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Democratic candidates for State Assembly discuss health care, school funding, immigration and more in online debate

The two candidates seeking the Democratic nod to run for the New York State Assembly in the 2nd District squared off last Wednesday in an online debate sponsored by the Southold Town Democratic Committee.

Former Riverhead Town supervisor Laura Jens-Smith of Laurel, 57, is running against newcomer Will Schleisner of Sound Beach, 36. 

The winner will take on Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, 52, of Baiting Hollow, who seeks to fill the seat being vacated by incumbent Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, 49, of New Suffolk. He was nominated by Suffolk County Republicans to run for the state Senate seat being vacated by longtime incumbent Sen. Ken LaValle of Port Jefferson, who will retire at this end of this term. 

William Van Helmond of Jamesport, 57, is also seeking the 2nd Assembly District position on the Libertarian line. He will be on the November general election ballot. The 2nd District covers all of Riverhead and Southold towns and part of Brookhaven Town. 

The Democratic primary will take place June 23. Due to restrictions on public gatherings as a result of COVID-19, all voting will be by absentee vote and ballots are being mailed to all registered voters. A postage-paid return envelope will be included, although voters may drop off ballots at early voting locations.

The general election will be held Nov. 3. Officials said it has not yet been determined how voting will take place at that time.

Laura Jens-Smith 

Ms. Jens-Smith served as Riverhead Town supervisor in 2018-19 and was a member of the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education for six years, having also served as board president. She is also a licensed nurse. 

“When I first announced my candidacy for office back in January, I said that I was running to be a strong voice for the island’s forgotten middle class,” Ms. Jens-Smith said at last Wednesday’s forum. “And then we had COVID-19. If anything, the theme still resonates even more today, because in addition to all of the human tragedy, what the last three months has proven is that the Trump economy — which was supposedly one of the greatest economies in the history of the world — is able to be undone with within two pay periods.”

Ms. Jens-Smith said her experience in town government and on a school board shows that she knows “how to run a government and … what we need to get from Albany.” As a nurse, she said, she knows “to trust science.”

Ms. Jens-Smith said the North Fork Assembly seat “is vital to our region and to our Democratic party.”

Will Schleisner

Mr. Schleisner has been employed by ViacomCBS for 13 years and recently graduated from Adelphi University with an honors bachelor’s degree in management. 

“I believe health care is a human right, education is a human right and no person in this country, with its vast resources, should be homeless or hungry,” Mr. Schleisner said. “I plan to take those beliefs with me to Albany and change the fabric of the political machine there. People ask me, ‘Why are you running? What sane person with a secure job and good benefits would split and run for office?’ ”

He said that when he sees what’s happening on Long Island, “I feel like I have no choice … I want to make this a place for my children so we can really have roots on Long Island.”

Campaign structure

Mr. Schleisner said he had planned to knock on a lot of doors this campaign, until COVID-19 struck. Now, he plans to focus more on social media and making phone calls. 

“I’ve been making 60 phone calls per day,” he said. 

“I’m running a 100% grassroots campaign and I’m not flush with money because I’m not going to call unemployed people and ask them for money. I’m not going to do it. Morally, it’s a nonstarter for me.”

“This is a new world for all of us,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. “There are so many ways to vote.”

But she said it still is going to take money to run a campaign. 

Ms. Jens-Smith said she has $19,169 in her campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance disclosure forms from the state Board of Elections.

By contrast, she said, Mr. Schleisner is in the red by $408. 

She said the Assembly seat is one that Democrats can win, citing the fact that Southold Democrats won a town council seat last fall and almost won the supervisor’s race. 

Health care

“Having health care and being able to have health care for yourself and your family is one of the most important issues,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. “If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s a need to have health care and access to affordable, quality health care.”

She said the New York Health Act has been stalled in Albany, where the Senate opposed it. 

“I think we need health care for all. We need to address prescription drug costs and how much those are and how much people are paying out of pocket,” she said. As officials work to get a better health care system, “we know from COVID-19 that losing your job and your health care is one of the scariest things ever.”

Mr. Schleisner said health care is one of the most important issues for him. 

He said employer-based health care doesn’t work if you’re not employed.

He supports the New York Health Act, which he said will provide primary care, dental care and vision care for all New Yorkers 

“This is the moment we can do this,” he said. “We can finally show the rest of the country that universal health care and single-payer health care is possible. And no, it’s not unaffordable.”

What would you change?

Mr. Schleisner said the response of the state and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the COVID-19 pandemic has been good, with the exception of the handling of the nursing home situation, where sick patients were returned to nursing homes. He also feels the state’s handling of schools needs to be addressed. 

Ms. Jens-Smith agreed with Mr. Schleisner, but added, “We’re also at the point where we need to move forward” and come up with a plan to reopen businesses. 

She suggests having COVID-19 compliance certificates that would be issued to restaurants and similar establishments, so that people will be comfortable visiting them.

How would you help state recover?

Ms. Jens-Smith suggested that in order to get people get back to work at jobs they are returning to, “not everyone is going to be able to go back into the economy at the same time.”

She suggests that employees going back in shifts to ensure that social distancing policies remain in effect. She said that many students don’t have a computer or an internet connection and that needs to improve at the school level as well.

“These are things that need to be addressed immediately so businesses can go back up online and have the employee show up to work,” she said. 

“None of this can happen until we figure out what happens with the schools,” Mr. Schleisner said. “People can’t go back to work full-time — even telecommuting — if we don’t know what’s happening with the schools. Right now it’s very much in question if the first half of next year is even going to happen for schoolchildren.”

He noted that not everyone can work from home. 

“Salons can’t telecommute. Hairdressers can’t telecommute. Grocery store workers can’t telecommute,” he said. He added that a lot of New Yorkers were not even making a living wage at their jobs before COVID-19 hit and said the minimum wage on Long Island needs to be increased. 

What wouldn’t you cut?

“I would not cut Medicaid,” Mr. Schleisner said, adding that it looks like Mr. Cuomo plans to do that. He also doesn’t think schools should be cut. 

“We cannot in this moment start cutting children and sick people,” he said, suggesting an added tax for the wealthy.

Ms. Jens-Smith also said she would not cut education or health benefits. 

Discrimination and racism

“We know that there’s a disparity that’s going on in our communities, in our country, and I think we need to rely on our leaders in different ethnic communities,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. 

“We need to be able to tap the next leaders and get them involved in our community and our government so they have a voice and we can fix some of the things that are going on,” she said.

She said there aren’t many women or African Americans in state government. 

“As a Democrat I feel that we take advantage of people of color,” Mr. Schleisner said. “Around election time, we talk to them and play a big game and we say ‘Hey, we’re going to do criminal justice reform’ and ‘Hey, we’re going to focus on these issues with the police.’ But when push comes to shove, we don’t do that as a party. We just don’t. We don’t have people in our leadership that do that.”

He cited the bail reform proposal form last year. 

“The one time we actually went and did something that was beneficial for people of color was bail reform and, to a man, we backtracked quick. Anthony Palumbo, John Flanagan got up on the pulpit and our leaders absolutely folded in record time,” Mr. Schleisner said.

School funding

Both candidates felt there needs to be changes in the way schools are funded, which is by property taxes. 

“The way we fund schools in New York and around the country probably is kind of backwards,” Mr. Schleisner said. “It’s a way that we keep our areas segregated. We have areas with good schools and areas with bad schools and, traditionally, the lower property values are the areas with the bad schools.”

“I think the foundation aid formula for schools has been broken for quite a while,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. She also feels the state should be paying the cost of items it passes and mandates that the schools pay for.


“The North Fork relies on immigrant labor and can’t operate at full capacity without it,” Mr. Schleisner said. He feels that everyone who works in New York should be covered by health care. 

Ms. Jens-Smith feels education and communication are important to ensure that immigrants are aware that testing for COVID-19 is available. 

“All of this is to keep our community safe and healthy,” she said. 

Closing statements

“Democrats are losing ground in Long Island,” Mr. Schleisner said. “We are one seat away from losing the county Legislature … If we keep putting up the same milquetoast Democrats we have every election cycle, we will lose more.

“Unless we have someone willing to fight back against a fear-monger and her lies, we will lose again,” he added, referring to Ms. Giglio. 

Ms. Jens-Smith said the 2nd Assembly District seat has been mostly held by Republicans. But she again cited the results in Southold Town’s elections last year.

“You guys know what it takes to get someone elected and how difficult and challenging it is,” she said. 

She called Ms. Giglio “a walking, talking conflict of interest who is ethically challenged.” 

She added: “The Republican machine is going to come after us to try and keep this seat. You need somebody who’s won elections before and knows how to fight and has a name the people know in the community.”