By Susan Perretti
In the end, my visit to the campaign kickoff for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in Smithtown June 28 was more about the words I never got to say than the few I did utter before I was threatened with arrest if I didn’t leave the premises at once.
Zeldin was not yet on the stage when a man in a suit told me I had to go. “Why?” I asked. He leaned in and spoke into my ear: “If you don’t go now you will be arrested.” Why? I asked again. Trespassing. Trespassing? Zeldin, my congressman, invited me, and I had registered. After finding my name on a list, a man had waved me into the Elks Lodge. Three like-minded friends didn’t even get in.
I went because there were some things I wanted to say to Zeldin. Not in a mean, accusing way. I try not to enter conversations them versus us, Republicans versus Democrats, right versus left. It doesn’t solve anyone’s problems.
As a reporter for a Long Island weekly, I often covered election campaigns. I’ve heard folks on both sides of the aisle verbally abuse their opponents. But at the Zeldin soirée, there was more vitriol and hate rhetoric than I’d ever encountered, on the job or as a private citizen. It got to me. I felt sick over it.
A monsignor was asking God to bless Zeldin, and he mentioned justice and welcoming the stranger. For a moment, I didn’t feel quite so alone. Compassion, unity, working for peace. As a Christian, I’d grown up hearing those words, and I’m still a believer. But when Sebastian Gorka took to the stage, there were rousing, Trump rally-like chants of “Build the Wall! Build the Wall!” And this was less than 20 miles from my home. I looked around the room, but the monsignor had cut out. I was on my own.
Gorka had the crowd in a near frenzy when I found myself shouting: “But we are all Americans.” To my surprise, a few people nodded in agreement. It was during Sean Spicer’s speech that I lost it. “Enough of the hate.” I yelled. “Enough is enough.” I went on in that vein for maybe a minute. Nearby Zeldin supporters told me to shut up. For a moment, remembering the way Trump had handled protesters, I worried I would be toppled. Then the man in the suit tapped me and said I had to get out. Pleading for an end to the demonizing would not be tolerated.
I never got to see Zeldin and ask him the questions I had come with. Questions about crying children being snatched from the arms of asylum-seeking parents. Another case of gun violence that day at a Maryland newspaper and our nation’s grotesquely lenient gun laws. I wanted to ask what will become of the poor, elderly and disabled, like my 90-year-old, Medicaid-dependent mother, if more social services programs get axed — or our water and air if the Environmental Protection Agency continues to be dismantled. But mostly I wanted to urge him to follow his heart, even if that means casting votes that might anger the president, the NRA and his other big-money donors.
I was going to say, “Mr. Zeldin, it’s not too late to be your own man,” but I didn’t have the chance.
One of the five men who escorted me out asked why I didn’t just go to Zeldin’s office. I told him I had, but that I was met by two police officers and a gruff aide who directed me to write my concerns on a prepared form. And, I told my escort, Zeldin doesn’t hold town hall meetings like his predecessors did. Questions are accepted ahead of time only and are carefully screened. They’ve never picked mine. More words I meant to say.
Congressman Zeldin’s campaign has been invited to write a reply.