The differences were easily discernible as incumbent 5th District Congressman Gary Ackerman, a Democrat seeking re-election to his 10th term, faced Republican challenger Dr. Edward Elkowitz, a physician and a 35-year Great Neck resident, in last week's debate sponsored by the Kings Point Civic Association. The voters were offered a very clear choice as the candidates addressed issues such as ''big government,'' tax reform, abortion, and school vouchers.
Congressional candidates, U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (l.) and Dr. Edward Elkowitz.
Speaking to the Great Neck community, a community that just last year successfully, and vigorously, fought off a charter school proposal, Dr. Elkowitz stated early on, in his opening statement, that there should be a choice for education. Dr. Elkowitz believes that when public education fails, parents should have a choice by use of tax credits or vouchers. Rep. Ackerman firmly stated that he does not believe in school vouchers; he does not believe that public education can be saved by taking money out of the public schools. ''We can't afford to pay for two systems,'' said the congressman. ''Who will pay for an alternative?''
The term ''big government'' also arose in Dr. Elkowitz's opening statement. He spoke of ''choice,'' in this case meaning more choices for people, with less government interference, with taxpayers having more of a choice as to how the government spends. He spoke against ''big government,'' equating this term with ''Communism and Fascism.'' Rep. Ackerman, stating he was not quite sure what Dr. Elkowitz was saying, disputed the terms ''big government ... Communism ... Fascism,'' and he spoke of ''the country changing'' and decisions to be made about what the government can do and cannot do.
While on the topic of ''choice,'' Rep. Ackerman clearly stated that he is pro-choice, ''endorsed by every pro-choice organization.'' And he reminded the audience that Dr. Elkowitz ran last on the Right-to-Life ticket. ''The government should not make health care decisions,'' said Rep. Ackerman. ''I strongly support women's rights.'' Dr. Elkowitz did talk about a doctor ''making medical decision early on,'' but he added that, later in a pregnancy ''there is no medical reason to kill a baby before it is born.''
Also along health care lines, Dr. Elkowitz supports choice for health care plans and for doctors. He believes that universal health care eliminates competition. Rep. Ackerman spoke of Hillary Clinton's health care plan and how it does offer choices. And he spoke of having a national health care plan based on the one for federal government workers --- with choices. He also said that a single payer plan takes ''hundreds of billions of dollars'' away from insurance companies --- this, he said, is money that can be better used on health care than on ''pushing paper.''
Tax reform was also addressed during the debate. Rep. Ackerman did say that some tax reform is needed, but that at this prosperous time, ''most people want things to keep going.'' As for the inheritance tax, he stressed that this does not affect the average person, ''only the wealthiest of the wealthy.'' The congressman does favor exclusions for small businesses and for small farms. Dr. Elkowitz called for a ''progressive tax ... but lower,'' and he noted that the inheritance tax does need reform, especially in light of today's surplus money situation. And he called the ''marriage penalty tax'' discriminatory.
As well, Dr. Elkowitz called the Social Security tax discriminatory (the double taxing), discrimination against the elderly. He spoke of privatization. Rep. Ackerman said that Social Security is definitely not discriminatory. He spoke of Social Security as a ''safety net'' for people with small means ''so that they do not become wards of the state.'' Those with limited means, he added, do not pay tax. Rep. Ackerman added that, if taxes are cut, ''What about the services?''
Addressing a question on affordable housing, the congressman spoke of Great Neck as an affluent area, but one that also needs affordable housing, particularly for young families (starter homes) and for senior citizens. This, he said, should be planned, planned by the community and not by the government. Dr. Elkowitz responded, saying, ''Our real estate is at stake!'' He spoke of the affordable housing that was ''rammed down their throats'' by the federal government in Huntington.
Another very local issue, the environment, was first broached in the opening statements. While Dr. Elkowitz called for more action, Rep. Ackerman called for studies first. He spoke of bringing attention to the Long Island Sound and the needed cleanup via a bill for the Long Island Sound Study. ''We first brought $330 million, over five years, in 1992,'' he noted.
During the evening some discussion did focus on the very large, diverse, ''gerrymandered'' 5th Congressional District. Dr. Elkowitz did say he ''understands the issues'' since he lives in Great Neck and practices in Queens. He said that the issues are different in different parts of the district. While Rep. Ackerman agreed that there are ''specific challenges,'' he did say that they can generally ''figure out a consensus.''
Answering a question about an energy policy, Dr. Elkowitz called for such a policy that included ''alternate energy sources independent of foreign oil control.'' Rep. Ackerman also called for an energy policy, but one that recognizes research and gives tax credits. He also spoke of conserving energy, and he said that he was one of the first to call on President Clinton to release part of the strategic petroleum preserve.
Turning to a question regarding military readiness, the congressman stated: ''We are starting to strike a rather good balance ... these guys are prepared ... no one would want to come up against us.'' Dr. Elkowitz disagreed, stating that ''Our security and intelligence are not adequate.''
One of the last questions of the evening focused on gays in the Boy Scouts and in the military. While Dr. Elkowitz favors a ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy, Rep. Ackerman (an Eagle Scout) voted to revoke the federal government charter from the Boy Scouts in light of their policy. Rep. Ackerman came out strongly against any such discrimination.
In closing, Dr. Elkowitz asked the audience members to consider splitting their ticket. He called for ''new ideas and a new congressman with a new vision'' for the new millennium. ''My vision is not tied to old social ideas,'' he said. ''This country was founded, and grew, because of diversity and choices. And we do not need big government.''
Rep. Ackerman spoke of being ''proud to represent the people in this community,'' and he spoke of the ''tremendous local talent'' he had found to staff his offices. His vision for the future is for a more ''peaceful world.'' At the very end, Rep. Ackerman said that he ''willingly pays taxes so that people at the lower end, without our opportunities, will have a chance to become the geniuses and the leaders of the new century.''