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Few Holds Barred in District 17 Debate

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October 13, 2022

By Barrett Seaman–

If the degree of feistiness by both parties in a League of Women Voters debate is an indicator of a tight race, then the battle between incumbent Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney and Republican challenger Mike Lawler in New York’s 17th District looks to be headed for a photo finish.

In the October 12 debate, sponsored by the Westchester chapter of the League, Lawler, a State Assemblyman from Rockland County, came out of his corner in an opening statement by accusing Maloney of “galavanting across the globe raising money for Nancy Pelosi” while he (Lawler) has been out campaigning, talking to voters about their concerns—inflation and crime.

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While Maloney opened by touting the recent legislative successes of his party—among them the CHIPS and Science Act, the infrastructure bill, the $2,000 cap on seniors’ prescription bills—it didn’t take long for him to go on the offensive on reproductive rights. Lawler, charged the incumbent, was glad when Roe was overturned and predicted that “He’ll join the extremists in Washington in trying to ban [abortion] everywhere…He said that a national ban makes sense.”

That prompted Lawler to demand “When did I say that, Sean?” In a nod to an old Ronald Reagan debate technique, Lawler added, “There he goes again. He can’t defend his own record on anything in this campaign, so he has spent his entire campaign lying about mine.”

Afforded the opportunity to articulate his position on abortion, Lawler took a position many Republicans are taking in New York, where the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is highly unpopular: he stressed that the court’s decision merely reverted the question back to the states. “In the State of New York, abortion is legal up to the moment of birth,” observed Lawler, “and that is not changing. What I have said from the beginning is that I oppose a national ban, despite my opponent’s lies, and that I do believe in exceptions for rape, incest and for the life of the mother. That’s the position I have always held.”

The candidates’ debate strategies became clear early on in the exchange. Lawler worked to tie his opponent to what he called the failed policies of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, blaming them for high inflation, soaring energy costs, a porous southern border through which not only illegal immigrants but also lethal drugs continued to flow, and an education policy “where parents are concerned whether or not they have a say in their child’s education.”

Maloney strove to portray himself as a mainstream, middle class candidate with a ten-year record of bipartisan cooperation in Washington, while Lawler (a.k.a. “MAGA Mike”) was an extremist who was in the pocket of the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries. He also repeatedly tried to tie Lawler to Donald Trump—a ploy that drew a statement from Lawler that is not likely to help the incumbent Democrat. “You keep on talking about MAGA, MAGA, MAGA. Sean, the only one that was involved in election MAGA Republicans this year was you.” Raising an issue Alessandra Biaggi used against Maloney in the Democratic primary, Lawler charged: “You took DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) funds and spent it in numerous congressional primaries to elect people that you deemed were extreme and you thought you’ve have a better chance of defeating in November. It’s cynical and it’s exactly why people don’t like politics.”

On other issues raised by questions posed by the League, the candidates spelled out positions that were not always as far apart from their opponents as campaign rhetoric would imply:

The economy—Maloney extolled the virtues of big legislative actions taken by Democrats on infrastructure, the Inflation Reduction Act (which Lawler called the “Inflation Expansion Act”), and healthcare. Lawler charged that his opponent supported bills that raised taxes on middle class families and added 87,000 IRS agents to the federal payroll (a charge Democrats dispute). “Under Sean Patrick Maloney and Joe Biden,” claimed Lawler, “spending has increased over $4 trillion. That has driven record inflation.”

The SALT cap—Both candidates favored lifting the $10,000 cap on the amount of state and local taxes that could be deducted. Lawler charged that, despite being in Washington for ten years, Maloney had failed to relieve this burden on New Yorkers. This time, it was Maloney who scored a reposte: “It’s kind of funny that Mike would complain about SALT,” he said. “That was the MAGA Trump tax scheme that screwed New York.”

Internet access—Maloney cited elements of the infrastructure bill that will provide greater access to inner city and rural communities that have been deprived sufficient access. Lawler said that in his visits to communities in the 17th District, like Carmel, Yorktown and Bedford, he discovered that they had problems with cell connectivity. “Sean, if you were in the district a little more,” he lectured, “you’d know that.”

Healthcare—Both men acknowledged that it’s a big problem, mental health care in particular. “Social media has had a terrible, pernicious effect on our young people,” said Maloney, noting that Lawler opposed the Affordable Care Act, which gave coverage to millions. “If we go Lawler’s way,” he predicted, “there goes your protection for pre-existing conditions.”

Education—Lawler said he has fought to change the school aid formula and fully fund foundation aid, but added, “From a federal level, parents have a right to have a say in their child’s education. I support school choice; I always have…having a say in what’s being taught in the classroom.” Maloney countered that “every Republican, like Mike Lawler, opposed the rescue plan that provided $300 million to state and local governments. That’s the money he’s trying to take credit for…that kept our local schools alive.”

Crime—At several points in the debate, Lawler cited Maloney’s support for the state’s new “cashless bail” policy, which he said had caused gun violence to rise as 40% of suspects released were committing other crimes before their original case was adjudicated.

Gun control—Lawler claimed his was a “common sense, bipartisan” approach to the issue. “Unlike my opponents, I have defended the right of law-abiding citizens to exercise their Second Amendment rights while taking on the criminals who use guns in the commission of crimes and those who are mentally ill and pose a serious threat to our communities.” Maloney countered that his opponent was “in the pocket of the NRA and has voted against every important gun safety legislation that comes his way, adding, “Mike, you voted after Buffalo to let teenagers buy semi-automatic weapons.”

Voting—Maloney urged passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which he predicted Lawler would not support. Lawler countered that the bill contained language that would curb gerrymandering, which he said New York Democrats had ignored in their redistricting efforts over the past two years.

Trump— In an election where Donald Trump is an issue unto himself, the name of the former president was mentioned only by the incumbent Democrat. “Sean Patrick Maloney said people who are mainstream Republicans who opposed January 6 and say Joe Biden won,” said Lawler. “I opposed January 6 and Joe Biden did win, so I guess that makes me a mainstream Republican, which is why you didn’t invest DCCC funds in my race during my primary.”

Those who wish to watch the entire debate, it can be found at

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