State Sen. Shelley Mayer, the Democratic incumbent in the Senate District 37, and her Republican opponent, Liviu Saimovici, M.D., participated in a League of Women Voters virtual forum Monday, Oct. 19.
The forum was hosted by the White Plains LWV, along with numerous other Westchester chapters. Bedford is part of the Senate District 37, which stretches from Katonah in the north to portions of New Rochelle in the south, and includes portions of the cities of Yonkers and White Plains.
In her opening statement, Ms. Mayer said she was running for reelection because COVID-19 required experienced, effective leadership, which she said she had provided. She said she had fought for her constituents, and that progress was finally being made after years of gridlock in Albany. “I am an experienced legislator who knows how to get things done,” she said.
Mr. Saimovici noted that he had escaped the Communist dictatorship in Romania and became an American citizen in 1981. He said he was not a professional politician, but that he could no longer stand by and watch what was happening in the state, where, he maintained, liberties and freedoms were being chipped away by legislation. He said he is running because he wants people to be safe in their homes and their streets, wants better education for our children, and wants affordable health care for everybody but wants people to keep their current doctors.
Asked about their first priority upon arrival in Albany, Mr. Saimovici said he had statistics showing crime in New York City and in our towns had increased tremendously, and his first priority would be to reverse or amend the no bail and discovery law, which he said had led to the increase in crime.
Ms. Mayer said getting the economy back on track while protecting people’s safety is the most important priority right now. Electing a Democratic-majority U.S. Senate and a president that recognize their obligations to help New York through this problem is very important, as well, she said. More federal aid is needed to avoid cuts to essential services and jump-start the state economy, she added.
Asked what laws they would support to protect voters’ rights in New York state, Ms. Mayer said it wasn’t until she was elected, and the state had a Democratic majority that voting reform legislation created early voting. She said she supports allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to register in anticipation of being able to vote at 18, and fully funding local boards of election. Her bill that prohibits changing the location of a polling place from the front to the back of a school on the day of an election was just signed into law, she said, noting that further voter protections are needed.
Mr. Saimovici cited voter fraud as a major problem, which could grow if voting rules are loosened further. He said voting should be verified with proper ID, but that does not mean discouraging people from voting; it means counting votes properly and securing them. He said he also supports fully funding the board of elections, and thinks voting systems in the state need to be updated.
Ms. Meyer responded that voting in the state is already extraordinarily secure, and that the idea of fraud is a “misguided trope” that is being circulated as a talking point.
The candidates also shared their ideas for rethinking the state’s role in education financing. Mr. Saimovici said the state was already in a $68 million budget hole before COVID-19, and the state owes school districts significantly more money than it is currently providing. The Foundation Aid formula, he said, is far too complicated and lacks transparency. He noted the state is 22nd in education for K-12, while spending $22,000 per student, compared with the national average of $12,000.
Ms. Meyer said Foundation Aid was an effort to move away from a politicized way of funding schools based solely on which political party held the majority in each chamber of the state legislature. She said she has led the fight to revisit the law and improve it, noting the system is based largely on property wealth and is often inequitable. She also said she had disagreed with the governor on cutting the aid payments that were due in October, and had fought with her colleagues to nullify those cuts.
Mr. Saimovici responded, saying the Senate had abdicated its duty to control the education budget, and should not have had to convince the governor to avoid cuts. He said he supported the idea of the National Guard building temporary classrooms so more students could return to in-person learning.
Commenting on the enforcement of the state’s environmental protection act passed last year, Ms. Mayer said there was to have been an environmental bond on this year’s ballot, but it was removed because the state cannot afford to increase its borrowing. She said the bill did encourage municipalities to move toward renewables, and that could be done without more funding by forward-thinking municipalities that are moving toward solar. “We ought to be doing far more as we improve school buildings to ensure they are heated and power is produced by renewables; right now, they are behind the eight ball on that,” she said.
Mr. Saimovici said he agreed the state was in an economic crisis, but that Democrats kept raising taxes, including property taxes, and making it more difficult for businesses in New York. He said he was in favor of supporting green energy, but the key step was to make New York more attractive to businesses. Ms. Mayer responded that property taxes were raised at the local level, not the state, and they had enacted a permanent property tax cap. She maintained that the real tax problem for people in Westchester was the cap on local tax deductions passed as part of the recent federal tax cut bill. She called the limitation a punitive measure that has caused great harm and ought to be rescinded.
Mr. Saimovici said that while Ms. Mayer kept referring to President Donald Trump, this is an election for state Senate, and “we cannot go crybaby and ask for money from the federal government because we don’t know how to manage our own finances.”
When the subject of bail reform came up again, Ms. Mayer said that the new law did not eliminate cash bail; it limited the application of bail to serious crimes. The rationale for the bill, she explained, was that people were being jailed simply because they didn’t have money when they were charged for crimes that were not deemed serious under the penal law. She said the law made bail apply in serious, violent felonies, not non-violent crimes. There were meetings with local leaders and police, she said, and when there were concerns about situations such as repeat offenders, she was an advocate for making changes to the law, and that was done.
Mr. Saimovici said the legislature should have been more aware of the problems and discussed the law with police and judges beforehand. He said it demoralized the police and frustrated judges, and that while efforts to amend the bill were “nice,” it should have been a much stronger law at the outset.
The forum addressed other issues, including addressing systemic racism, and preventing police brutality against Blacks. Ms. Mayer said there was no question the country was in a period of racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, and said she was proud of a package of state legislation the Senate had passed, including removing the ban on prior police disciplinary records being disclosed. She said there was more work to be done, but commended the governor for his executive order to have every police agency evaluate themselves. “We have to take this step forward,” she said.
There was no agreement from Mr. Saimovici, who said he was from Romania and was Jewish, has been a police surgeon for the New York State Troopers, and didn’t agree with the term “systemic racism.” He said while there may be isolated instances of prejudice on the part of police, he did not agree with the legislation that had been passed, and thought more education was the only way to reduce racism.