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Lee Zeldin

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen Pennington and Warrior Ranch Foundation Vice President Tony Simonetti spend time with Pennington’s horse Red. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

When Marine Corps veteran StaceyAnn Castro first stepped into the round pen with a horse at Warrior Ranch Foundation, her guard was up.

Castro, who served in Operation Enduring Freedom from 2002 to 2004, and admittedly struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, was face to face with a 1,400-pound Friesian horse named BlackJack during a July demonstration by the Mount Sinai and Islip-based nonprofit, which pairs military and first-responder veterans with rescue horses in need of rehabilitation and training.

Marine Corps veteran StaceyAnn Castro bonds with her horse BlackJack. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

The tough-as-nails veteran was attempting to engage BlackJack in basic ground exercises, but the horse was not budging. Its guard was up too.

“I soon realized it was because I was terrified of him,” Castro later said. “When you’re with these horses they feel everything you’re feeling, even the emotions you think you’re hiding from everybody else. You can’t hide them from a horse.”

Castro relaxed, and as she calmed down, so did BlackJack. The horse began to lick and chew — a reflex associated with the animal’s release of stress.

“By the end of the session, I wound up with a friend,” she said of BlackJack. “With the horses, you have someone you’re actually bonding with in your own private, silent language. It’s beautiful.”

Officially incorporated in June 2016, the Warrior Ranch Foundation has helped reduce the stress levels and PTSD symptoms of more than a dozen veterans still recuperating from a wide range of conflicts — from the Korean War to Vietnam War to the war in Afghanistan — by teaching them how to groom, feed and train troubled horses. And much like the veterans, the nine residential horses, mostly retired race and show animals that have been trained their whole lives to compete and perform in high-stakes settings, are learning to adapt to a new, more relaxed world.

Cathie Doherty spends time with horse Cody. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

“There’s a strong parallel between them and it’s amazing to see their emotional breakthroughs,” said Eileen Shanahan, the nonprofit’s founder and president. “While the race horses are trained to run, run, run, and as a result have emotional issues, the veterans are trained to go out there and do the best they can to protect and defend us. When they come back, they have to shut that off and that’s not so easy. We provide a safe haven for these humans and animals.”

Shanahan’s organization is the result of her lifelong love of country and horses. The Queens native, who shoots and produces television programs and commercials for a living, comes from a large military family with a father who served in the Marines, an uncle and brother in the Navy, nephews in the Army, as well as several first responders.

Although she mostly rode buses and subways growing up, Shanahan always admired horses from afar, seeing them as beautiful creatures.

When she got married and moved to East Quogue in the 1980s, she took up horseback riding and, 15 years ago, began adopting rescue horses and studying natural horsemanship — a variety of rapport-based horse training techniques.

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen Pennington with horse Red. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

For nearly a decade, she dreamt of providing this outlet for local veterans and finally launched it with the help of longtime friends and equestrians specialists. While the group currently works out of two private barns, the future plan is to turn Warrior Ranch into a national organization.

“We want to eventually help hundreds of veterans and horses because it really works,” Shanahan said, explaining that interactions like Castro’s is very common at the ranch. “A lot of times when they come here, the veterans have their arms crossed, but by the end of the day, they have ear-to-ear grins. A lot of them break down and cry and it’s so powerful to watch.”

Tony Simonetti, Warrior Ranch’s vice president and top horse trainer, has made a career of rehabilitating emotionally distraught horses and re-interacting them with their human counterparts, resolving more than 500 extremely difficult horse cases for people across the country. When asked his most memorable veteran-horse interaction within the organization, he talked about Army Staff Sergeant Allen Pennington, Warrior Ranch’s first soldier to go through the program, and Red, a 4-year-old, retired race thoroughbred.

“[Allen’s] this big, rough and tough guy, and when the horse connected with him, I just saw all the stress he was holding inside bubble right up through his chest and then he just couldn’t keep himself composed,” Simonetti said. “He broke down and turned around and hugged that horse like it was his battle buddy. And I told him, ‘don’t feel bad about that. That’s what you’re here for.’”

During a testimonial on the Warrior Ranch website, Navy veteran Cathie Doherty, who was diagnosed with PTSD and put on medication for a number of years, said she was grateful to have attended a women veteran’s retreat at the nonprofit.

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen Pennington with horse Red. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

“It was really an amazing experience,” Doherty said. “I think it touched me much deeper than I imagined it would. I appreciated working with the horses and that I had to make a connection with them. I feel I was present in the moment. I didn’t care about my phone, I didn’t care what was going on around me. It was a beautiful experience for me.”

Castro said companionship with a horse might be more beneficial than a human’s.

“When you’re a veteran and you’re having a bad day, you don’t want to tell anybody, you don’t want to talk about it — you want to forget about it,” she said. “But I also don’t want to be alone and, so, when you’re there with the horse, and that horse knows what you’re going through and feeling, he feels it too. And because you love the horse and you don’t want the horse to feel that way, you’re going to try and make yourself feel better. It’s awe-inspiring.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who served four years in the Army, visited the ranch in Mount Sinai with his family Oct. 7 and saw firsthand the value of the nonprofit.

“It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to see the positive effects that you’re having on these horses, and from these horses the veterans are getting love that they possibly have never experienced
before,” Zeldin said. “In a way, you’re directly coping with the symptoms of PTSD while also productively escaping the worst of it. It’s a great concept and I’d love to see Warrior Ranch grow into something a whole lot bigger than it already is.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, fifth from left, meets with members of the Warrior Ranch Foundation. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would reduce the number of income tax brackets from seven to four; eliminate deductions for state and local income taxes; and would reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent. Stock photo

By Alex Petroski

Last week Republicans in the House of Representatives took a major step toward fulfilling a lynchpin campaign promise that is seemingly decades old.

The House Ways and Means committee released the framework of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Nov. 2, a major piece of legislation touted by President Donald Trump (R) as a cut to income taxes for “hardworking, middle-income Americans,” though it would negatively affect New Yorkers if signed into law, according to lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle.

The highlights of the bill, which would require passage by the House and Senate and the president’s signature before becoming law, include a consolidation from seven individual income tax brackets down to four; the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes, a provision that in the past through federal tax returns gave a portion of tax dollars back to individuals in higher income tax states like New York; and a reduction of the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent.

“I am a ‘No’ to this bill in its current form,” 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said in a statement. “We need to fix this state and local tax [SALT] deduction issue. Adding back in the property tax deduction up to $10,000 is progress, but not enough progress. If I’m not fighting for New Yorkers, I can’t expect anyone else from another state to do it for me.”

U.S. Rep. for the 2nd District, Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), was even more critical of the bill than Zeldin.

“The goal of tax reform is to help hard-working Americans make more money so they can live the American Dream,” Suozzi said in a statement. “The American people expect us to find a bipartisan solution to tax reform that helps create good paying middle-class jobs. This plan doesn’t achieve that goal. I won’t support it.”

Other New York lawmakers from the Democratic Party voiced harsh opposition to the bill in its current form.

New York’s U.S. senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York) each said via Twitter they viewed the bill as a tax break for corporations that would have a negative impact on middle-class citizens. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called the bill a “tax increase plan.”

“The tax reform plan, they call a tax cut plan,” Cuomo said in a statement. “It has a diabolical dimension, which is the elimination of the deductibility of state and local taxes … what makes it an even more gross injustice is, the state of New York contributes more to the federal government than any other state. New York contributes more to Washington than any other state. We’re the No. 1 donor state. We give $48 billion more than we get back. Why you would want to take more from New York is a gross, gross injustice.”

Duncan MacKenzie, chief executive officer of the New York State Association of Realtors said in a statement the bill would harm many New York homeowners.

“It will lessen the value of the property tax deduction and it cuts a host of other key housing-related tax incentives,” he said.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in the 1980s and dedicated to educating the public on issues with significant fiscal policy impact, estimated the bill would result in a $1.5 trillion increase to the national deficit.

Mark Snyder of Mark J. Snyder Financial Services, a Hauppauge-based personal financial planning and management firm, called the bill a “torpedo aimed at the wallets of Long Islanders” in an email. He also pointed to the elimination of the SALT deduction as clear evidence the bill would harm New Yorkers.

“As a representative from New York, I’d kick this bill to the curb,” he said when asked what he would do if he were tasked with voting on the bill.

Congressman supports end of ‘dreamer’ policy, preaches sensible border security fix

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. File photo by Kevin Redding

By Alex Petroski

The heated debate over immigration is nothing new in the United States, or in Suffolk County for that matter, but the discussion has been enflamed and accelerated by a decision President Donald Trump (R) floated, walked back and ultimately left in limbo regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program this week. Zeldin addressed challenges with improving immigration policy during an exclusive interview with TBR News Media at the end of August, and also weighed in on the possible phaseout of DACA this week.

The DACA program was enacted in 2012 during former President Barack Obama’s Democratic administration as a temporary solution to the dilemma about how to handle the immigration status of individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally at a young age, rendering their decision to cross the border as out of their hands. The policy granted “dreamer” status to roughly 800,000 individuals, retroactively. This week, Trump announced via Twitter his intentions to phase out the program within six months, though few details were offered, and since then the president has backtracked, signaling to Congress he would like for them to come up with a solution.

“Many of these children involuntarily came to our country very young, have been here for a long time, go through our education system, love our country and are looking to stay here and greatly contribute to our economy and nation’s future,” Zeldin said in a statement. “What I struggle with the most is how you can possibly allow someone illegally in our country to be given preference over someone who is not in our country solely because that individual abroad is following the rules and respecting our laws, and as a result, they are not yet here.”

“If you want to come to America and pursue the American Dream, follow the rules.”

— Lee Zeldin

The decision by Trump has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle for both the seeming lack of compassion for the group of mostly young people who have made a life in the U.S. and know the country as their home, and for the flippant nature of making the announcement on social media. Zeldin said it is a challenging issue because dreamers have established a life in America and were brought here involuntarily, though he said allowing them special treatment creates an unfair dynamic for those attempting to come to the U.S. legally.

“I support legal immigration,” he said. “I oppose illegal immigration. If you want to com se to America and pursue the American Dream, follow the rules. If you commit a crime and are deported, don’t come back. Every nation’s backbone is its rule of law. It is great to pursue the American Dream and to consider yourself a dreamer and everyone in the United States legally should consider themselves dreamers.”

Zeldin said in his statement and in August he would be open to discussion for ways to repair what he said he views as a flawed immigration system.

Referring to Trump’s campaign rhetoric and statements he has made since taking office, Zeldin said he wished the conversation on immigration and border security could get past “build a wall” versus “don’t build a wall.” He criticized Trump for a lack of publicly stated details regarding a border wall, citing natural barriers like rivers and mountains, which already secure large portions of the U.S.-Mexican border.

“If we sat down with [Trump] and had a conversation and he says, ‘We should put a 30-foot wall in the middle of the Rio Grande,’ that would be different,” Zeldin said. The 1st CD representative said he would be in favor of strengthening existing fencing in areas, building a new barrier in vulnerable areas and even utilizing some electric fencing to secure the border.

When asked if he thought Trump had the ability to advance immigration reform in a bipartisan fashion, Zeldin said he wasn’t sure because he hadn’t spoken directly with Trump on the issue, and his public statements lack specifics.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine and Councilman Dan Panico, on left, with the new food scrap composters. Photo from Town of Brookhaven

As far as the Town of Brookhaven is concerned, going green is not just a casual practice — it’s a moral obligation to ensure Long Island’s future.

In the last few months, Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and members of the town board have launched a series of environmentally friendly initiatives and continued ongoing efforts that encourage local residents to
reduce their carbon footprints and preserve the serenity of their surroundings.

“Whenever there are ways to benefit the environment, I’m 100 percent involved [and] I’m blessed by an extremely supportive town board,” Romaine said, highlighting an especially strong partnership with Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point). “I don’t want to say Jane is my environmental soulmate, but she and I are on the exact same page. She is one of my cheerleaders in every manner, shape or form.”

Other environmental actions taken by Brookhaven:

– A 127-acre solar farm called Shoreham Solar Commons will be constructed on the recently closed Tallgrass Golf Course.

– The extension of the Pine Barrens to include 800 acres of national property around the former Shoreham nuclear plant will go forward upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signed authorization.

A multiyear project to convert all 40,000 of Brookhaven’s streetlights to LED bulbs has begun with 5,000 already converted.

– Through a partnership with U.S Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the town has secured funding to fix stormwater infrastructures along the North Shore, from Miller Place to Shoreham.

– A center at Ceder Beach in Mount Sinai  has been established to grow millions of oysters and sea clams that filter and clean the water.

In May, Bonner held her fifth bi-annual Go Green event at the Rose Caracappa Senior Center in Mount Sinai. It’s the town’s biggest recycling event where residents can dispose of unwanted medication and prescriptions and recycle old TVs and computers, as well as paper. The e-waste drive gathered 15,000 pounds of electronic waste and shredded 13,580 pounds of paper products and 26 boxes of unwanted pharmaceutical drugs, according to the town.

The councilwoman also hosted a Homeowner’s Guide to Energy Efficiency forum at the center later in the month, educating residents on how to get a free energy audit, affordable home energy improvements and save $1,000 a year on home energy bills. Through this effort, less fossil fuels are used to heat and light homes.

“We take it very seriously,” Bonner said of the town’s green initiatives. “We have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the Earth and this transcends party lines. Regardless of party affiliation, we all know we can do a better job of taking care of the planet.”

Aside from providing free compost and mulch to residents at Brookhaven Town Hall, officials also recently utilized a $5,000 grant to rip up the back lawn of the property to plant and restore native Long Island grasses, from which seeds can be collected and used.

In June, the town officially authorized the nonprofit Art & Nature Group Inc. to transform Brookhaven’s historic Washington Lodge property into a community nature center that offers environmental education programs.

Romaine and Councilman Dan Panico (R-Manorville) organized Brookhaven’s Food Scrap Composting pilot program at town hall last month, with hopes to expand it as a townwide initiative.

Through the program, town employees can deposit food waste, such as banana peels and coffee grinds, into organic material collection containers placed throughout the buildings, which are then collected and composted to be used for garden beds around town buildings.

“We must provide alternative waste management solutions like these if we are going to provide a cleaner, greener earth for future generations,” Panico said in a statement.

One of the 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. Photo by Rita J. Egan

By Rita J. Egan

George Washington and the Long Island Culper Spy Ring continue to make history on the North Shore.

A press conference was held May 18 on the lawn of the Brewster House in East Setauket after the installation of 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. One of the signs, unveiled at the end of the event, is located in front of the Brewster property.

A press conference was held May 18 on the lawn of the Brewster House in East Setauket after the installation of 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The installation of signage and the designation comes after almost two decades of work on the part of the North Shore Promotional Alliance. The state road was chosen because President George Washington once traveled it to thank the patriots for helping him win the Revolutionary War, and it was also a route that spy Austin Roe used to pick up and deliver secret messages to military officer and spy Benjamin Tallmadge in Connecticut.

Gloria Rocchio, President of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and North Shore Promotional Alliance, said that during the days of the Culper Spy Ring in the 1700s the Brewster House was one of only a few homes, and at the time of the American Revolution, the area was occupied by 300 British troops.

“Our community was divided between Loyalist and Patriots who supported the revolution in secret,” she said. “This history is the very history of America. Our efforts over the past 17 years have been to shine a light on our American Revolution and to encourage people to visit those important sites on the North Shore where history was made — the George Washington Spy Trail, Route 25A.

In addition to thanking her fellow members of the NSPA and others for their work, Rochhio acknowledged State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) for introducing a legislative resolution in both the New York State Senate and Assembly that recognizes the dedication of the trail as well as the service of the spy ring members. On the same day, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) were presenting a similar resolution in congress.

Flanagan thanked those who gave up their free time to dedicate themselves to the project. The senator said he and the other local legislatures who were on hand for the event are proud of their towns.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright and Supervisor Ed Romaine present a proclamation to President of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Gloria Rocchio, making May 18 North Shore Promotion Alliance Day in Brookhaven. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“We brag about the places that we come from,” he said. “We like telling people about these types of things.”

Flanagan said he hopes that residents, as well as those who travel to the area will take advantage of the educational experiences the signs call out along the way.

When Englebright stepped up to the podium, he asked State Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) to join him and said he appreciated the partnership with his neighboring assemblyman as well as Flanagan when it came to the legislative resolution that recognizes the area’s historical significance.

“This is a special place,” Englebright said. “Patriots lived here. People put their lives on the line as the first espionage ring for service to our nation.”

Englebright echoed Rocchio’s sentiments of the importance of the signs that pay tribute to the area’s history.

“The memorialization of that through this signage that Gloria referred to, is a chance for us to celebrate that reality, that wonderful beginning of our nation, the role that we played in it,” the assemblyman said. “It’s also important to give a sense of place and sense of context for this and future generations.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) presented a proclamation to Rocchio, which made May 18 North Shore Promotion Alliance Day in Brookhaven. Romaine also reflected on the historical importance of the day.

Local politicians following the enveiling of the Washington Spy Trail sign along 25A. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“Today we remember our history,” he said. “Today we remember ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who were called upon to do extraordinary things.”

John Tsunis, Chairman and CEO of Gold Coast Bank and owner of Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook, introduced Harry Janson, Sr., who was wounded in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart, a medal that originated from Washington’s Badge of Military Merit. Janson, who is on the board of the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University, said he believed the members of the Culper Spy Ring — Tallmadge, Roe, Robert Townsend, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and Anna Smith Strong — were worthy of the award as well.

“The difference is the example of their bravery,” Janson said. “They performed their bravery in covert, and they took their secrets to their graves.”

Before unveiling the Washington Spy Trail sign in front of the Brewster House, Janson had the same wish as others who worked on the installation of the signage.

“We hope that many of you drive the trail and learn about these brave men and women, and what they did for our country,” Janson said.

Additional Washington Spy Trail signs include ones located on the westbound side of Route 25A at West Broadway in Port Jefferson, by the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, before the Smithtown Bull in Smithtown and at Lawrence Hill Road in Huntington Station.

Rocky Point mother Robin Siefert is upset nothing was done after her 9-year-old daughter found a note on her desk containing several expletives (which have been removed from the photo), a swastika and Adolf Hitler’s name. Photo from Robin Siefert

Not long after Rocky Point mother Robin Siefert spoke to the school board about an anti-Semitic note left on her 9-year-old daughter’s desk March 23 at Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) picked up the phone.

Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, has 10-year-old twin daughters and reached out to Siefert as soon as he got wind of her situation, saying, “It hit very close to home.”

Rocky Point mother Robin Siefert is upset nothing was done after her 9-year-old daughter found a note on her desk containing hate speech. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to assist,” Zeldin, a regular at the school’s annual Veterans Day assembly, said after his call with Siefert. “I could tell I was talking to a very loving mother passionately advocating for her daughter, and trying to be strong through a challenge that negatively impacted a young, innocent child.”

He said he felt it was important the issue be combated aggressively at its source, saying someone who draws a swastika may be inclined to do it again, or more, in the future.

“There can’t really be a tolerance for it, or it’s only going to grow,” he said.

Siefert, who will be meeting with the board again in executive session May 16, said of Zeldin’s call, “It was just very nice to know my congressman cared about the situation … I have a lot of gratitude. I still can’t believe this happened to my child, but [she’s] starting to get a little better.”

The note in question, written by a classmate of Siefert’s daughter, included three obscenities, a swastika and Adolf Hitler’s name.

Siefert argued during a board meeting April 19 that not enough was done at the administrative level to comfort her daughter, inform the parents of the incident or find the student responsible for the note.

According to Rocky Point school district superintendent, Michael Ring, a thorough investigation has been conducted since the March 23 incident occurred, and there’s been transparency between school and parents.

“The police were contacted by the district regarding the matter and information provided thereon,” Ring wrote in an email. “Parents of all students in the class were contacted by the teacher at the time of the incident. Counselors have gone into the classroom to speak about tolerance, acceptance and respect. None of this was done in response to Mrs. Siefert speaking at the [board of education] meeting. All of this was put into place after and as a result of the incident, which the school and district took very seriously.”

Conversely, Siefert said, “This is all because I went in front of the board and said what I said. All these things happened after I spoke.”

Ring noted the school has continued to employ all its existing and ongoing character education and anti-bullying initiatives, including Six Pillars of Character and Social Skills/Friendship Groups and Caring Connections.

He said as recent as May 9, officers in the Suffolk County Police Department conducted an anti-bullying presentation to all grades at Joseph A. Edgar.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin reached out to a Rocky Point mom over an anti-Semitic note her daughter received. File photo

“I’m glad they’re being proactive now,” said Siefert, who claims she, not the school, was the one who filed a police report after the incident. “But I’d be much happier if the kid who did this to my daughter was put in counseling and punished appropriately.”

Zeldin agreed. According to his staff, the district’s efforts to find the student responsible were outlined, but ultimately the district, as well as police, believe “there is not enough evidence to take action.”

It will, however, “continue to follow proper protocol and work with the family on this case.”

“In alignment with our anti-harassment and code of conduct policies, proven instances of bullying are treated extremely seriously and age-appropriate discipline is put in place in response to such incidents,” Ring wrote. “This is a continuing investigation.”

On April 24, Linda Towlen, principal at Joseph A. Edgar, sent a letter to parents of students in a fifth-grade class informing them of an April 21 incident where small swastikas were found on a bathroom sign-out sheet.

According to the letter, “a thorough investigation has been undertaken to determine the source of these unacceptable symbols” and “as is our protocol … the Suffolk County Police were notified and a report filed.”

After this most recent incident, the school implemented the Second Step program in the classroom that deals with bullying and teasing.

Congresman Zeldin addresses the audience at a town hall in Smithtown. Photo from Congressman Zeldin’s office.

By Victoria Espinoza

After calls for more public discussions and town hall meetings from constituents in New York’s 1st Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) held three town halls this past Sunday. Some praised Zeldin for his patience dealing with “organized protestors,” while other attendees were still left wanting more dialogue with their representative.

Cindy Morris, a Stony Brook resident,  attended Zeldin’s third and final town hall of the day at St. Patrick’s Church in Smithtown.

“We’ve [progressive groups] been working very hard asking him to meet with us in a public forum since November,” Morris said in a phone interview. “This was his first attempt and I felt it was important to attend, both to thank him and show this is not an attempt for political theater like he’s claimed, but for real dialogue.”

In a previous interview, Zeldin spokesperson Jennifer DiSiena said requesting a town hall with the purpose of disrupting it is wrong and wouldn’t be taken seriously.

“Congressman Zeldin will meet with any constituent interested in a productive, substantive exchange of ideas,” she said. “He is not interested in the type of political theater that this group of liberal obstructionists is interested in promoting.”

DiSiena was addressing Project Free Knowledge, a group who hosted a “mock” town hall in Port Jefferson in March which featured a Zeldin impersonator and little effort for an impartial discussion. However, Zeldin has referred to different forms of protests by constituents in his district similarly.

But Morris insisted this meeting was nothing like the mock town hall. Unlike the first two town halls held earlier that day, where she said attendees did not have an opportunity for audience interaction, she praised the Smithtown event for being well-organized, giving some audience members a chance to ask a question off the cuff, that hadn’t been screened.

“He’s our congressional representative, and the representative piece of that is the most important part of his title,” she said. “We wanted to give him an opportunity to let him know what our values are, what we’re looking for.”

Morris also said after watching the first two town halls on Facebook Live, she recognized sound bites Zeldin had used repeatedly that day.

“There was certainly some messaging,” she said. “Until he’s willing to have a real conversation with his constituents, I think that’s literally political theater.”

The event was hosted by Catholics for Freedom of Religion, and President Barbara Samuells said she thought the event went very well.

“People were able to do what the event was intended for,” she said in a phone interview. “They were able to come forward in an open environment and ask questions.”

Samuells said the environment was respectful and calm, unlike other town halls she has seen across the country, and a variety of different issues were discussed. She also commended Zeldin on his directness, saying he answered questions honestly.

Residents wrote on Zeldin’s Facebook page praising him for attending the meetings. Bob Voss, of Mastic, recognized the congressman’s effort.

“Thank you once again for making yourself available to your district constituents and the opportunity to express their concerns whether there is agreement or not on an issue,” he said. “Most important is the knowledge, skill and ability to listen as opposed to talk/yell which may have various motivations. In community forums like these and when [they are] done with mutual dignity and respect much can be accomplished other than shouting.”

But others agreed with Morris, saying the conversation was not as direct as they would have liked.

Nicolle Zeman, who attended the Riverhead town hall, wrote on a Facebook page called Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin, which is comprised of people urging Zeldin to hold town halls. Many are harsh critics of the congressman.

“There was lots of rambling, avoiding answering direct questions and self-serving monologues,” she said. Zeman asked Zeldin about President Donald Trump’s (R) possible tax plan to eliminate the head of household filing status, and said Zeldin instead “rambled,” on about tax reform in general, and when she pressed him on the specific elimination he couldn’t say definitively if he would support the elimination or not.

Zeldin was one of Trump’s first supporters on Long Island, however as of late he seems to be putting some space between himself and the commander-in-chief.

“He did say a couple of times that Trump needs to clean up the way he speaks, that he’s no longer a television host, he’s the president,” she said. “He’s trying to find ways to distance himself from Trump but he’s voting for the Trump agenda.”

Morris acknowledged Zeldin is committed to fighting cuts against the Environmental Protection Agency and funding to the Long Island Sound, which is the opposite stance of Trump, however he “stands strongly with him,” on immigration and financial issues.

FiveThirtyEight, a website focusing on poll analysis and politics, gave Zeldin a 96 percent score for how often he votes in line with the president’s position on house bills. But in the most recent house bill to repeal an FCC rule stopping internet service providers from sharing data of customer’s activities, Zeldin voted no — the opposite of Trump’s position. The bill had almost unanimous Republican support.

Morris also said Zeldin’s staff was helpful after the events, approaching them and getting their contact information to keep them informed.

“They asked us if we would stop protesting, we used the hashtag #WhereIsZeldin, and they said we found him here, there’s no more reason to use it,” Morris said. “But I told them we wouldn’t stop after a one hour moment.”

After the town halls Zeldin said he enjoyed meeting with the people of his district that day.

“It was such a pleasure to meet with so many great constituents at today’s town halls to hear concerns and answer questions,” he said. “At the community forums, we were able to cover a breadth of very important issues, including health care, the environment, foreign policy, economic growth, several local issues, and so much more. I am willing to work with absolutely anyone to move our country forward, no matter what your ideological background is, and I welcome any opportunity to engage in substantive, productive dialogue.”

Lee Zeldin, center, announces his support of two House bills to help addicts and prevent others from using drugs. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

This past weekend 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) hosted town hall events in Riverhead, Farmingville and Smithtown. Ordinarily, an elected official meeting face to face with constituents shouldn’t be breaking news. When it comes to Zeldin, however, holding these town halls is noteworthy because of how hard some voters pleaded with him in the past few months to participate in an open forum as he did April 23.

Before these, he held a phone town hall, which left several constituents upset with the restricting nature of the conversation. Only a handful of questions could be asked, and were submitted prior to the phone call, with thousands listening in. And, of course, there was no face time.

We commend Zeldin for listening to the concerns of the people who elected him as their representative all day Sunday, knowing he would face many angry residents.

Firsthand accounts of the three meetings returned a mixed bag of reviews. Many were happy to have had the chance to hear Zeldin speak about issues important to them, though others were still unsatisfied because questions for some of the meetings were screened ahead of time and selected by moderators.

Holding three town halls was a great step by a congressman who is obviously liked in his district. Nearly 60 percent of the district selected Zeldin on Election Day. He proved he is capable of standing in front of a partially hostile crowd and contributing to a productive dialogue, while the 40 percent of voters who didn’t select him and have been behaving like “liberal obstructionists,” as Zeldin has dubbed them, proved they’re capable of participating in a civilized conversation completely devoid of danger to the congressman.

This was a first step by both sides, but more work is clearly left to be done before midterm elections in November 2018. Let’s keep the ball rolling and keep the dialogue open.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. File photo by Kevin Redding

The quality of Long Island waters has been on the mind of elected officials from all levels of government recently, and a representative from the federal government has joined the fray, calling for more funding for two Environmental Protection Agency programs.

“There’s much we can do to improve water quality in the Long Island Sound and National Estuary and I’ll continue working in congress to ensure our waterways are preserved for generations to come,” U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirely) said during a press conference March 13.

Southold Town Council members and residents from the 1st Congressional District gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in Mattituck as Zeldin called on the federal government to fully fund at least $10 million to the Long Island Sound Study and $26.5 million to the National Estuary Program in its upcoming appropriations process at the end of April, and also to support the passage of the Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act. He said funding for the two EPA programs is essential to address urgent and challenging issues that threaten the ecological and economic well-being of Long Island’s coastal areas, such as nitrogen, harmful algae blooms and flooding or wetland loss.

East Beach in Port Jefferson is on the Long Island Sound. File photo by Elana Glowatz

“Over the years, water quality around Long Island has suffered from pollution, overdevelopment and other negative impacts…and I’m calling on my colleagues to make sure these programs are fully supported and funded, and certainly not eliminated,” Zeldin said, highlighting the significant impacts each of the programs have had on the region.

The Long Island Sound is one of our natural treasures, the congressman said, and is a precious feature of the life, culture and economy of more than 9 million people living in the coastal communities around it. He voiced his admiration of the Long Island Sound Study for its dedication to water quality and wetlands restoration in addition to local conservation projects to restore beaches and protect wildlife.

He called the National Estuary Program “an important EPA wetlands protection program for 28 estuaries in the U.S.,” two of which being Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay. The program was established by the Clean Water Act in 1987 to provide grants to states where nationally significant estuaries are threatened.

Zeldin said he will continue to work alongside Democrats and Republicans in the region to secure the funding as he did to stop President Barack Obama’s (D) proposed 22 percent cut to the Long Island Sound Study in 20

The Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act, he said, was introduced at the last congress by himself and former 3rd District U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and will propose tens-of-millions of dollars in funding per year through 2020 for a water quality and shore restoration program. Zeldin plans to reintroduce the bill during this congressional session.

Setauket Harbor Task Force Trustee George Hoffman voiced support for Zeldin and his call for funding to protect local waters.

“With Congressman Zeldin’s strong advocacy and leadership, the Long Island Sound Study, a consortium of federal, state and environmental organizations has turned the corner on cleaning up the water in LI Sound and its harbors and bays.”

—George Hoffman

“With Congressman Zeldin’s strong advocacy and leadership, the Long Island Sound Study, a consortium of federal, state and environmental organizations has turned the corner on cleaning up the water in LI Sound and its harbors and bays,” he said. “Federal funding is critical to survival of this important and productive estuary.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell spoke briefly in response to Zeldin’s longtime presence in the area.

“The people of the East End and people of the first congress have made it clear time and time again that the environment is a top priority and the congressman has been a zealous advocate on behalf of us, on behalf of the environment, and on behalf of our natural resources,” Russell said. “Time and time again, he’s disproved the myth that Republicans aren’t friends of the environment…Republicans are and he is.”

Councilman Bob Ghosio took to the podium to speak about the importance of the proposed funding.

“Talking about nitrogen in the bays and creeks and knowing the Long Island Sound and estuaries [here], particularly in Southold are what drives our economy, our tourism, our jobs and our recreation, just tells me how important this is,” Ghosio said. “Getting the funds to keep this area healthy for the future for my kids, my grandkids and generations thereafter is very important to us.”

When asked by a resident what he thinks of some of his Republican colleagues advancing toward eliminating EPA entirely, Zeldin reminded those in attendance he voted against a 17 percent cut to the EPA last year.

“There are 535 members of congress, all with very different ideologies and backgrounds and you get a whole lot of diversity on these issues and so I have a lot of colleagues who would support completely eliminating the EPA altogether,” Zeldin said. “But again, I voted against the 17 percent cut so to ask me how I feel about a 100 percent cut, there’s some precedent in it.”

Lee Zeldin meets with constituents in East Patchogue. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding and Alex Petroski

Hundreds of concerned constituents on both sides of the aisle gathered inside the Hagerman Fire Department in East Patchogue March 3, set up at scattered round tables, waiting to hear their names called to meet with U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).

In another room, the congressman was holding mobile office hours and meeting with five to six people at a time, grouped according to the topics they wanted to discuss, to hear the issues of the people he represents, which ranged from health care and what’s to come of the Affordable Care Act, abortion and the congressman’s stance to defund Planned Parenthood, immigration, the environment, and tax reform.

Constituent questions are sorted for Lee Zeldin’s mobile office hours. Photo by Kevin Redding

Despite demands from various local groups to host an in-person town hall in recent weeks, Zeldin has committed to these individualized and small-group meetings to avoid what he’s called the “liberal obstruction” of town halls that have taken place around the United States.

Tehmina Tirmizi, a student at Stony Brook University, said she hoped to talk to Zeldin about the rhetoric of President Donald Trump (R) and his administration, which, she feels, supports bigotry and fear of minorities.

“[They] incite hatred, anger, stress, depression and a lot of people have been hurt and are hurting inside and they should be keeping the peace,” she said. “They can’t just say something, have people react to it and then go and hide somewhere. I’d love to see Zeldin make a statement and come out against [the rhetoric] and he has yet to do that.”

Wading River resident Jim Lupis was there on behalf of a pro-life group to encourage Zeldin to defund Planned Parenthood.

“Taxpayer’s money shouldn’t be used to perform abortions, and murdering innocent children should be totally illegal,” Lupis said. “Zeldin has a strong voting record against Planned Parenthood and I want to speak to him about staying the course and defunding such an evil thing.”

Eastport resident Penny Mintz said, on top of being concerned about Citizens United and “the takeover of the wholesale purchase of government by big corporations,” she wanted to talk about the elimination of consumer protections, environment and healthcare.

“I have no hope of actually speaking to him … I’m only here so that he knows there are all these people who care enough and are watching him, and he can’t abandon us for corporate interests.”

—Penny Mintz

“I have no hope of actually speaking to him … I’m only here so that he knows there are all these people who care enough and are watching him, and he can’t abandon us for corporate interests,” Mintz said. “I wish he would back down from Trump and the policies the president is imposing.”

Just a few tables away, Hampton Bays resident Mark Raschke said he wanted to meet Zeldin, give him support, tell him he voted for him, and let him know he liked the way he supported Trump. Port Jefferson Station resident and military veteran Ed Bednarek wants to know where his congressman feels the country is going to go under the Trump administration, and when “the liberals are going to stop fighting and start getting on board and work with us as a team,” also calling for veterans to take priority over immigrants.

Ira Silverberg, of Bellport, said he wanted to challenge the congressman on a voting record that is “not protecting the environment of Long Island as well as he says it is.”

When asked how he felt about the mobile office hours in comparison to an in-person town hall meeting, Silverberg said “this format has disenfranchised 85 percent of the people who have shown up and is too controlling and inadequate to deal with the needs of the diverse, concerned community.”

For Cindy Morris, from Stony Brook, who wished to speak with Zeldin about the civil liberties she felt had been under attack as of late, she said the mobile office hours format “does not work.”

“We are all just talking amongst ourselves … [Zeldin’s] staff isn’t even circulating and coming out to talk to us,” Morris said. “I look at this room and I see diversity, so this is an opportunity for him to really meet with his constituency and not just meet with the people who pay for him to win elections. We aren’t protesters, we’re passionate citizens.”

Anna Hayward, a Stony Brook University professor, echoed Morris’s feelings.

“In a town hall format, he could hear our issues but we can also hear other people’s issues…we’re a very respectful, educated, and well-mannered community and I don’t think he needs to worry about people screaming at him and attacking him,” she said.

Zeldin supporters line the street waiting for a chance to speak to the congressman. Photo by Kevin Redding

Conversely, Nancy Beltran of Holtsville stands by Zeldin’s decision to not hold such a public forum.

“There’s no risk of chanting and screaming and bullying in a group setting so it avoids all of that, he’s doing the right thing by trying to hear the people without all that noise,” Beltran said.

Outside the fire department, dozens of people — supporters of Zeldin on one side holding up signs that read “Thank You Lee Zeldin for doing what we elected you to do” and opponents of Zeldin on the other with signs that read “Lee Let’s Talk” — stood to voice their concerns.

“I’m very passionate about supporting Lee Zeldin…he’s a stand up guy, he listens to people, educates himself and is not just a go-with-the-political-winds [leader],” Patchogue resident Heather Martwello said.

Mary Casey, who stood in opposition of Zeldin, questioned his moral courage in not wanting to hold a town hall meeting.

“His reported reason is that it just descends into screaming and yelling and it’s useless but I think it’s because he wants to maintain that aura of being right and if you have people screaming at you, you can’t be in control,” she said.

Zeldin’s aversion to holding a traditional in-person town hall has left many in his district angered, despite mobile office hours and an hour-long telephone town hall in February.

A group called Project Free Knowledge hosted an event called The People’s Town Hall March 4 in at the Performing Arts Studio in Port Jefferson, which featured a Zeldin impersonator, repeated potshots at the congressman and a foil called The People’s Candidate. The show was meant to serve as political satire, though one of the organizers behind the production said the group intended to deliver a serious message through the performance.

“… [Lee Zeldin] needs to prescreen people’s questions, he’s incredibly controlling about the conditions in which it happens, and it’s clear he doesn’t want a general town hall with community moderators because he’s not actually prepared to stand accountable for the things that he’s doing.”

—Anna Sitzmann

Anna Sitzmann, a member of the Project Free Knowledge team and a participant in the performance, said the group’s mission was to be both informative to those in attendance while also being critical of Zeldin.

Sitzmann said this was the first time the group has branched out into “political theater,” a phrase she said she’s often heard Zeldin use to describe activist demonstrations. She added the group met with Zeldin about three weeks ago and asked him to host a community-moderated, live town hall, which he declined. Sitzmann said that’s when the group decided to put on their own town hall.

“Zeldin has certainly met with constituents personally, but as we made reference to, he won’t do it for more than half an hour, he needs to prescreen people’s questions, he’s incredibly controlling about the conditions in which it happens, and it’s clear he doesn’t want a general town hall with community moderators because he’s not actually prepared to stand accountable for the things that he’s doing,” Sitzmann said in an interview after the performance. She added Zeldin was invited to attend the event but she received an “unbelievably disrespectful response.”

A spokeswoman for the congressman, Jennifer DiSiena, responded to Sitzmann’s claim in an email, saying she’s not sure what Sitzmann was referring to and called the performance “unbelievably disrespectful.” DiSiena took issue with much of the content of the show.

“Congressman Zeldin will meet with any constituent interested in a productive, substantive exchange of ideas,” she said. “He has even met with the protesters involved in setting up that Mock Town Hall. He is not interested in the type of political theater that this group of liberal obstructionists is interested in promoting. The country faces real challenges and Zeldin will remain focused on working across the aisle to constructively find solutions. Requesting a town hall for the purpose of disrupting the town hall without any sense of decorum or decency is wrong and will not be taken seriously.”

Sitzmann said she’s not concerned about the possibility of the performance adding to an already heated political discourse, which seems to be swallowing whole the district and country alike.

“If I’m stoking the flames of Zeldin’s fire, fine,” she said. “I admit that a lot of people that voted for Lee Zeldin or voted for Donald Trump were upset about things that they ought to have been upset about, but I think the Republican party and especially President Trump have harnessed that anger and misdirected it towards things that don’t deserve the blame, such as minorities and global cooperation, while as a way of hiding the real cause of the problem, which is the kind of economic advantage seeking that both of them partake in.”

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