Incumbent and challenger share their views before Election Day
By Yaffi Spodek
Issue of Oct. 17, 2008
Roy Simon (D-West Hempstead) is running for the New York State Senate, challenging incumbent Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) who is seeking his 13th term representing the Ninth District, and who recently became the Senate Majority Leader.
Simon, a professor of legal ethics at Hofstra University School of Law, is passionate about ethics and has written extensively on the subject. “Ethics above all” is his campaign slogan, and he pledges to “bring ethical reform to the Senate and restore integrity to Albany.”
“I am not accusing Dean Skelos of unlawful or dishonest behavior,” Simon proclaims on his campaign web site. “From everything I have read about him…he is an honest, decent, hardworking man. But I am accusing him of shaping, exploiting, and now leading a Senate that is badly broken. They have valued deal making and party preservation over writing laws that serve the public interest. The Democrats can change that and I want to help.”
The Republicans have controlled New York’s Senate since 1939, but Simon says he is confident that this year the Democrats can and will win a majority.
“People have to realize that there is a real cost to electing Dean Skelos,” Simon explained in an interview with The Jewish Star.
“The Senate basically votes along party lines and we need a voice inside the majority,” he said, cautioning that if Skelos is re-elected under a Democratic leadership, he would have limited influence due to allocation of funds based on party and seniority. Though Senator Skelos would be the minority leader, Simon – the most junior Democrat but a member of the majority party — would essentially have access to more money and consequently more power.
Acknowledging that political payback – reduced funds to the districts of minority senators — would not square well with his hope to restore integrity in Albany, Professor Simon nonetheless noted that it would be a likely outcome of a change in power.
In a telephone interview, Senator Skelos refused to even entertain the possibility that Democrats would regain control of the Senate.
“It’s not going to happen,” he declared. “Recent state polls are showing that our incumbents are all going to get re-elected and we are actually ahead in one Democrat seat. We believe that we’re going to win and going to be in the majority.”
Skelos is confident that he will be re-elected, and vowed to continue working along the lines of his past accomplishments.
“We have to be smart, in providing real tax relief and cutting taxes, making sure that government is efficient by eliminating unnecessary programs and cutting where it’s appropriate by controlling our spending,” he said. “If we kept spending at the rate of inflation, we would save $3.8 billion.”
Senator Skelos disagrees with some of Professor Simon’s economic proposals.
“One of the biggest problems with him [Simon] is that he wants to raise taxes,” Skelos charged. “That is the biggest mistake we could do. We should be looking at ways to cut business taxes so that businesses can grow and create jobs.”
Simon believes that taxes should be raised on the highest earners. “Philosophically, the very wealthy should pay a bigger share than they do now of government taxes,” he explained. “People are usually paying the baseline social services taxes, but the middle class doesn’t really benefit from that. The government does have a responsibility to the poor…but we can’t take unlimited amounts of money from the wealthy.”
Saying that he views legislative taxes as a last-resort tactic which are not always effective, Simon said he favors a property tax cap to ensure that no one would be forced to pay more than a certain percentage of income. He also supports the idea of a “circuit breaker” — setting a maximum percentage of income that any taxpayer can be asked to pay in property taxes — to protect those who are on fixed incomes.
“I’m a great believer in the concept of free markets,” he added. “The free market does operate the way we want it to in the long run.”
A father of four, Simon, 59, has experience as a parent of children who attended both private and public schools in the area, and education is a paramount issue in his campaign. Though he believes that private schools should receive funding for secular studies equal in amount to the public schools, he is wary of “government scrutiny.”
“I understand the desperation of people who won’t send to public schools and [find] the tuition is too expensive at yeshivas…but to get the government involved is a solution that is fraught with danger,” he maintains. “I am open to seeing what can be done that would be constitutional, but that can’t be answered in advance.”
He believes that funding for education can be achieved through non-legislative means and proposes summit meetings to gather together “the people who are active in the system and have the money, and encourage them to give more.” Simon views himself as a “galvanizing person to act as a catalyst” to garner financial commitments from the people who have the means to give.
Senator Skelos believes that “non-public schools should be assisted in offering quality education for those who make that choice.” To that end, he helped to pass a bill in 2006 that provided an educational tax credit of $330 for each school-age child. He was also instrumental in securing $5 million in capital budget funds to aid yeshivas by providing school buses, as part of his stated goal to “support funding for mandated service for non-public schools.”
This year, Senator Skelos secured an additional $180 million in state money to pay for necessary school renovations and protect taxpayers from these expenses. He also continues to provide schools in his district with millions of dollars in special grant funding for computers and other targeted programs.
In 2006, Skelos authored New York’s version of Megan’s Law, creating the New York State Sex Offender Registry to provided concerned parents with information to protect their children and families. He also passed additional legislation in 2006, which would have enabled non-public schools to require employees to submit to background and fingerprint checks.
“This is legislation that is saving a lot of lives of young people and giving schools information concerning pedophiles within the community,” Skelos explained.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower Manhattan) opposed that legislation and it was never brought to a vote in the Assembly.
Senator Skelos also sponsored the Libel Terrorism Law, also known as “Rachel’s Law,” after an Israeli-American writer, Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was successfully sued in Britain for accurately identifying someone as a supporter of terrorism. Signed by Governor David Paterson last May, it provides New Yorkers with greater protection from libel judgments in countries without the free speech protections offered by the U.S. constitution.
“The truth is a critically important component of the war on terror,” Skelos said. “American authors… who expose terrorist networks and their financiers should not be subject to intimidation and lawsuits in foreign courts designed to circumvent our First Amendment rights.”
As a practicing Orthodox Jew — he is a member of the Young Israel of West Hempstead — Simon feels that he can be a valuable asset to the Jewish community in terms of having pulpits from which to advocate his views, by attending dinners for local yeshivas, for example, and raising awareness of pertinent issues in the Senate. Like Senator Skelos, he also wants to monitor the use of government funds, an area where he says senators have been “derelict.”
“I would be welcomed into the inner [Democratic] circles,” said Simon, contrasting his image with Skelos, and suggesting that as a long-time politician, the senator may have loftier political ambitions and be acting on an agenda promoted by his financial backers.
On the issue of same-sex marriage, Simon does not allow his religious beliefs to color his political views. Senator Skelos has been unwilling to allow a bill sanctioning same-sex marriages to reach the Senate floor, but Professor Simon said he would like for there to be a vote and said he would support passage of the bill.
Though he admits that “there are strong religious influences involved” in his thoughts, ultimately “it is a biological phenomenon,” Simon said. “People are entitled to dignity and it doesn’t work to punish these people.”
The environment is also a strong interest of Simon’s and, if elected, he plans to sponsor a Long Island project to make New York the world capital of technology for renewable energy resources. He would like to pass legislation creating jobs by helping industry develop technologies that exploit energy sources more efficiently.
Senator Skelos has a pro-environmental record of his own on which to run. He has sponsored funding to preserve close to 50 acres of land in Lido Beach as a nature trail, and has also worked to eliminate the state sales tax on the purchase of fuel-efficient cars.
“We are making sure that the funding is there to clean up ground fields and blighted sites,” he added.
“What this election is about is about generational change – a new generational of leaders who have a vision that government can play a creative role in changing people’s lives,” Simon concluded in statement to voters. “Roy Simon, the little professor from West Hempstead is ready to take on the Goliath Skelos because I believe that government can work to serve people. We in Nassau County can move to bring about a Democratic majority, by voting, right here at home, to send a Democrat to the Senate.”
For his part, Senator Skelos, who, as majority leader, is one of the three most powerful people in New York State government, is confident that his record makes him deserving of re-election, and that his party will maintain its control of the Senate.