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U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin tours Elsie Owens Health Center in Coram before a press conference in which he called on Congress to reauthorize CHIP. Photo from Zeldin's office

By Alex Petroski

Political gridlock is nothing new in Washington, but if an agreement on a federal funding bill isn’t reached by Jan. 19, this time children’s health will be at risk.

In September, the Children’s Health Insurance Program expired, and Congress passed a short-term funding bill just before Christmas to keep the federal government funded through this Friday. The program, also known as CHIP, is a service that provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Originally enacted in 1997, CHIP provides matching funds to states for health insurance to families with children. It was slated to run for 10 years, but has since been reauthorized on several occasions since 2007. In 2016, almost 9 million children were enrolled in the program, according to Medicaid.gov. The program covers routine check-ups; immunizations; doctor visits; prescriptions; dental and vision care; and emergency services for enrollees. In November, the House passed a five-year reauthorization bill to keep the program running, but it never reached the Senate floor.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) urged lawmakers to pass a bill reauthorizing funding for the program, which also provides funding for community health centers, during a press conference Jan. 12 at Elsie Owens Health Center in Coram. A long-term bill will need to be passed to keep services like CHIP running for the remainder of 2018.

“These essential programs provide millions of children, veterans and individuals with the healthcare services they need,” Zeldin said. “In New York alone, CHIP provides health insurance for 300,000 New York children, while nearly 2 million New Yorkers rely on Community Health Centers for their health care services. On behalf of the millions of New Yorkers who rely on CHIP and Community Health Centers, we must reach across the aisle and work together to preserve these vital programs.”

Although more political debates will likely ensue on other issues pursuant to funding the government through the end of the year, Zeldin said he doesn’t expect reauthorization of CHIP to be used for bargaining by either political party.

“I do not expect to see a partial shutdown after next Friday, so everyone anticipates the funding to continue, but this also presents an opportunity to add the reauthorization language into the next funding bill,” Zeldin said in an interview after the event. “It’s two parts that have been running on different tracks. However, I believe that there is an opportunity here to add the reauthorization language to get it through the House, through the Senate, signed by the President — and reauthorization done.”

New York’s U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) have each stressed the importance of renewing CHIP as part of larger federal funding discussions.

“We have two weeks to negotiate a budget deal that must also address a host of other items, #ExtendCHIP, community health centers, disaster aid, and of course, the #Dreamers,” Schumer said in a Jan. 3 tweet.

HRH Care Community Health President and Chief Executive Officer Anne Kauffman Nolon, Elsie Owens Health Center Medical Director Nadia Arif and Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center President and CEO Richard Margulis were among the healthcare professionals in attendance who applauded Zeldin’s calls for funding.

“Not extending the funding for these vital programs could have a devastating effect on both our population, and BMHMC, which also faces potential cuts as a Disproportionate Share Hospital,” Margulis said.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, five-year reauthorization of CHIP would cost $800 million over a 10-year period.

Stony Brook University professor Patrice Nganang was released Dec. 27 after being detained in Cameroon for three weeks. Photo from the Free Patrice Nganang Facebook page

A writer, poet and professor is enjoying freedom once again.

Cameroon police detained Patrice Nganang, professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at Stony Brook University, as he was leaving the country for Zimbabwe at Douala International Airport early in December. The detainment came after the Cameroonian-native and United States citizen published an article on the website Jeune Afrique. In the piece in question, the professor was critical of Cameroon President Paul Biya’s administration’s approach to the ongoing instability in Anglophone regions of Cameroon. Many have criticized the government’s response to citizen’s protests regarding marginalization in the regions

Robert Harvey, a distinguished professor at SBU, said Nganang’s wife Nyasha notified him Dec. 27 of her husband’s hearing suddenly being changed from Jan. 19 to the morning of the 27th and that he was released and all charges dropped.

“No doubt all the pressure mobilized from various sectors helped,” Harvey said.

Dibussi Tande, a friend of Nganang’s for 10 years and one of the administrators of the Facebook page, Free Patrice Nganang, which has gained more than 2,200 followers, echoed Harvey’s sentiments.

“It is a feeling of relief and pride in the amazing work done by a global team of human rights activists, journalists, civil society organizations, friends, family, etc., to bring pressure to bear on the government of Cameroon to set him free,” Tande said.

In a phone interview after his release, Nganang agreed that the pressure from outside of Cameroon, especially from the United States, played a part in his being set free earlier and being treated well while in prison. He even was given meals from outside of the jail and didn’t have to eat prison food.

“The pressure not only led to my early release, it was also such that it gave me a better condition in jail so it made it possible for me to have a more humane condition,” Nganang said.

Among the charges Nganang faced were making a death threat against the president; forgery and use of forgery, due to the professor having a Cameroonian passport despite being a U.S. citizen, as the country does not recognize dual citizenship; and illegal immigration due to not having the proper papers as a U.S. citizen.

Dedicated to writing about the conditions in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, Nganang said he was in the country for two weeks interviewing people. He said those in the western and English-speaking region of Cameroon must adhere to a 6 p.m. curfew, and the border to Nigeria is locked. He feels as a writer it’s his job to travel to the country and let people know what is going on there.

He said he always understood he might be arrested one day, “because of the kind of work I do. I’m very critical, I’m outspoken, I write editorials, etc. I’ve expressed my opinions freely for 20, 30 years. So I have always been prepared to face justice at a certain point because Cameroon is obviously a tyranny.”

According to a statement from a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the congressman’s office had been in contact with the U.S. Department of State, Nganang’s family and Stony Brook University administrators during the professor’s detainment.

“In the face of an increasingly oppressive government, Professor Nganang has worked tirelessly for a better future for his country and family,” Zeldin said. “As Professor Nganang fights for the freedom of all Cameroonians, we fought for his. I look forward to his safe return home to his loved ones and the Stony Brook University community.”

Nganang is on leave from the university this academic year to attend to family business in Zimbabwe and to pursue a fellowship at Princeton University in the spring. During Nganang’s detainment, through a U.S. embassy representative, he sent a message to Harvey asking him to let his former students know that he hadn’t forgotten about their letters of recommendation.

Nganang said when he arrived at the airport in Washington D.C., he was greeted by a crowd of people, and he was given a ride home to Hopewell, New Jersey. The professor said he was grateful for the help he received from elected officials and representatives of the U. S. Embassy, and the support of his family, friends and neighbors. When he arrived home, he found friends at his house shoveling the driveway and filling his refrigerator.

“Coming out of jail after four weeks of a harsh ordeal and facing such an outpouring of love — my phone hasn’t stopped ringing since then because all my neighbors are concerned — guess what, it made a difference,” Nganang said.

Updated to include quotes from Patrice Nganang Jan. 4. 

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, center, and representatives from community groups, who work to improve the Long Island Sound, attend a press conference Dec. 4 announcing the distribution of $2.04 million in grant funds. Photo by Kevin Redding

The future of Long Island Sound is in very capable, and now well funded, hands.

Federal and state officials gathered Dec. 4 in East Setauket to officially announce $2.04 million in grants to support 31 environmental projects by local governments and community groups mostly in New York State and Connecticut actively working to restore the health and ecosystem of Long Island Sound. Of the 15 New York-based projects — totaling $1.05 million in grants — nine of them are taking place across Long Island, including Salonga Wetland Advocates Network in Fort Salonga and Citizens Campaign Fund for the Environment in Huntington, Smithtown and Riverhead. 

This year’s recipients of the Long Island Sound Futures Fund — a collaborative effort between the Environmental Protection Agency and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation  — were encouraged by a panel of guest speakers to continue efforts to monitor and improve water quality; upgrade on site septic systems for homeowners; protect vital habitats throughout the watershed; and engage other residents to protect the 110-mile estuary.

“This fund is supporting and celebrating real-life solutions — grassroots-based solutions — that make a difference in our quality of life, in our quality of environment and the overall fabric of our community,” said Peter Lopez, the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to a room of grant recipients at the Childs Mansion on Shore Drive in East Setauket, overlooking the Sound. “We have this amazing resource in our backyard and we have to support it.”

“It’s your spirit and hard work that got us to this point. It’s important we’re making our impact right now.”

— Lee Zeldin

The Sound, which was designated an estuary of national significance in the 1980s, supports an estimated 81,000 jobs and activities surrounding it such as boating, fishing and recreational tourism, which generates around $9 billion a year for the region.

Lopez stressed that community involvement is the key to its perseverance in the future. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who has long fought for federal funding and support for the estuary, was in full agreement.

“Since I got to Congress at the beginning of 2015, I’ve been watching all of you and your advocacy is why we’re here today,” Zeldin said.

The congressman addressed members of the crowd whose phone calls, emails, social media blasts and trips to Washington, D.C., he said served to mobilize elected officials around the importance of the Sound and its watershed and boost the funding of the Long Island Sound program to $8 million in May.

“I just want to say a huge thank you for what you do,” he said. “It’s your spirit and hard work that got us to this point. It’s important we’re making our impact right now. What will be our legacy in these years to ensure the water quality, quality of life, economy and environment of Long Island Sound is preserved and protected? Because of all of you, the legacy will be that in 2017, we all gathered to celebrate more than doubling the funding for [Long Island Sound].”

The LISFF was started in 2005 by the Long Island Sound Study and has since invested $17 million in 380 projects, giving way to the opening of 157 miles of rivers and streams for fish passage and restoring more than 1,000 acres of critical habitat, according to Amanda Bassow, the Northeast region director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

This year’s grants will reach more than 870,000 residents through environmental and conservation education programs, and will be matched by $3.3 million from its recipients. In New York, the $1.05 million in grant funds will be matched with $2.58 million from the grantees, resulting in $3.63 million in community conservation.

One of the grantees, Mike Kaufman of Phillips Mill Pond Dam fish passage project in Smithtown, plans to restore the native migratory fish runs from Long Island Sound to the Nissequogue River for the first time in 300 years.

“This is the final piece of the puzzle,” Kaufman said of the grant. “It’s an incredible, historic opportunity. We’re reversing 300 years of habitat destruction and these grants enable us to engineer the restoration.”

U.S. Reps. Peter King, Lee Zeldin and Tom Suozzi voice bipartisan opposition to the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Nov. 28. Photo by Alex Petroski

Components of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a federal tax reform bill passed by the House of Representatives in November and currently before the U.S. Senate, has achieved the seemingly impossible in finding common ground for Republicans and Democrats.

Members of Long Island’s congressional delegation from both political parties stood in front of the Internal Revenue Service building in Hauppauge Nov. 28 alongside business owners, representatives from local chambers of commerce, and town and county elected officials to deliver a clear and unified message: As currently constituted, both the House and Senate versions of the bill would harm Long Islanders.

“I view it as a geographic redistribution of wealth to propose eliminating [state and local tax deductions],” 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said during the press conference, pointing to the elimination of the SALT deduction as a key sticking point in the bill. “You’re proposing to take more money from a place like New York in order to pay for deeper tax cuts elsewhere.”

“You’re proposing to take more money from a place like New York in order to pay for deeper tax cuts elsewhere.”

— Lee Zeldin

The SALT deduction, which was enacted 100 years ago, is a provision that in the past, through federal tax returns, gave a portion of tax dollars back to individuals in higher income and property tax states like New York, New Jersey and California to avoid double taxation. The deduction was eliminated in the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which the body passed Nov. 16, for individuals’ income taxes, and limited property tax deductions to $10,000. The Senate’s version of the bill, which has not been voted on yet, completely eliminates all SALT deductions. Both the House and Senate versions double the (married filing jointly) standard deduction from $12,000 to $24,000. The bill has been touted by President Donald Trump (R) and other members of Republican leadership as a massive tax cut for middle-class families.

The 2nd District U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and 3rd District U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) also attended the press conference to rally support for changes to the bill. Zeldin and King were among 13 Republicans in the House to vote “no” on the bill, with 227 voting to pass it. None of the House Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

“There are some good aspects in both the House bill and the Senate bill,” Zeldin said. “Voters last November, when they went to the polls looking for that tax relief for them, for their families, for their community … this is not the tax relief that they had in mind. We may be upsetting a lot of people in our own party back in Washington right now, but we are not elected to be their congressmen.”

King echoed Zeldin’s position on both versions of the bill, calling the position between the three representatives a “united front.”

“I strongly favor tax cuts across the board,” King said. “I believe they are necessary, but this bill, both the House version and the Senate bill, I am opposed to.”

“We’re not asking for any special benefit, because we’ve gotten a raw deal over the years as far as federal distribution of revenues, but don’t add to that.”

— Peter King

King reiterated that his biggest issue with the bills is the elimination of the SALT deduction.

“This is inequitable, it’s unjust and it’s wrong,” King said. “Long Island is really the main victim of this tax bill. We’re not asking for any special benefit, because we’ve gotten a raw deal over the years as far as federal distribution of revenues, but don’t add to that. Don’t make it worse.”

King, who has been a supporter of Trump and his agenda, also took the opportunity to send a message to the White House.

“My district twice voted for Barack Obama by four points and by five points,” King said. “Donald Trump carried [New York’s 2nd Congressional District] by nine points. That was a 14-point turnaround. The people of Long Island didn’t make that turnaround so the Trump administration could raise their taxes so the rest of the country could get a tax break.”

Suozzi, the lone congressional Democrat at the event, also preached unity on tax reform as it pertains to Long Islanders.

“This would be a punch in the gut to everybody on Long Island if this bill were to pass either in the House form or the Senate form,” he said. Suozzi added that he thought it took guts for Zeldin and King to be among the 13 “no” votes among Republicans in the House. “We’re united 100 percent in recognizing eliminating the state and local tax deduction would be devastating to our constituents.”

New York’s income tax rate is among the highest in America, with members of the top tax bracket paying 8.82 percent in 2017. On average, the state income tax deduction for New Yorkers making between $50,000 and $200,000 in annual income for the 2015 tax year was between $4,049 and $9,330. The same group of earners deducted on average between $5,869 and $8,158 over the same time period in state and local real estate taxes. The 2015 tax year is latest year with available data according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, an organization that provides independent analysis of tax policy.

Participants of a protest against the federal tax bill outside of Renaissance Technologies in Setauket Nov. 29. Photo by Kevin Redding

Representatives from local organizations stood outside Renaissance Technologies in East Setauket Nov. 29 to voice their opposition to the bill. Until recently, Robert Mercer was the chief executive officer of the hedge fund, though he is known nationally for his contributions to conservative and right-wing political campaigns.

“It’s clear that there are a lot of changes that are coming and for middle-class folks like us, they’re not going to be good changes,” said Peter Verdon a Suffolk County resident who was present at the protest. “The system is clearly out of whack, tilted towards the extremely wealthy and it’s continuing in that direction and enough’s enough. We can’t allow that to continue to happen.”

Bill Crump, a Lindenhurst resident and member of the Long Island Progressive Coalition political activist group also attended.

“We’re going to have a $1.5 trillion deficit and they’re going to cut our Medicare and our benefits,” he said. “It’s coming out of our pockets. Trump claims he’s going to give a tax cut. Maybe he’s going to give you a quarter while he reaches in and takes your wallet.”

This post was updated Nov. 29 to correct the income tax and mortgage tax deduction amounts under the two bills, and to include information about a Nov. 29 protest in Setauket. Additional reporting contributed by Kevin Redding.

Village Mayor Margot Garant said residents of Port Jefferson Village would get “whacked” by the elimination of the SALT deduction in the federal tax reform bill. File photo by Alex Petroski

Governmental leaders from virtually all levels in New York have come out in opposition to the federal tax reform bill, and now the Port Jefferson Village board can be added to the list.

The village passed a resolution at its Nov. 20 board meeting “expressing its strong opposition to any federal tax reform legislation that would eliminate or limit access to the state and local tax deduction.” The SALT deduction, which was enacted about 100 years ago, is a provision that in the past, through federal tax returns, gave a portion of tax dollars back to individuals in higher income and property tax states like New York, New Jersey and California to avoid “double taxation.” The deduction was eliminated in the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which the body passed Nov. 16, for individuals’ income taxes, and limited property tax deductions to $10,000. The Senate’s version of the bill, which has not been voted on yet, completely eliminates all SALT deductions. Both the House and Senate versions double the (married filing jointly) standard deduction from $12,000 to $24,000. The bill has been touted by President Donald Trump (R) and other members of Republican leadership as a massive tax cut for middle class families.

“We’re going to get whacked,” Village Mayor Margot Garant said of the bill during the board meeting.

New York’s income tax rate is among the highest in America, with members of the top tax bracket paying 8.82 percent in 2017. On average, the state income tax deduction for New Yorkers making between $50,000 and $200,000 in annual income for the 2015 tax year was between $4,049 and $9,330. The same group of earners deducted on average between $5,869 and $8,158 over the same time period in state and local real estate taxes. The 2015 tax year is latest year with available data according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, an organization that provides independent analysis of tax policy.

“New York residents already send $41 billion more to the federal treasury than the federal government returns to New York,” the village resolution reads. “The state and local tax deduction is a fundamental principle of federalism and without it our residents would be faced with double taxation, as they would be forced to pay federal income taxes on the taxes they must pay to state and local governments.”

Garant joined New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), New York’s U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D), U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), and U.S. Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Peter King (R-Seaford) in opposing the bill. Zeldin and King were among 13 Republicans in the House to vote “no” on the bill, with 227 voting to pass it.

“I view the elimination of the SALT deduction as a geographic redistribution of wealth, picking winners and losers,” Zeldin said in a statement. “The proposal taxes additional funds from a state like New York in order to pay for deeper tax cuts elsewhere. For anyone who incorrectly argues that the rest of the country subsidizes our state, I would point out that New York is a net contributor to the federal coffers with regards to both tax policy and spending policy and that is even with the SALT deduction.”

According to www.censusreporter.org, about 62 percent of Port Jefferson Village residents earn between $50,000 and $200,000 in annual salary.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill shortly after Thanksgiving.

This post was updated Nov. 29 to correct the income tax and mortgage tax deduction amounts under the two bills.

Last year's presidential election motivated Shoshana Hershkowitz to become more politically active and encourage others to do the same. Photo from Shoshana Hershkowitz

The 2016 presidential election campaign motivated a South Setauket mother of two young children to become more politically active and teach others how to do the same.

Shoshana Hershkowitz, a registered Democrat who considers herself a Progressive, has become a familiar face at local political rallies while balancing motherhood and teaching. In January she founded the Facebook group Suffolk Progressives — a page with nearly 1,000 followers — in order to engage others in political conversations and educate them on how to become more active in government. The page includes discussions and videos viewable to those interested in learning what they can do to become more civically engaged, even if they’re busy. 

Hershkowitz, a lecturer at Stony Brook University and conductor of the Stony Brook Chorale, said she credits her Israeli parents for her passion. She said her family was able to discuss politics, even with those who disagreed with them, without the discussions leading to arguments.

“I grew up at the dinner table talking about [politics] so that is something I always felt comfortable with and something we’re supposed to do,” she said.

Hershkowitz at a recent political rally. Photo from Shoshana Hershkowitz

Before her children were born, she volunteered for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and knocked on doors, including in Pennsylvania, encouraging others to vote for him. After she gave birth to her oldest child, she said she didn’t have as much time to be as entrenched in politics as she would have liked. With the little time she had, she campaigned for local candidates and occasionally wrote a political blog, called Jew Kids on the Block.

“This election kind of re-galvanized me, I think which is true of so many people, and then it just kind of took off from there,” Hershkowitz said. “It started as a coping mechanism for me, and then it just sort of turned into what I thought would be an interesting opportunity to teach other people how to engage in political activism in a way that fits their lifestyle.”

She said when she was first trying to figure out how to make her voice heard, she started making calls to local members of congress including U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). Zeldin has referred to the people who stake out his Patchogue office as “liberal obstructionists” in the past.

“I can make a difference at home in my pajamas,” she said.

Hershkowitz said she is also a big believer in writing letters to newspapers, something she had been doing before President Donald Trump (R) ran for office. She even helped to conduct a workshop about writing letters at U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi’s (D-Glen Cove) office.

“Now I realize that it’s a really important vehicle,” she said. “It changes the narrative in your community in a way that I think social media doesn’t. You can certainly talk to people you agree or disagree with on social media, but I still think that the newspaper has an outreach that social media does not at this point.”

More than a few of Hershkowitz’s letters have appeared in this newspaper.

She said she began taking her children to rallies during the last year, which has enabled her to become even more active on the local political scene. Her children have joined her at the January Women’s March on Washington in Port Jefferson Station, the March for Science at Stony Brook University and protests in front of Zeldin’s office.

Hershkowitz said she makes sure a rally will be a peaceful and safe one before bringing her children. She said she didn’t take them to a vigil in Port Jefferson the day after the Charlottesville protests, because she said she didn’t have the words to explain to them what happened in Virginia. She said she also limits their exposure to broadcast news.

“They see me call congress, they see me do all these things, and I will explain why I’m doing it, but I try to make sure their consumption of media is really limited in this time,” she said. “It’s hard to contextualize that for such young kids.”

The South Setauket resident balances political activism with motherhood and work as an instructor and chorale director. Photo from Shoshana Hershkowitz

Hershkowitz said the Suffolk Progressives Facebook page began as like-minded friends sharing thoughts on various topics. Among those friends is Stefanie Werner, who she met last year at a child’s birthday party.

“As someone who is also a strong supporter of progressivism and democratic values, it was amazing to form an instant kinship with a person who held the same beliefs and desires for change,” Werner said. “Shoshana is a powerhouse of energy and exuberance, resolving to revolutionize our political process and those who represent us.”

Cindy Morris, the Democratic candidate for Brookhaven Town Clerk, met Hershkowitz at a Democratic committee event for activists. Morris said Hershkowitz has made the grassroots efforts available to people with all levels of experience with her work that  goes beyond marches and rallies. One example is Hershkowitz posting a video on Facebook explaining how to call local legislators and strategies once they’re on the phone.

“She has made politics less intimidating and more inspiring, galvanizing and easier to participate in than ever before,” Morris said.

Hershkowitz also has met many local lawmakers in her travels, including Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant. The mayor described Hershkowitz as a spitfire “who is finding her voice during a time when others are afraid to speak up.” Garant said the activist is persistent, yet never demeaning, when she speaks with others, even if their opinions differ.

“She’s exemplary on how we all need to be with one another, “ Garant said.

Hershkowitz said her mission is to continue encouraging others to speak up.

“I hope that people realize that this isn’t someone else’s work, this is all of our work, and it can be just a couple of phone calls every day and making that a ritual like brushing your teeth is enough,” she said. “Don’t wait for someone else to do that work right now.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin speaks during an interview at TBR News Media. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Alex Petroski

From the podium at The Emporium in Patchogue Nov. 8, 2016 after his race against Anna Throne Holst (D-Southampton) was officially called and his near-20-point victory was secured, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said he was looking forward to the opportunity to “make America great again.”

Zeldin has become synonymous with President Donald Trump (R) locally, and though he said during an exclusive interview with the Times Beacon Record News Media editorial board he still supports the president, just short of 10 months removed from his re-election, Zeldin also said he is not a “proxy” for Trump, or anyone else. During the 90-minute interview, the congressman preached bipartisanship, addressed the future of health care, discussed Trump’s Twitter account and inflammatory speeches like the one he made in Arizona Aug. 22, criticized the president for his response to the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest and addressed the state of his support for Trump going forward.

Zeldin celebrates his 2016 election night victory in Patchogue. File photo by Alex Petroski

“I don’t give anyone my proxy.”

Despite being a strong supporter of Trump during their parallel 2016 campaigns, Zeldin had a strong response when asked if the president had his unequivocal support.

“I don’t give anyone my proxy,” Zeldin said, though he did say he supports the president and wants him to be successful. He added if he had to vote for Trump again today, he ultimately would. “It’s not 2020, but if you asked me Aug. 25 of 2017 if I was casting a vote right now and he was running unopposed, yeah. If he was running against someone else and there was a compelling reason to go some other direction, then you factor into it.”

Zeldin pushed back on the perception of a large group of his constituents who believe he is the local embodiment of Trump. He cited several examples in which he has been critical of the president, including when Trump made a Holocaust remembrance statement that made no reference to Jewish people, or when he voted in line with many House Democrats against a bill that would roll back internet privacy protections, which Trump ultimately signed into law.

The congressman also reiterated a statement he has made publicly in the past, that the meeting between Donald Trump Jr., other members of the Trump administration and people with ties to the Russian government alleging they had damaging material on Hillary Clinton in June 2016 should have never taken place.

“If you really wanted to ask yourself, is this guy just going to be or has he been some proxy or some stooge who is refusing to say where he disagrees, you would have to ignore like 20 different examples where it’s not even taking my word for it, this is stuff that I’ve said on national TV,” Zeldin said. He surmised the perception he is too tightly connected to Trump comes from people who can’t wait for the day Trump is no longer in office.

Zeldin added although he disagreed with former President Barack Obama (D) on issues, at no point did he view him as anything other than his president.

“There are people who think nothing has gotten done.”

Zeldin pushed back on the idea that partisan gridlock, which has long characterized the country’s perception of Congress, is getting worse or is being amplified by Trump. He said bills are being passed and bipartisan discussions are being had everyday by members of the House.

“People have this perception that when the House is in session and we’re all on the floor together that it’s an old school Aaron Burr duel taking place amongst all members all the time,” he said. “Where everyone’s basically literally trying to kill each other on the floor.”

Zeldin said he isn’t going to sugarcoat it, or try to make the discussions sound all rosy. He pointed to the over 50 bills passed since Trump has taken office as proof of Republicans and Democrats working together to get things done.

He said these topics tend to get overshadowed by what is broadcasted on TV news.

“People get very discouraged when you put on the news and you’re only coming in contact with bad news,” Zeldin said. “It’s almost like [it’s] not even newsworthy to talk about what got done that day. What’s newsworthy is what may be the biggest, most dramatic confrontation or battle that might be going on. That’s the news everyday.”

He attributed heated political rhetoric and the notion Congress is struggling to work together to the business model of the three major 24-hour cable news stations — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

“The information they’re coming in contact with is deliberately targeting them to stir emotion, because that’s how they get traffic,” he said.

The congressman recalled several times when he was slated to do a cable news interview on a particular topic, which the president would be happy to see gain coverage, only to be asked questions about the investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia during the campaign because of a Tweet he sent moments before the interview.

He admitted the president has the power to steer the conversation in the right direction.

“There is no person in the United States of America with more of an ability to drive the conversation,” he said. “I don’t know of the last time we had an individual in the United States of America with a bigger soapbox than the president of the United States.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin calls for funding for two EPA programs relating to the Long Island Sound during a press conference March 13. Photo by Kevin Redding

“He’s willing to sign 50,000 different versions of this bill.”

Common ground exists between Republicans and Democrats on the future of the federal health care law, according to Zeldin, though he said he’s skeptical of the Senate’s ability to reach a majority on a replacement of the Affordable Care Act. At no point during the 90-minute conversation did the congressman use the phrase “repeal and replace,” though he discussed, at length, some of the issues with the individual market and what it would take to repair it in a way that works.

“Beyond partisanship there’s an ideological difference on the insurance piece, and what do you do with the ACA,” Zeldin said. “They just absolutely, genuinely to their core disagree on certain components of what direction [to go in].”

Zeldin was extremely critical of the process that led up to the ultimately failed Senate vote on health care and stressed the need to return to regular order.

The health care vote revealed three Republican senators as willing to oppose the president on major legislation. As a result of that vote and other circumstances in which Republican senators have spoken out against Trump, Zeldin encouraged the use of the president’s “bully pulpit,” like the way he spoke about Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) during his trip to Phoenix Aug. 22.

When asked if the president is doing enough to grow his base of support rather than just appealing to those he already has in his camp, Zeldin was also critical.

“There are opportunities for him to do more to broaden that coalition,” he said.

He also indicated the president is prepared to compromise on a health care bill.

“He’s willing to sign 50,000 different versions of this bill,” Zeldin said.

“There is no moral equivalency.”

The congressman was most critical of the president on his response to the events in Charlottesville. He repeatedly stated there is no moral equivalency between marchers on the side of the KKK and Nazism and those who attended the rally to oppose hate, a point that was contradictory to statements Trump made publicly on the subject. Zeldin said he did agree though with the president’s point that members of the “alt-right” were not the only one’s who arrived at the Virginia rally for the purpose of inciting violence.

“If you are a good person showing up to that march and you realize once you get there that by being associated at all with that march that you are associating yourself in any way, shape, or form with the KKK or Nazism, a good person, immediately, instinctively completely disengages,” Zeldin said.

The Aug. 17 suit opposes dumping in Long Island Sound

Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, Councilwoman Jane Bonner and Assemblyman Steve Englebright are joined by environmentalists to support a state lawsuit against the EPA's practice of dumping dredged materials in the Long Island Sound during an Aug. 28 press conference at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is picking a fight with the federal government, and as of Aug. 28, he officially has backup.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), joined by town board members, environmentalists and State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), announced the town’s support of a lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Aug. 17 against the United States Environmental Protection Agency regarding the open dumping of dredged materials in the Long Island Sound. The lawsuit alleged the Long Island Sound Dredge Material Management Plan, which was approved by the EPA, violates the Ocean Dumping Act and Coastal Zone Management Act, and also cited a “failure to address environmental impacts on the Long Island Sound.”

“The state of New York and this governor, Andrew Cuomo, has done a great service to this state and to the residents of Long Island by working to enjoin, in the court, the EPA from allowing continued dumping in the Sound.”

—Ed Romaine

In 2016, the EPA increased the number of open water dumping sites in the Sound from two to three, despite a call from state government leaders of both New York and Connecticut in 2005 to reduce and eventually eliminate the practice of dumping in the Sound. According to the suit, the dumping is also inconsistent with several investments of taxpayer dollars and policies that have sought to clean up the vital Long Island waterway. Cuomo opposed the additional dumping site in late 2016, and Romaine and the town sent a letter to the governor in support of legal action against the federal agency.

“We’re here to send a very strong message — that we are opposed to dumping in the Sound,” Romaine said during a press conference Aug. 28 at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. “The state of New York and this governor, Andrew Cuomo, has done a great service to this state and to the residents of Long Island by working to enjoin, in the court, the EPA from allowing continued dumping in the Sound.”

Romaine accused the EPA of taking the expedient course of action rather than the most environmentally sound course with dredged materials, some of which are contaminated by pollutants.

Though a spokesperson for the EPA declined via email to comment on ongoing litigation, an April 2016 statement from the agency spelled out the motivation for continued dumping in the Sound.

“Dredging is needed to ensure safe navigation in the sound,” EPA spokesman John Martin said in an email to Times Beacon Record Newspapers. He added the agency felt the proposal struck “an appropriate balance between the need for dredging to maintain safe and efficient navigation and our desired outcome to restore and protect Long Island Sound.”

Kevin McAllister, the president of Defend H20, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and restoring the quality of Long Island’s waterways, spoke in support of the town and the governor during the press conference.

“We’re spending billions of dollars on water quality improvements and the open water dumping of contaminated silt flies in the face of these efforts.”

—Kevin McAllister

“As a federally designated Estuary of National Significance, Long Island Sound is in need of greater protection,” he said. “We’re spending billions of dollars on water quality improvements and the open water dumping of contaminated silt flies in the face of these efforts.”

Representatives from the nonprofits Sierra Club Long Island and the Setauket Harbor Task Force also pledged support in opposition of the dumping plan.

Englebright offered a suggestion for an alternative to the continued dumping in the Sound.

“It is ironic that at a time when we’re watching a terrible hurricane devastating the great state of Texas and reflecting on the reality that sea level is rising, that the federal government is proposing to take a vast amount of sediment that will be needed to bulwark our coastal investments, our coastal communities from a rising sea level to augment our beaches with that sediment, to take it instead and use it in the most harmful possible way,” Englebright said. He added the dumping is “radicalizing the ecology” of the waterway, saying the sediment could be needed and should be used to strengthen coastlines. Englebright cited a deadly 1953 storm in the Netherlands that inspired the same fortification he proposed, a practice that nation has continued since.

Brookhaven Town Council members Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) also voiced support of the lawsuit. Romaine said he had been in contact with 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) regarding the town’s support of the lawsuit, and Romaine said the congressman is strongly opposed to dumping in the Sound.

Zeldin has sponsored and supported bills designed to improve the health of the Sound in the past and has opposed long term dumping at the designated sites.

“The Long Island Sound shouldn’t be a dumping ground, especially when there are many viable alternatives to open water dumping, including recycling and safe disposal on land,” Zeldin said in an emailed statement through spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena.

This post was updated to include comments by Lee Zeldin.

Suffolk County Democratic Committee Chairman Rich Schaffer works at his desk in his North Babylon office. Photo by Alex Petroski

As the night progressed Nov. 8, 2016, it steadily became clear that months of data and polls had failed to accurately predict the future. Around midnight, it was no longer in doubt — Donald Trump was going to be the 45th president of the United States, and Democrats had a long road ahead to figure out what went wrong.

Both nationally and locally, the time since the shocking 2016 presidential election has served as a period of reflection and resistance for the Democratic Party. Political leaders across the country, like Suffolk County Democratic Committee Chairman Rich Schaffer, were tasked with crafting a new message and understanding the emotion Americans voiced with their votes in November: anger.

In an exclusive interview at his North Babylon office, Schaffer weighed in on the platform of the party going forward: How Trump’s message resonated for Suffolk voters making him the first Republican presidential candidate to win the county since the early 1990s; a high profile race for Suffolk’s district attorney; the two congressional seats up in 2018; his journey in politics since age 11 and much more.

The future of the party

Schaffer is in an enviable and high stakes position. The leading Democrat in the county has a blank slate as a platform, while the party tries to rebirth itself from the ashes of 2016. The path forward is whatever Suffolk Democrats choose to make it from here, but choosing wrong could be a major setback. The successes of ultra-progressive candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) could make a further left-leaning Democratic Party a possibility for the future. However, swinging too far to the left could alienate moderates from both sides of the aisle, similar to the way Trump Republicans are trying to go it alone with little support outside of the base.

“I’m trying to make sure I keep saying this: Make sure we don’t burn the house down,” Schaffer said of infighting amongst different sects of the party. “Or even I use the line, ‘Don’t make me pull the car over.’ The kids are arguing in the back and we’re about 50 miles away from the destination and they’re carrying on … I’ll pull the car over and we’re not going anywhere.”

Schaffer said he held a meeting in March with about 25 leaders of various activist groups in the hopes of emerging with a unified front.

“I brought them all together at our headquarters and I said, ‘Look, we all have the same goal — we want to defeat [U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley)] and [U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford)] and we want to defeat Trump,’” Schaffer said. “‘That’s our four-year plan. We all have different reasons why we want to accomplish that goal — your issue might be health care, your issue might be the travel ban, your issue may be you think Trump’s an idiot, you’re concerned about the Supreme Court. Whatever your issue is, we have to put that energy together and see how we can, as best as possible, move in the same direction to accomplish that.’”

The Democratic Party is not in the shambles locally as it might appear nationally, according to Schaffer. The Suffolk County Legislature has had a Democrat majority since 2005. He said he wasn’t a huge fan of the “A Better Deal” Democratic rebranding effort released by the party nationally recently, but instead would like to see politicians from both sides of the aisle meet in the middle and compromise on important issues, rather than focusing on branding and slogans.

Schaffer described his initial foray into politics as getting swept up in a Democratic wave of support. Living in West Islip, Schaffer had a friend named Jeff, whose older brother Tom Downey was running for the county legislature in 1971. The candidate, who was just 22 years old at the time, enlisted the help of neighborhood kids, including 11-year-old Schaffer, to pass out fliers for the campaign.

“The father, Mr. Downey, says, ‘Alright you guys, get in the station wagon, we’re going to go deliver these fliers for Tom,’” Schaffer said. Downey was elected, becoming the youngest member of the legislature in its history. In 1987, Schaffer was also elected to the county legislature, and when he was sworn in at age 23 he became the second youngest member. He also currently serves as town supervisor for Babylon and will seek re-election in the fall.

Schaffer credited his preparation for office at such a young age to an unusually difficult upbringing. He said his father abandoned the family when he was 10 years old, and when he was 14, his mother was sent to jail for killing someone while she was driving drunk. His aunt and uncle finished raising him through those difficult times, though he came out the other end more prepared than most for adversity.

In 1974, Downey ran for Congress again aided by Schaffer and others. He attributed the post-Watergate environment to Downey’s victory as a Democratic candidate. Schaffer said he anticipates a similar wave to impact the 2017 and 2018 elections locally and nationally as a response to all things Trump.

Trump support in the county

Trump’s victory nationally was a surprise, but a Republican winning Suffolk County was a shocker not seen in the last five election cycles. He took home nearly 53 percent of the vote and Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle, who also played an active role in Trump’s campaign, told TBR News Media during an interview in April the key issues that drove local residents to the polls in support of a first-time politician were the failures of his predecessors to make any inroads on immigration, health care and jobs in Suffolk.

Schaffer realized the irony in LaValle and him naming the same few issues as the most important to voters in the county.

“Because they’re human issues,” he said. “So that’s what I say, is that I’m never going to question John LaValle’s commitment to wanting to make a better place in Suffolk County. I’m never going to question — take a Republican — [county Legislator] Leslie Kennedy [R-Nesconset]. I’m never going to question that. I know that nobody wants to have gunfights breaking out and gangs and people overdosing, but can we sit down and figure out how we get it done?”

Schaffer was careful to relay that the party needs to have a parallel focus in order to smooth over tensions between the two in the current political climate.

“I think the message should be that we’re going to oppose Trump and his team on things we believe are hurtful to people,” he said. “And we’re going to support him on things, or compromise with him on issues that are going to deliver results.”

A common refrain from Republicans is the everyday voter doesn’t care about “distracting” issues — like the investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign/administration, palace intrigue stories and the president’s tweets to name a few; the voters care about what is actually getting done. From that perspective, the Democrats Schaffer has come in contact with are in the same boat as Republicans.

Local races

Schaffer pointed to the race for Suffolk County district attorney as a potential indicator of where politics is heading in the county in the near future. He sang the praises of Democrat candidate and current Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini, whom the party has already endorsed. Sini will square off with Ray Perini (R) a criminal lawyer from Huntington, for the seat left open by Tom Spota (D), who will not seek re-election. Schaffer also cleared up an issue with Sini’s announcement of his candidacy, which came as a surprise because during his confirmation hearing to become police commissioner before the legislature he said he had no interest in running for DA.

Schaffer said at the time Sini was being truthful, he had no intentions of running, but he said Sini felt he had made more progress in his short time as Suffolk’s top cop to make him comfortable seeking a step up.

“No secret kabuki plan, no conspiracies,” he said. “Nobody said, ‘OK, we’ll fake them out and tell them you’re not running and then you’ll run.’”

LaValle was critical of County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and his management of Suffolk’s finances. The county has a poor credit rating and an ever-growing deficit, though Schaffer defended Bellone and said he’s done an admirable job in a tough position.

Schaffer also addressed comments LaValle made in April regarding Zeldin and his claims that “liberal obstructionists,” and not genuine constituents, were the ones opposing his policies and protesting his public appearances. LaValle called those constituents “a disgrace.”

“Yeah and John should know better also,” Schaffer said. “I’m not ever going to question anyone’s patriotism unless somebody shows me evidence that they’re colluding with a foreign government or they’re doing some terrorist activity.”

Schaffer said regardless of where on the political spectrum a given Democrat falls currently, the goal is to find candidates capable of defeating Zeldin and King.

James Canale, left, has the support of U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin in his bid for town council. Photo from James Canale

Being a 25-year-old first-time candidate for public office might seem like a disadvantage to most, but don’t try to tell that to James Canale (R-Port Jefferson Station). Canale, a Port Jefferson Station resident for about 20 years, will run against incumbent Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) for a spot on the Town of Brookhaven board representing the 1st Council District in November. Cartright was first elected to the position in 2013 and is concluding her first term in office.

Canale said in a phone interview he sees his age and inexperience in politics as an asset for his campaign.

“Because I didn’t go to school for political science or political policy, I come in with a clean slate and no bias,” he said. “I am not entrenched in any party politics. I don’t owe anyone any favors. I’m just a regular guy and I want to make sure I never forget my roots. I see too many of my friends moving off Long Island because they can’t find opportunities here.”

Canale identified repeatedly with being a millennial and said a major focus of his campaign will be trying to find ways to create opportunities for young people to find employment and affordable places to live in Brookhaven. Also part of this new politician’s platform are the environment and animal rights issues.

Canale, who currently works part time in the town’s Department of General Services, echoed many of the policies regarding the environment from the town’s top Republican — Supervisor Ed Romaine (R).

“I don’t have kids but when I do I want to make sure that they’re able to have a high quality of life on Long Island,” Canale said. Sustainability, renewable sources of clean energy, investing in electric vehicles for the town fleet, the preservation of parklands and open spaces and clean air and water were among the environmental issues the candidate said he found most essential to the health and future of Brookhaven and Long Island as a whole.

Canale received the nomination to run on the Republican ticket from the Brookhaven Town Republican Committee earlier in June, though Chairman Jesse Garcia did not respond to requests for comment. Other than Romaine, another local Republican the young candidate views as a role model is 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), and the congressman has taken notice.

“I endorse James Canale for Brookhaven Town’s 1st Council District,” Zeldin said through spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena in an email. “James is an exceptional bipartisan candidate who is more than capable of taking on this role. James has demonstrated his commitment to fiscal responsibility, environmental protection, and making Brookhaven a better place to live and work. James will excel as a Councilman, and I am proud to lend him my support.”

Though Canale said he doesn’t necessarily fall in line with Zeldin on every issue, he said he’s extremely proud to have his support and lauded the work he has done for veterans and his bipartisan approach to policy. He referred to himself as a progressive Republican. He said he is “very pro-LGBT,” believes in the public education system — which the Comsewogue school district graduate said he’s proud to be a product of — and said supporting small businesses should be a priority for all Brookhaven shoppers.

Canale spoke respectfully of his November opponent, who did not return a request for comment.

“I do think my opponent has done a commendable job in the town,” he said of Cartright. “She’s a very good person and I have the utmost respect for her.”

Canale addressed the idea that he has stepped into a heated political climate, which could present challenges in his first foray into the arena.

“I’m a very honest guy with integrity, I always want to do the right thing,” he said. “I don’t have blinders on. I want to listen to everybody.”

Disclaimer: James Canale previously worked as a freelance photographer at Times Beacon Record Newspapers and directed “The Culper Spy Adventure,” a TBR News Media production.

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