MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Democratic voters will go to the polls for the primary election on Thursday, Sept. 13, and have the opportunity to choose between two candidates to run against incumbent state Sen. Terrence Murphy (District 40) in November.
On Tuesday, Aug. 28, the League of Women Voters of Putnam County sponsored a candidate forum in Mahopac to give Democrats a chance to learn more about the candidates—Robert Kesten and Peter Harckham—and how they stand on the issues.
Here is a sampling of how they answered some of the questions.
Why did you decide to run for office?
I started running for office, not because I ever thought I’d be a candidate, but because I went to our state senator’s office and found that he had no position on healthcare, and he had no position on education or energy. This was really startling to me. I was surprised that someone who has been in office for three years had no position on the issues that were of vital importance to all of us.
I worked for two majority leaders of the United States Senate; in Albany I worked for the minority leader of the New York State Senate. I worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and I have worked around the world, including in Ghana, where I worked with their president to rewrite their national constitution. But when it comes to experience on the ground, I have a unique set of experiences that compare to anyone’s. I was vice chairman of the Connecticut Film & Television Commission, where we passed legislation that changed the fundamental mechanism to bring funds into that state. Those jobs continue. That income continues. It was a lifesaver as big corporations left the state. As far as being on the ground and doing the work, I don’t think anyone can compare.
As a former four-term Westchester County legislator, and two-term majority leader, I could not sit idly by while Donald Trump’s acolytes and enablers in Albany blocked progress and opportunities for New Yorkers across the state. The New York State Republican majority has abdicated their right to lead.
In our first 30 days, we will pass the Reproductive Health Act, the Child Victim’s Act and the Red Flag bill. In the first term, [we will pass] the New York Health Act, election reform, we will increase solar and renewable energy across the state. I will personally focus like a laser on our downtown main streets where family businesses are struggling to compete with the online retailers and the big box stores, which Terrence Murphy seems to love so much.
It’s not going to be easy to defeat Terrence Murphy. I believe experience matters. I turned a red seat and flipped it blue and held it three more times during the height of the Tea Party. We also passed a lot of progressive legislation during that time, building the needed coalitions to either block [Westchester County Executive Rob] Astorino’s extreme positions or to pass progressive legislation during the Tea Party era.
The Women’s Reproductive Health Access bill was passed by the Assembly, but is blocked by the Senate Health Committee from going to the floor for a vote. If elected, will you work to get the bill out of committee and to the floor for a vote?
Absolutely. That is one of the priorities in the first 30 days, especially with the threat of the Supreme Court now. With Donald Trump putting his conservative stamp on it, the threat to Roe v. Wade is real. We never thought we’d see this in our lifetime, but we do. So, what we need to do in state law is codify Roe v. Wade, codify best practices in healthcare and get it out of New York’s criminal code and into the health code.
This is an issue I take very seriously. Back in the ‘80s, I was at a Planned Parenthood where I wore one of those colorful vests and escorted people into the building because they had to go through a gauntlet of people who didn’t want them to receive reproductive healthcare. After that, I led a delegation of high-profile women to Washington to [interact] with Republican legislators to discuss, specifically, choice. And we had a hearing with those people. If we can do it in Washington at the height of the Sue Kelly era, we can certainly do it in Albany.
Why do you think you have the best chance to defeat Sen. Murphy?
I have been running now for about a year, and in that time, I have traveled the district up and down. I have held eight town hall (meetings)—more than Terrence Murphy has had in nearly eight years in office. I have met people in each town, each village and each city.
We have the endorsement of the majority of the Democratic committees and we have the endorsement of every indivisible group that endorses candidates in this district. That has given us a bull work of support so when we do something, people come out.
We had more money in the bank at the last filing, we have more people on the ground. Eighty percent of our contributions come from people within the district. That is pretty impressive. We have the people and people translate to votes. We are building coalitions.
What I bring to this is that I’ve done it before. I have defeated a Republican, which was considered a lifelong Republican seat. I flipped it and turned it blue and held it three times. That encompasses the ability to speak beyond the Democratic Party. If you look at the [party] registration [in Westchester], it is one-third [Democrat, one-third [Republican], one-third [independent]. You have to speak to the ‘nons’ (independents) and the disenfranchised Republicans if we want to win this race. We can’t win it purely with Democratic enthusiasm. As great as that is, we need to have the experience of messaging to the nons. While we have our progressive issues, we still need to give some bread and butter to the nons and disenfranchised Republicans. I have done that successfully for four terms.
What are some specific actions that can be taken by state Senate to combat the opioid epidemic?
It comes down to healthcare and having comprehensive substance abuse and community mental health treatment. When I was on the Westchester County Board of Legislators, one of our biggest budget lines was department of corrections. Unfortunately, it has become the de facto place of last resort for people with untreated substance abuse and untreated mental illness. So, we need to decriminalize substance abuse, first and foremost, and we need to totally revolutionize the way we treat substance abuse in the state.
We have to start with insurance, so everyone has the same high-quality insurance. So, they have detox, rehab treatment and aftercare, because that is so critical. We also need to regulate sober houses because there are a lot of problems there.
This is an area I know a little bit about. When I was growing up, my mother ran the only drug rehab program in Westchester County. So, for me to spend time with my mother, I used to go to the group sessions at night. I grew up with a bunch of junkies. I am well aware of the problems that we face. And although Mr. Murphy claims this as one of his priorities, it is being done ass-backward. One of the most important things we need to focus on is prevention. If we don’t look at the causes, we won’t solve the problem. Treatment is essential. There needs to be hospital beds and there needs to be protocols and programs people can go into so they are not left to their own devices.
We have a tendency to wait until there is a crisis. Now, we have an opioid crisis—something that could have been and should have been recognized a generation ago. It’s not too late to stop it. We have looked at smoking and we looked at drinking and understand what the protocols are for prevention. We have done it with obesity and other forms of addiction. Our state is doing it in reverse from the way that will solve the problem and help the most people.
What are your thoughts on mass incarceration and the fundamental racist nature of our criminal justice system?
The system is broken and has been broken for as long as anyone can remember. Every single bit of it, including bail, needs to change. Some of it has moved in the right direction, like raising the age so kids are not incarcerated with adults. But that is just a tiny step. This is fundamentally where we are right now in this country. We have a Donald Trump who has made it OK to be racist. We have a Donald Trump who has made it OK to say things that are inappropriate.
We have to do away with the discrepancies for race and for people with mental illness who find themselves in the penal system. This is not what this system was meant to do. It was intended to punish people for breaking the law and not because of the color of their skin or where they are from or because they are ill. That has to be changed and the legislature has an obligation to [do it] as quickly as possible.
It comes down to values—we talk about Hudson Valley values when we are out meeting with folks. When Donald Trump ripped children away from their parents, they were housed in Lincolndale, which is literally a walk from Terrence Murphy’s house, and yet he stayed silent because they were illegal immigrant children. His voter ID bill, again intended to disenfranchise people of color, is a Jim Crow value, not a Hudson Valley value.
It’s a human rights issue, for sure. But it’s also a tax issue. We are paying to warehouse people. We need to get back to thinking of people who are less fortunate than us and have a safety net in this state.
Another good step is the bill on prosecutorial misconduct. We have a lot of good prosecutors, but we know there have been people put away falsely.
Since you are both from Westchester, what can the people of Putnam County expect from you?
I don’t look at a difference because of geography. I’ve worked in Egypt, I have worked in the former Soviet Union and in Mexico. Putnam is really close compared to them! I spend a fair amount of time in Putnam. I’ve gone to the 4-H Fair a number of times. I have gone to restaurants in Putnam County. Putnam County is my backyard, so for me there is no separation. Putnam County is exactly like home. I don’t think there is a difference. I enjoy the beauty that is Putnam County every day that I am driving around.
I have already worked with officials in Putnam—the watershed issues— yearlong negotiations with DEC, DEP, Westchester Board of Health, Putnam Board of Health. I have done a lot of work and have an understanding of what some of the economic development needs are, having spent three years as a liaison to the Mid-Hudson Region Economic Development Council. It’s why we are focusing on downtown main streets in Putnam. They have the same issues as we have in Westchester. And yet, there are some different issues. Agriculture. Starting north of Route 35 is where the agriculture corridor starts—I was one of the co-sponsors of re-certification of the ag district in Westchester, so we worked closely with state and county officials on things like allowing farmers to farm and preserving farms within our suburbs.