawler opposed that. If Mike Lawler gets his way, they will go after the Affordable Care Act, Social Security and Medicare. We just expanded Medicare to include the $2,000 a year cap and we took on big pharmaceutical companies to negotiate the prices, finally, in the Medicare program. The reason Mike Lawler is against it and the MAGA movement wants to stop it is because he’s in the pocket of the big pharmaceutical companies who have spent millions of dollars against me and others who are going to finally cap seniors’ out-of-pocket costs. That’s reducing family costs. Mike Lawler should be ashamed of himself for playing politics with this issue. That’s the biggest thing helping our seniors right now.”
When Maloney tried to frame his positions as bipartisan, Lawler took Maloney to the woodshed.
“Don’t sit here and talk about what you may have done 10 years ago when you came in,” Lawler chided. “You’re not the same person anymore unfortunately. I’m sorry to say it. Your record is 100 percent in lock-step with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden and if you think that’s bipartisanship, you’re kidding yourself.”
When it came to energy policy, Maloney turned the tables.
“The reality here is this. I voted for the environmental bond act which is on the ballot this year, which would be over $4 billion of investment in clean water, clean air, open space preservation, increased investment in green technology. I believe in it. That’s why the League of Conservation Voters has given me the highest ranking of any Republican in the Hudson Valley,” Lawler said. “The reality here is this. We need an all-of-the-above approach to energy. Sixty percent of New Yorkers rely on natural gas. If you wanted to turn off the spigot of natural gas today, our grid could not sustain it.”
Then Maloney went for the jugular.
“Mike Lawler was a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry,” Maloney stated. “While I was out there banning oil barge anchorages on the Hudson River, Mike Lawler was literally trading political influence for money as a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry. Of course, he won’t have any real solutions on climate change. We just passed the most historic climate change legislation of any country in the world and it’s going to put the United States of America in a leadership position. We’re going to create those good jobs here and we’re going to bring your energy costs down while we do it.”
When the topic switched to diversity, equity and inclusion, Lawler spoke about his office staff.
“We need to make sure at every level of government in everything that we’re doing that diverse voices are involved in the process including serving in elected office,” Lawler said. “One of the things I have tried to do as a representative is not only to make sure that my staff is reflective of the district that I represent – for instance I have a Haitian that works on my staff, I have an Orthodox Jew that is on my staff – because that is part of my district and I feel that is important to make sure that their voices are heard and represented.”
Then Maloney talked about his personal life, which probably doesn’t mirror the views of the constituents in Rockland County. Maloney also tried to tie Lawler into the MAGA movement.
“I’m the first openly gay person ever elected to Congress from New York. I know what it’s like when your country catches up to you. It’s a beautiful thing. I appreciate my opponents’ words but they are empty words when you support reversing privacy protections and the personal freedoms in the Constitution that they took away when they took away Roe v. Wade. They didn’t just take away 50 years of your reproductive freedom. He called my marriage into question,” Maloney said. “I have a family that doesn’t fit in this MAGA view of America. We’re tired of good words. We want to see actions. I’m sorely disappointed with my opponents’ record in this regard.”
Lawler then admonished the sponsor of the debate, the League of Women Voters of Westchester County.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the League would allow such a ridiculous personal attack but let me respond to it because it is so patently absurd,” Lawler said. “The reality here is this. You keep talking about MAGA, MAGA, MAGA. You know, Sean, the only one who was involved in electing MAGA Republicans this year was you. [Maloney is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.] You took DCCC funds and spent it in numerous congressional primaries to elect people that you deemed were extreme and you thought you would have a better chance of defeating in November. It is cynical and it is exactly why people don’t like politics. Your own party. Your own members of Congress called you to task for it. Democrats in your conference called you out for using their money to do that. So, shame on you.”
Maloney had a brief mention of his support for Israel because she is our ally in the Middle East. Lawler didn’t do much better. “We need to work with our NATO allies and Israel to ensure the safety and well-being of the world,” Lawler said.
In closing arguments, where candidates want to leave the audience with something memorable, Maloney said: “I’m not perfect but I gotta tell ya, I am a middle-class mainstream guy and this is a choice between a mainstream middle class bipartisan vision of America and the MAGA extremism that is going to destroy so much of our personal freedoms if we don’t put a stop to it.”
Lawler ended the debate talking about pocketbook issues.
“The cost of living is killing people in this state. We need to get that under control. We need to make New York and our country more affordable, safer and freer for all of our families. That’s what this election is about. That’s why I’m running so we can restore balance and common sense at every level of government and move our country in the right direction,” Lawler concluded.
Even with all the acrimony during the debate, Maloney stressed we have to “make sure we have the most inclusive, respectful society possible.”
There were a few personal points that came forward during the debate. Maloney has been married to his husband, Reiniel (Randy) Florke for 30 years and they have three children, two of whom are in college. They live in Cold Spring, Putnam County.
Lawler said his wife, Doina, is from Moldova, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe. It is bordered by Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east, and south. Her family still lives there. She became a United States citizen two years ago. The couple has a five-month-old baby girl and lives in Pearl River, Rockland County.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 8, with early voting beginning on Shabbos, October 29 and ending Sunday, November 6.