Tracy Kosciuk, left, and Anthony Piccirillo, right, both running for seats in Suffolk County Goverment, at a College Republicans panel. The candidates were invited to discuss issues important to college students. ALEK LEWIS/THE STATESMAN

Two Republican candidates running for seats in Suffolk County government were invited by the Stony Brook University College Republicans to discuss issues important to college students.

The panel consisted of Republican candidates Tracy Kosciuk and Anthony Piccirillo. John M. Kennedy Jr., candidate for county executive, was also set to make an appearance, but was not able to attend due to last minute scheduling conflicts.

The event housed 107 registered students and community members in the Student Activities Center Ballroom. Questions prepared by the College Republicans were presented to the candidates, and then the floor was open to any attendees who wanted to ask questions about issues they were concerned about.

Key topics during the discussion, among others, included the opioid epidemic, marijuana and affordability for living in Suffolk County and Long Island.

Kosciuk is running against third-term incumbent Valerie M. Cartright for the Brookhaven Town Council District 1 council seat. District 1 makes up the areas including and surrounding Stony Brook University such as Stony Brook, East Setauket, Port Jefferson and Port Jefferson Station.

A registered nurse at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, Kosciuk has been a representative for the New York State Nurses Association and the nurses local union president for the last five years. She said her campaign is built on a push for the government to better communicate with the community and address their concerns.

“As a nurse I guess it’s inborn into me at this point,” Kosciuk said. “I want to make a difference, I want to make some changes and I want to help my community.”

This is Piccirillo’s second consecutive election against third-term incumbent William J. Lindsay III for the 8th district of Suffolk County’s Legislative Office; back in 2017, Piccirillo lost the election by only 230 votes. The 8th district includes areas such as Holtsville, Holbrook, Islip and Sayville. Piccirillo has been a lifelong resident of his district and works as a legislative aide for legislator Steve J. Flotteron in West Islip.

The opioid epidemic was the first issue discussed. As a nurse, Kosciuk said she sees the difficulties of the opioid epidemic firsthand when she’s treating patients. She wants to institute a program to help people break their opioid addictions and avoid relapsing, and she wants to lead the town to work more closely with police and hospitals.

“I want to work with the town; I want to work with different communities, the hospitals and formulate some sort of program so that we have a more defined pathway for people when they are discharged from the hospitals … so they have a direction as to where they’re going, that we follow up with them, that they’re not just left basically without any support,” Kosciuk said.

Piccirillo addressed the issue with hostility during the discussion, condemning past Suffolk County leadership such as former Police Chief James Burke, who was convicted in 2016 for charges of assault and obstruction of justice.

He added that the war on drugs needs to be approached differently. Piccirillo emphasized the importance of education initiatives such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), and that there needs to be increased numbers of rehabilitation centers.

“The war on drugs has been a failure,” Piccirillo said. “It’s time to retool and rework the war on drugs, because right now it’s a war on poverty; poor whites, poor blacks and poor browns are the ones who have seen arrests instead of help in the war on drugs. It’s almost ironic that the Democratic Party could even take credit for helping anyone with this, because all they’ve done is push the narrative that if we throw money at the problem, it would go away.”

In keeping with the war on drugs, a popular topic with students was marijuana legislation. 

Kosciuk supports the current legality of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but not for recreational purposes. Kosciuk, who believes that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” is concerned about the inability to measure the level of influence of marijuana in blood — the way there is with alcohol —  which she thinks would be necessary for recreational use.

Piccirillo, on the other hand, supports the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, and argues that it should be treated much like alcohol and tobacco in regards to age restriction, taxation and usability. He said that marijuana has led to “jailing youth” in the state, which he claims may cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars a day in overtime law enforcement costs.

“You’re an adult, you should be allowed to make a decision about what you want to put into your body,” Piccirillo said. “This whole idea that the state should control everything single thing we do for vaping, for smoking, for eating, is totally opposite of what the founding fathers intended for a constitutional republic — this is supposed to be a free country.”

Both candidates support research for learning more about marijuana’s effects on the human body; Kosciuk deems it essential before marijuana’s legalization.

Also discussed were issues involving living affordability in Suffolk County, an issue that the candidates believe has caused the recent population decline in the county’s population.

Kosciuk, hopes to, on a local level, help streamline tax relief programs with workshops, as well as improving communication with the town offices and citizens involving tax information.

Piccirillo plans to balance the budget by cutting spending and giving tax cuts. He claims he is one of the few candidates who advocate for a financial control board for the county budget.

“A financial control board is the only way that we are going to be able to keep the special interests who really run this county in check,” Piccirillo said. “It’s going to let us cap spending and then gonna be able to tackle the deficit … we are going to have to make cuts, and sometimes those cuts are gonna hurt. But just like when you’re sick, the medicine might not taste good but at the end you’re going to get better. So you have to have a little short term pain to have long term success.”

Neil Banerjee, a sophomore civil engineering major and member of the College Republicans, was particularly drawn to this comment by Piccirillo. As a registered libertarian, he found himself agreeing with Piccirillo’s policies, especially in regards to advocating for privatizing public transportation.

“Look at Greyhound; it’s 20 bucks just to go from here to anywhere in the country, where as an Amtrak train would cost $300,” Banerjee said. Prices for Greyhound and Amtrack vary, though Greyhound is generally cheaper. “So it’s a surprising thing for a New York Republican to advocate for the private sector rather than throw more money at it.”

Faith O’Connor, a sophomore biochemistry major and member of the College Republicans, had her largest concerns of the discussion in tax policy.

“I do think tax breaks was a big part of the discussion, because I think it will keep people on Long Island, and I think that’s one of the biggest issues that is important, especially to the people that came today,” O’Connor said. “Most of us are college students, and a lot of people are leaving Long Island, and we want to see how we can stay and grow Long Island ….”

John Gately, 39, is the owner of CU Living Life Coaching and also attended the event. A registered Democrat, his business resides in Sayville, an area that falls under the legislative jurisdiction of the position Piccirillo is running for. 

Gately, who came to stake out the candidates, said that despite his party registration, he would be willing to vote Republican if the candidate was the right fit. 

“It’s not about party lines anymore; it’s about what serves my community or what serves me better,” Gately said.

Although he found Piccirillo to be an unfavorable candidate, he liked Kosciuk’s message.

“Tracy did very well,” Gately said. “She’s looking to serve her community, which is perfect. That’s what local government is for: serving your community.”

Desi Kirin is a junior political science and history double major and the president of the College Republicans. She was pleased with the event’s crowd size, especially the response to the questions surrounding marijuana. 

“It’s obviously something that they care about,” Kirin said. “So I liked seeing the reactions and I liked seeing all the questions the members had, and the public in general.”

Kirin feels it’s important that right-wing political affiliates at Stony Brook University, a campus in New York which is a majority Democrat state, have their voices heard.

“That’s why we do events like this, that’s why we get our members involved, that’s why we not only invite registered Republicans to our events but we invite all political affiliations,” Kirin said. “We want you to come to our meetings and our events and we want you to learn about who our positions on things are.”

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