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U.S. Rep. 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; what about Trump’s message resonated for Suffolk voters making him the first Republican presidential candidate to win the county since the early 90s; 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 (D-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 “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 reelection 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 Times Beacon Record Newspapers 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 he and LaValle 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 — Leslie Kennedy. 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.”

He 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, the president’s and the president’s Tweets to name a few — they care about what is actually getting done. From that perspective, 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 (D), 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 reelection. He 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 ‘okay 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.

He 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.

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.

The second attempt passes House, will head to Senate for further scrutiny

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin weigh in on the AHCA, which passed the house last week. File photos

The battle to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, was left in the hands of the House of Representatives for a vote last week, and two representatives for the North Shore had differing opinions on the bill. The American Health Care Act passed in the House by a slim 217 to 213 margin, though before it becomes law it must also pass the Senate and ultimately be signed by President Donald Trump (R).

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) for New York’s 1st Congressional District was among those in favor of the bill, fulfilling a campaign promise of his own and the vast majority of Republican lawmakers across the country since Obamacare was enacted in 2010.

“Almost everyone agrees that our current system is deeply flawed,” Zeldin said in a statement. “The American Health Care Act provides relief from billions of dollars of crushing taxes and mandates enacted under the ACA. Additionally, the bill repeals the individual and employer mandates, taxes on prescription and over-the-counter medications, health insurance premiums and medical devices.”

“The revised version of the AHCA passed by the House is not sound health reform. … Access to insurance is meaningless if premiums are unaffordable and the coverage is not comprehensive.”

— Kevin Dahill

Zeldin also sought to dispel “outright lies” being perpetrated on social media and elsewhere about the new bill, the first incarnation of which he was slow to support unless important amendments were added, he said in March. One thing he specified as a misconception is the idea that people with pre-existing conditions might lose coverage, or that millions will be left uninsured.

“The bill protects people with pre-existing conditions, and gives states greater flexibility to lower premiums and stabilize the insurance market,” he said.

Critics of the bill have noted it was not subject to scrutiny by the Congressional Budget Office prior to the vote, and in the first version that nearly reached a vote in March, the CBO suggested about 24 million people were in danger of losing their coverage.

An amendment to the bill the second time around introduced by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), would establish funds for a “high risk” pool, which would be used to provide coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

“The high-risk pool plan is an attempt to cover up for another provision in the bill, via an amendment by New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur (R), that would allow states to easily waive protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions in the individual market if they experienced a gap in coverage,” according to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), of New York’s 3rd Congressional District, was among those critics. He voted against the bill.

“I’m disappointed that House Republicans chose not to work with Democrats to create a common-sense bill,” Suozzi said in a statement. He also called on the Senate to disregard the legislation and focus on working toward a bipartisan solution.

“It will result in skyrocketing premiums, higher out-of-pocket costs, a discriminatory age tax and will steal from Medicare,” he said. “And all of this was done without an updated Congressional Budget Office score to determine how much the new amendment to the bill will cost taxpayers.”

Suozzi also addressed what it might mean for New Yorkers.

“For New Yorkers, this legislation leaves 2.7 million people without proper access to health insurance,” he said. “$4.7 billion will be cut from our state’s Medicaid budget, putting seven million people who rely on Medicaid services and other important programs at risk. This is a bad bill for New Yorkers, plain and simple.”

The bill establishes limits on federal funding for state Medicaid programs beginning in 2020. States that exceed the cap would be subjected to reduced federal funding in the following fiscal year, according to the summary of the bill.

The most notable changes in the new health care plan compared to the existing one include an elimination of the individual mandate, which required all Americans to purchase health insurance or be subject to a fine — a sticking point for many Republicans on Obamacare; a cut of federal Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood for one year; adjusting tax credits based on age instead of income; and shifting Medicaid expansion set forth by Obamacare to the discretion of states instead of the federal government, among many others.

According to a map on the website of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to deliver health policy analysis to the public, issuing tax credits based on age instead of income will result in some lower income Americans paying more for coverage.

“Generally, people who are older, lower income or live in high-premium areas receive less financial assistance under the AHCA,” analysis of the bill by the foundation said. “Additionally, older people would have higher starting premiums under the AHCA and would therefore pay higher premiums. Because younger people with higher incomes and living in lower-cost areas would receive more financial assistance and would have lower starting premiums on average, they would pay lower premiums on average.”

Kevin Dahill, president and CEO of Suburban Hospital Alliance of New York State, an organization that represents the advocacy interests of Long Island health systems including St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown, and John T. Mather Memorial and St. Charles hospitals in Port Jefferson, issued a statement regarding the House bill.

“The revised version of the AHCA passed by the House is not sound health reform,” he said. “About 70 percent of Medicaid spending in our state covers care for the elderly and disabled, including children. These people will still need care. And even more disheartening is the amendment to cut $2.3 billion in Medicaid funding by shifting the cost burden from the counties to the state. This amendment was advanced by [Republican] New York  Congressmen [John] Faso and [Chris] Collins and it leaves a huge hole in New York’s budget. … Access to insurance is meaningless if premiums are unaffordable and the coverage is not comprehensive.”

Dr. Gerard Brogan Jr., executive director at Huntington Hospital, said he would put the ACA and AHCA in the same category as flawed legislation during a phone interview. He also reiterated Dahill’s concerns that the changes put a large number of people at risk of losing their access to adequate care because of changes to Medicaid.

“There are portions that are either not derived from sound assumptions or won’t accomplish what are the issue that we need to deal with,” he said.

Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle at his Holtsville office. Photo by Alex Petroski

A Republican hadn’t won Suffolk County in 24 years. The 2016 presidential election was out of the ordinary on dozens of levels, a fact that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency and helped him to become the first Republican candidate to win Suffolk County since George H.W. Bush in 1992. Trump received just 36.5 percent of the vote in New York state, though 52.5 percent of Suffolk voters selected the first-time political candidate. John Jay LaValle — arguably the most influential Republican in Suffolk politics — played a massive role in securing that victory.

During an exclusive interview at his Holtsville office April 18, the Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman shed light on Trump’s surprising victory locally and nationally, his life in politics, serving as a Trump surrogate and the future of the party.

The state of the party

LaValle, 49, who has been in his current position since 2009, endorsed Trump about a year ago during a campaign event in Bethpage, calling him the most important presidential candidate in modern history.

“I wasn’t happy over the last several years on how the Republican Party — let’s say over the past decade — how the party dealt with the Obama Administration,” LaValle, an attorney by trade, said, sitting at his desk, his eyes glancing up intermittently at a muted television fixed on Fox News throughout the conversation. He said the GOP’s singular purpose, to its detriment, had become opposing former President Barack Obama (D). “We’d become a party without a compass. We didn’t have a purpose.”

John Jay LaValle speaks during an election night party for Lee Zeldin in Patchogue. File photo by Alex Petroski

He added he thought it was a mistake for the party to be so focused on social issues, especially because public sentiment was heading in the opposite direction from the traditional Republican ideologies on most.

By the time of his formal endorsement April 9 at that Bethpage rally, only Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) were still alive in the Republican primary process, though LaValle said he made his decision to endorse Trump when he was still in a field of 17 candidates.

“I’m from…what someone would consider to be the establishment of the Republican Party,” LaValle said. “So when I came out and endorsed Donald Trump everyone was like, ‘what?’ And even people, my own cousin, was like ‘what are you doing?’ Everyone thought I was crazy. But one of the things that very much attracted me to Donald Trump was that I really thought that he would be someone that would perform a radical change to the Republican Party.”

LaValle’s cousin is New York State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), a mainstay in the state senate since 1976. Both are residents of Port Jefferson.

The chairman bought what Trump was selling, and encouraged Suffolk voters to do the same. He said Trump’s position that the government was “broken” and needed an outsider to fix it resonated for him, and believes it’s what voters liked about him locally.

“When I became a councilman in Brookhaven Town in 1996, the dominant issue was illegal immigration, and its effect on the housing,” he said. LaValle would later go on to be the youngest supervisor in Brookhaven’s history. In 2001 he took control at just 33 years old. “So here I was now in 2016, 20 years later and the dominant issue is still illegal immigration.”

LaValle said both Republicans and Democrats had squandered opportunities to make meaningful changes to immigration legislation, which is evidence of an inability in traditional politicians to get things done for their constituents in other areas, like creating jobs and jump-starting the economy.

Trump’s win has put a strain on the Republican Party and clouded its future, especially in light of record low approval ratings so early in his tenure. “Transformation” and “splintering” were two words LaValle didn’t deny were appropriate descriptors of the status of the party at the moment, though he said a polarization of politics is wreaking havoc on both parties.

He likened what’s going on now in the party to his days as Brookhaven Supervisor. He said he accomplished things that were atypical of Republican beliefs at the time, like enacting a $100 million Environmental Bond Act. He also said he was proud of actions he took like appointing women and African-Americans to leadership roles in the town — he named Cecile Forte, an African-American woman, the chair of the zoning board; and Marvin Colson, an African-American man the chair of the planning board — and consolidating town operations to a centralized location in Farmingville, where Brookhaven headquarters still stands.

“There’s…four different parties in this country right now instead of two, and while the liberals are trying to move the Democratic Party left, the conservatives are trying to pull the Republican Party right — it’s a very messy situation in the country,” he said. “You may look back 20 years from now and look at this particular time period in American history as a time period that actually created four major political parties in America. You can’t be a moderate on either side and be with the wings. It’s been too polarized.”

Although he said his job doesn’t entail influencing legislators about policy, the possibility of a splintering of the Republican Party could raise difficult questions for “establishment” Republican lawmakers who don’t join LaValle in subscribing to the book of Trump.

LaValle suggested Trump’s Supreme Court nomination, efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and some other early signs bear this out — Trump campaigned to the right but is governing from a more moderate platform.

“Everyone thought I was crazy…I really thought that he would be someone that would perform a radical change to the Republican Party.”

— John Jay LaValle

“He doesn’t give a [expletive] about Republicans and Democrats and all that,” LaValle said of the president. “In fact, he was a Democrat. Then he became a Republican, but he was a moderate Republican. Then when he was running he became a very conservative Republican. From day one, I recollect him saying to me, ‘there’s only two things I want to do — I want to fix the economy and I want to get rid of this terrorism.’ He goes, ‘the rest of it, I could care less about.’”

The Trump presidency

Despite the missteps and uneasiness that have been hallmarks of Trump’s first 100 days in office, LaValle seemingly has no inclination to reverse course and distance himself from the president.

“I don’t criticize the boss in public,” he said.

After he endorsed Trump he went on to do about 160 television appearances as a surrogate for his candidate during 2016.

The chairman said he first met Trump several years ago when the businessman was considering a run for governor of New York, though little came of that meeting. The two met for the second time during the rally in Bethpage in 2016. Since, the two have spoken regularly by phone, and LaValle said he’d sat in on meetings at Trump Tower in the past, and even weighed in on policy when called upon by the man who currently occupies the highest office in the land.

“He runs his meetings like a game show — it’s phenomenal,” LaValle said. He told a story of the first time Trump called him on his cellphone and asked him to come to Manhattan for a meeting. LaValle said his friends instructed him to keep quiet, prepare to listen and limit his contribution to the meeting to “hello, Mr. Trump” and “goodbye, Mr. Trump.” Instead, LaValle said Trump repeatedly pressed him and others in the room for input on policy and issues, and he felt Trump genuinely listened to others’ opinions. LaValle said he once asked Trump why he valued his opinion so much.

“I trust you, and until you fail me that’s it, I’m going to rely on you,’” the chairman said Trump told him. That trust can be traced to a promise LaValle made to Trump in April 2016 after a campaign event at The Emporium in Patchogue, when he pledged to deliver Suffolk County for Trump during the Republican primary.

“When he was leaving he was telling me ‘oh you know what it cost me to come here? You know what I had to give up?’ I said ‘no, I appreciate that Mr. Trump, and I’m going to tell you right now — Suffolk County will be the number one county for you in the state of New York next Tuesday,’” LaValle said. “He said ‘well I’m going to hold you to that.’ I said ‘good, and I’m going to deliver.’ And we did. And he appreciated that.”

More than 72,000 Suffolk County residents chose Trump on primary day, to just 18,000 and 9,000 respectively for Kasich and Cruz.

Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle at his Holtsville office. Photo by Alex Petroski

On another occasion, LaValle was forced to justify comments he made on CNN when he was asked to defend two “diametrically opposed” statements Trump had previously made.

“So my phone rings and he says, ‘what’s this about me evolving?’ And this is classic Donald Trump, by the way,” LaValle said. “So I said, ‘uh, excuse me?’ He goes ‘evolving, John — what’s this about me evolving? I’m watching TV and I hear you say that I’m evolving.’”

LaValle, laughing, said he thought he’d handled the situation beautifully.

“‘John, John, John — I’m not evolving. I’m running for president of the United States of America. I’m not evolving,’” he said Trump told him. “I said ‘well I understand sir, but what would you like me to say?’ He says ‘what would I like you to say? You say Donald Trump is the greatest candidate ever to run for president in the history of the United States.’”

LaValle said he later heard Kellyanne Conway, a key player in Trump’s campaign, use the word “evolving” on television, so he knew Trump was just blowing off steam at the time.

According to LaValle, another byproduct of the Trump presidency has been a head-on confrontation with debilitating political correctness, an aspect of Trump’s persona and platform that the chairman has found invaluable.

The chairman blamed gang violence on Long Island and heroin abuse to political correctness brought about by the Democrats.

“He’s made it okay to kind of tell it like it is — or at least like you see it,” LaValle said. “That was a big problem. In our country, we had gotten so bad at being politically correct that we weren’t allowed to like, even say certain things that were true.”

Attributing the rise of heroin abuse on Long Island to political correctness because of a lack of adequate border security addresses illegal drugs entering the country, but not a growing demand at home, which can be traced back to overprescribing of powerful pain medications, which then leads to heroin when prescriptions dry up.

The chairman offered strong defenses for Trump on issues that few have felt inclined to rush to justify — like supposed ties between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign, transition team and administration. He said the president hasn’t deviated from anything he’s said publicly about Russia. His desire has always been to improve relations, and contacts between his team and Russia make sense in striving to achieve that goal. When asked why the knee-jerk reaction from several associates is to deny said communications, LaValle said the media is granted no prior assumption that sources will respond to questions truthfully, though he said anyone who didn’t given honest answers is “destroying their credibility.”

Although LaValle insisted he didn’t criticize the boss in public, it’s not hard to take that concept and juxtapose it with the fact Trump has had issues as a result of publicly making false statements. The president said he won the most Electoral College votes (306) since President Ronald Reagan — in fact Obama won 332 four years ago and 365 in 2008, and going back to a Republican president Bush senior received more than Trump as well.

He walked the line on the comments Trump was caught on tape making to Billy Bush for Access Hollywood during a candid conversation neither party knew was being recorded.

“I mean I do feel bad that he got, kind of like set up, caught on tape with that whole grabbing thing,” he said. “I mean, I know so many guys that have said stupid things in their lifetime. We always just have the benefit of no one’s paying attention. And I’m not saying it’s right to do, don’t get me wrong, but that sucked for him to be caught on tape saying that.”

Even though he sympathized with Trump, he said earlier he understands why Trump’s own words could create a negative perception.

“It’s America, I guess they can do it. But it doesn’t make them any less sleazy and sleaze balls that they are. That’s what they’re doing. To me it’s a disgrace.”

— John Jay LaValle

“Saying Rosie O’Donnell is a fat slob, the stuff with Megyn Kelly, no, I could understand why there’s a perception that he’s a sexist, because he said things that are not appropriate,” he said.

In the beginning of the interview, LaValle described Trump as a brilliant businessman who understood he could say “something stupid just for the hell of it…he knew that’s the price he had to pay to get all of that free media,” and lauded him for “telling it like it is.”

Suffolk County

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has taken small steps to distance himself from the president of late, though unless something drastically changes, the race for his seat in the House as representative for New York’s 1st Congressional District in 2018 will serve as a referendum on the party of Trump in Suffolk County.

After upsetting U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who held the seat from 2003 to 2014, Zeldin defeated Anna Throne-Holst (D-Southampton) by 18 points to retain his seat in 2016. Zeldin’s big win was seen as an indicator of Trump’s success in the county because he was a strong supporter of Trump in 2016. Zeldin even proclaimed from the podium after the race was called on election night that he was excited to have the chance to “make America great again.”

Zeldin’s proximity to Trump has caused an uprising of some 1st District constituents since the election, with protests occurring throughout the past few months and demands for more access to the congressman. Still, LaValle isn’t concerned about Zeldin’s chances for reelection in 2018.

“Lee Zeldin is going to win big time in 2018,” he said. “I think the Democrat Party has shown itself to be frauds, crybabies, snowflakes and sore losers… It’s all a fraud. It’s not about — this isn’t a grassroots effort. These people are professionals. They’re being paid to be there and to organize individuals to disrupt town hall meetings of our duly elected representatives.”

Politico, an American political-journalism company has maintained there is zero evidence of protestors being paid. This rhetoric may seem familiar to some, as powerful Democratic leaders once made the same claim a few years back. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in 2009 Tea Party protestors disrupting town halls were funded by “the high end,” calling it “Astroturf,” meaning not an authentic grassroots movement, but something supported by benefactors.

“These people are a disgrace,” LaValle continued about the protestors. “It’s America, I guess they can do it. But it doesn’t make them any less sleazy and sleaze balls that they are. That’s what they’re doing. To me it’s a disgrace.”

In a phone interview, Zeldin said LaValle has been a strong ally during his political career. He also praised the job LaValle has done since taking over, noting a large shift in town and county seats in elected positions from blue to red during LaValle’s tenure, which he said the chairman played a role in.

“John is someone who can easily motivate a packed room of volunteers to want to campaign just a little harder and dig down a little bit deeper to help get across the finish line,” he said.

LaValle has been rumored to be a candidate to oppose Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) when he seeks reelection. He criticized the job Bellone has done in the position, saying the county’s finances have been “horribly mismanaged,” and said he doesn’t think Bellone is right for the job, though he didn’t offer any insight on his future aspirations.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ll know it when it happens,” LaValle said. “The one thing I learned is I would have never expected to have done what I did last year in a million years. It was just something that I probably never would even have fathomed. So one thing that I learned is don’t ever try to make your plans too specific. Keep it loose, keep it fluid and be ready for something exciting. I know one thing, it’s going to be something exciting and it’s going to be something big.”

An aerial view of the area designated for sidewalk replacement. Image from Google Maps

What’s old will soon be new again as U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) announced this week $1.58 million in federal funding would be designated to go towards the construction of new sidewalks and curbs on Old Town Road in Port Jefferson Station and Coram. The funding will cover 80 percent of the total cost of the project. The new sidewalks will span from Route 347 in Port Jefferson Station to Route 112 in Coram along Old Town Road, and some of the improvements included fixes to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Congressman Lee Zeldin. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

“This is key funding to improve walkability and bicycle access in the Town of Brookhaven,” Zeldin said in a statement. He said the sidewalks in question are in desperate need of repairs. “Last Congress, I proudly helped lead the bipartisan effort to pass the highway bill, which secured funding for the Surface Transportation Block Grant. Our transportation and infrastructure are essential to the Long Island economy, way of life and safety, and I will continue working to ensure that states and local governments have the flexibility and resources necessary to strengthen our infrastructure and improve transportation safety, job creation, and our overall economy and quality of life.”

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) praised Zeldin for securing the funds because of what it could mean for the environment, as the new paths will create carbon-free transportation alternatives to driving cars, he said.

“Old Town Road connects the communities of Port Jefferson Station and Coram and both hamlets will soon become more pedestrian and bike friendly with the construction of new sidewalks as well as bicycle access along this route,” he said in a statement.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) also thanked Zeldin and stressed the importance of infrastructure improvements in the town.

“Infrastructure keeps the town moving forward and upgrading it improves our quality of life and creates jobs that drive the local economy,” he said. “Congressman Zeldin has always been a strong advocate for the people of the 1st District, and I look forward to working with him to help find more ways to make Brookhaven a better place to live and work.”

Brookhaven Town  Superintendent of Highways Dan Losquadro (R) expressed similar excitement for the impending improvements.

“As we work to improve our infrastructure, the construction of bicycle paths and ADA-compliant, accessible sidewalks is crucial in ensuring the safety of our roadways for motorists and pedestrians,” he said.

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint includes less funding for the EPA than any federal budget since the 1990s. Image by TBR News Media

The United States Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970 to do as its name suggests; protect the environment. However, if the words and actions of the new administration in the White House are to be believed, it might be the agency that needs protection.

In President Donald Trump’s (R) 2018 budget blueprint released March 16, among many other funding cuts at the hands of a $54 billion increase in defense spending, was a proposed $2.6 billion cut to the EPA’s budget and 3,200 fewer jobs at the agency.

“The budget for EPA reflects the success of environmental protection efforts, a focus on core legal requirements, the important role of the states in implementing the nation’s environmental laws, and the president’s priority to ease the burden of unnecessary federal regulations that impose significant costs for workers and consumers without justifiable environmental benefits,” the blueprint said.

Trump’s blueprint also calls for the discontinuation of funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs and climate change research, a plan the blueprint lauds because of the more than $100 million in savings it will mean for American taxpayers. The Clean Power Plan was a 2015 Obama administration initiative that aimed to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, a decision the EPA called historic at the time. Trump signed an executive order March 28 to initiate a review of the Clean Power Plan and scale back enforcement of other climate regulations on businesses. During a press briefing March 28 by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, he declined to answer a question about whether the president still believes climate change is a “hoax,” an assertion he made in the past.

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

The blueprint also calls for the elimination of 50 EPA programs, which will save taxpayers another $347 million. Some of those programs include Energy Star, created to promote energy efficiency in consumer products, homes and businesses; Targeted Air Shed Grants, established to help local and state pollution control agencies in developing projects to reduce pollution; and the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, which screens the effects of chemicals and pesticides on humans’ endocrine systems. Their grants would be zeroed out in Trump’s budget. Cuts would also come in the tune of $250 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, targeting grants and programs for coastal and marine management, research and education.

Furthermore, Trump selected former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to serve as administrator for the EPA, a man who repeatedly expressed his skepticism of climate change in the past. But during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in January Pruitt denied the president’s claim that climate change is a hoax.

“As I have repeatedly emphasized in my testimony to this body and elsewhere, promoting and protecting a strong and healthy environment is among the lifeblood priorities for the government, and EPA is vital to that mission,” Pruitt said during his opening statement during the hearing. “If confirmed as Administrator, I am committed to ensuring EPA’s decisions are conducted through open processes that take into account the full range of views of the American people, including the economic consequences of any regulation.”

During the hearing Pruitt also admitted to being involved in 10 lawsuits against the EPA in the past.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) a member of the committee, joined the rest of the Democrats on the committee in abstaining from the vote to confirm Pruitt. The Republican senators voted 11-0 to approve him.

“I have shared with Mr. Pruitt, and I will share with my colleagues today, that too much of what I have seen of his record of the environment and his views about the role of EPA are troubling, and in some cases deeply troubling,” Carper said.

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) was among Pruitt’s supporters on the committee.

“It is my belief that Attorney General Pruitt will return the Environmental Protection Agency to its proper role as a steward for the environment, acting within the bounds prescribed by Congress and the Constitution,” he said.

U.S. Rep. for New York’s First District Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a fervent Trump ally in the House, opposed proposed cuts that would slash federal funding for programs designed to protect the Long Island Sound and Peconic Estuary.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi speaks during a town hall Feb. 23. Photo by Kevin Redding

“While we have made great efforts to protect the Long Island Sound and Peconic Estuary so far, there is still so much more we can do to ensure these natural treasures are safeguarded for generations to come,” he said. “We must now redouble our efforts to protect the quality of our waterways, which are depended upon by millions of people. I am committed to making sure they remain funded, supported and preserved.”

Zeldin and Third District U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) were named co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Long Island Sound Caucus earlier this month. Suozzi responded to Trump’s Clean Power Plan executive order in an emailed statement.

“This executive order unravels important measures that are meant to keep the air we breathe clean for families and children,” he said. “Keeping our environment safe is not a partisan issue. As co-chair of the bipartisan Long Island Sound Caucus and a member of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, we need to work together to protect our ever-changing climate. Today’s actions go too far.”

In his 2016 campaign for congress, Suozzi was endorsed by the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum, a grassroots nonprofit created to identify, recruit, endorse and actively campaign for pro-environment candidates for public office.

If Trump’s plan to cut funding for the EPA comes to fruition, the agency would be operating with less money in federal funding than any year since 1990.

Rob Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environment for the Regional Planning Association, a New York-based independent urban research and advocacy organization, addressed Trump’s environmental agenda in a phone interview.

“I think the Trump administration has proposed to increase defense and safety spending at the expense of other programs,” he said. “I have to just question, is it not safety and defense to invest in climate adaptation, coastal studying, reduction of climate change? We are concerned about the approach taken in the blueprint and I think it’s really up to congress to take a stand on these issues. As the budget blueprint stands today it would deal a serious blow to any progress we’ve made in terms of climate adaptation.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that analyzes health policies, has created an interactive map so Americans can compare changes in their premiums and tax credits from the Affordable Care Act to the American Health Care Act. Image from the Kaiser Family Foundation Website

Republicans in Congress have vowed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, since its inception in 2010, and after much adieu, a bill has finally been introduced to take its place.

The American Health Care Act has been met with opposition from both parties, while elected officials and hospital administrators weighed in on what the changes might mean for North Shore residents.

The most notable changes in the new health care plan compared to the existing one include an elimination of the individual mandate, which required all Americans to purchase health insurance or be subject to a fine — a sticking point for many Republicans on Obamacare; a cut of federal Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood for one year; adjusting tax credits based on age instead of income; and shifting Medicaid expansion set forth by Obamacare to the discretion of states instead of the federal government, among many others.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to deliver health policy analysis to the public, has created an interactive map on its website to illustrate the estimated changes in premiums paid and tax credits for several demographics from the ACA to the AHCA.

“This is bad news for New York. … We cannot support this legislation in its current form.”

—Kevin Dahill

Tax credits, or the amount a taxpayer can offset what is owed in federal income tax, are a component of both the current health care law and the proposed replacement, though their implementation is very different.

According to the map estimates, a 27-year-old living in Suffolk County making $30,000 per year would receive about 50 percent less in tax credits in 2020 if the new bill became law. A 27-year-old making $40,000 per year would see the tax credit slashed by only 14 percent, but a $10,000 raise would net that same 27-year-old an approximate additional 52 percent in tax credits under the AHCA compared to the ACA.

A 40-year-old Suffolk County resident making $30,000 annually would receive 24 percent less in tax credits, while a 40-year-old making $50,000 would see a 128 percent boost in tax credits. Additionally, a 40-year-old making $75,000 annually would receive $3,000 in tax credits — under Obamacare no tax credits would be received.

Similarly, a Suffolk County resident who is aged at least 60 and earns $75,000 per year would receive a $4,000 tax credit under the proposed bill, despite being ineligible for a tax credit under Obamacare. A 60-year-old making $30,000 annually would receive a 2 percent increase in tax credits.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who has said in the past he would like to maintain certain aspects of Obamacare, like allowing people aged 26 or younger to remain on their parents’ health plans and coverage for people with preexisting conditions, weighed in on the Republican plan in an emailed statement through spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena.

DiSiena reiterated Zeldin’s stance on kids remaining on parents plans and coverage for individuals with preexisting conditions, though she added he believes a smooth transition from the ACA to the new plan is the most important thing.

“Obamacare has resulted in higher premiums, higher deductibles, lost doctors and canceled policies, among many other challenges,” she said. “Deductibles are so high, many people now feel like they don’t even have insurance anymore. One-third of the counties in our country only have one option left under the exchange. That’s not choice. That’s a monopoly.”

“Deductibles are so high, many people now feel like they don’t even have insurance anymore. One-third of the counties in our country only have one option left under the exchange.”

—Lee Zeldin

DiSiena also sought to dispel what she called misconceptions being perpetuated about the new bill and what the policy might do to people’s coverage. She said no one will be kicked off Medicaid under the new bill, premiums might rise in the short term but are expected to be 10 percent lower by 2026 than their current levels, and the claim by the Congressional Budget Office that 24 million Americans covered under Obamacare would lose coverage can be attributed to people who were forced to purchase health care opting to go without.

DiSiena added Zeldin is generally supportive of the bill as written but intends to monitor proposed amendments.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) was far less supportive during an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” March 14.

“We have to continue to point out that 24 million people are going to be kicked off, that their premiums are going to go up, that there’s a transfer of cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and raising premiums on senior citizens and others,” he said in the interview. “This is really a life and death thing.”

Suozzi’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Kevin Dahill, president and CEO of Suburban Hospital Alliance, an organization that represents the advocacy interests of Long Island health systems including St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown and St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, issued a statement regarding the House bill March 13.

“The House bill neither truly repeals nor meaningfully replaces the Affordable Care Act,” Dahill said. “This is bad news for New York. … We cannot support this legislation in its current form.”

Chief Medical Officer at Huntington Hospital Michael Grosso said in an email his facility will continue to hold itself to the highest standards regardless of the federal health care law.

“That said, we must bear in mind as an informed citizenry that when effective, preventive health care is delayed or denied, society pays the price several times over,” Grosso said.

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the bill today, March 23. House Republicans introduced several amendments to the original legislation earlier this week.

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.”

President Trump’s order halts entry from seven countries, seeks to reform policy

Airports across the country were the sight of massive protests. Stock photo

By Victoria Espinoza and Alex Petroski

The recent executive order by President Donald Trump (R) for immigration reform affected refugees and immigrants across the country this past week, including a North Shore-bound traveler.

Trump signed an order Jan. 27 to ban travelers from seven nations — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — from entering the United States for the next 90 days. The immigration reform effort has been met with criticism from federal legislators and activists, and protests against the ban broke out in airports and cities across the country, some starting just hours after the order was signed.

President Donald Trump suspended entry from seven countries last week. File photo

Other federal politicians and commentators support the action, citing the country’s need to strengthen immigration laws and secure the U.S. from terrorist attacks.

Stony Brook student detained

The travel ban and its hasty roll out impacted Stony Brook University president of Graduate Student Organization, Vahideh Rasekhi, who is pursuing a doctorate in linguistics.

According to a statement from university President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Rasekhi was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport when she arrived back in the U.S. from a trip to Iran to visit her family, though she arrived on a layover flight from Ukraine. She was detained and later released Jan. 29. Stanley addressed Trump’s executive order, urging caution from international students, and recommending students from the seven countries listed in the order not travel outside of the U.S. unless absolutely necessary during the 90-day period.

“In November, I shared a message with the campus community expressing the university’s unwavering commitment to diversity — anchored in our strong values of access and inclusiveness — and to creating a campus environment that welcomes all,” Stanley said. “I want to reaffirm the university is resolute on this stance.”

Stanley also offered international students contact information for the university’s Visa and Immigration Services Office, and planned to host an information session with legal experts at the Wang Center yesterday, Feb. 1.

Rasekhi, who arrived at Stony Brook in 2010 after attending the University of California and California State University, declined an interview request, but addressed her experience in an emailed statement through a university media relations representative.

“I am now grateful to be back on the Stony Brook University campus, where I plan to complete my Ph.D. dissertation and continue my work as president of our Graduate Student Organization,” she said. “I would like to extend my sincerest thanks and appreciation to all who intervened on my behalf, including elected representatives, attorneys from the International Refugee Assistance Project and Legal Aid Society who volunteered their help, the ACLU, the [SBU] Linguistics Department and the leadership at Stony Brook University.”

Local officials react

The U.S. representative for New York’s 1st Congressional District, Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), one of Trump’s local supporters, said in an email through a press representative he played a role in Rasekhi’s release from JFK, though he said he supports the order.

“I sympathize with every innocent person looking to come to America for a better life but we must prioritize America’s national security first,” Zeldin said.

“I sympathize with every innocent person looking to come to America for a better life but we must prioritize America’s national security first.”

— Lee Zeldin

He added he would support a ban on all Syrian refugees entering the U.S. until vulnerabilities in vetting systems can be improved.

“America is a nation of immigrants and people should have the opportunity to pursue the American Dream,” Zeldin said. … “The ultimate humanitarian victory is to assist with efforts to stabilize these nations and eliminate the threats there to peace.”

He also said he plans to monitor the application of the order and intervene in cases where he believes it is being used incorrectly.

The 3rd Congressional District U.S. representative, Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), offered no such support for the order.

“While we all are concerned about the security of our people and our nation, we cannot abandon our values,” he said in a statement. … “This issue cannot become an excuse for discrimination. I am adamantly opposed to targeting whole populations of people based upon their religion. It is un-American.”

After the signing of the executive order Jan. 27, subsequent protests over detentions, the opinion that this order targets people based on religion and the apparent uncoordinated rollout, Trump issued a statement Jan. 29.

“America has always been the land of the free and home of the brave,” he said. “We will keep it free and keep it safe. … To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban. … This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”

A closer look at the order

David Sperling, an immigration attorney based out of Huntington Station, said he believes there is a need for reform.

“I’m an immigration attorney, I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” he said in a phone interview. “From being in immigration court I have seen there is a great deal of fraud even from people applying for asylum from the United States.”

He referenced a lack of documentation from refugees in areas like Syria.

Detractors of the ban have criticized the inclusion of the countries on the list — all of which have a Muslim-majority population.

According to New America, a nonpartisan think tank, “not one domestic terrorist attack since 9/11” has been executed by citizens of the seven countries now banned from entering the U.S. “Overall, terrorism in America is happening from homegrown radicals,” the think tank said. Foreign attackers have come from Egypt, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, none of which made the list.

The new administration has contended it has simply continued an initiative started by the Obama administration, which flagged the seven countries as possible areas of concern in 2015, and imposed limited restrictions.

“I’ve never in my career as an immigration attorney seen anything like this.”

— David Sperling

“I’ve never in my career as an immigration attorney seen anything like this,” Sperling said, though he added many aspects of Trump’s presidency thus far are without precedent.

During the 90-day period, the president has ordered the Secretary of Homeland Security with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence to review the current information required from a country before a traveler is granted a visa or admission to the U.S. to ensure the country is not allowing in individuals who are security threats.

The executive order states the 90-day ban is needed to ensure research during this time is successful, the maximum utilization of resources are being used and adequate standards are established. The order also leaves room for special exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

A mission of this order is to eventually implement new uniform screening standards for immigration programs.

For immigrants and refugees, there is already an extensive system process in place.

For immigration screening, according to the State Department, the process includes submitting a petition to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, submitting financial and other supporting documents, and completing an interview.

“America has always been the land of the free and home of the brave. We will keep it free and keep it safe. … To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban. … This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”

— Donald Trump

According to the White House, the refugee screening process involves multiple steps, including interviews with the United Nations refugee agency to confirm refugee status and conducting biographic security checks. While all of these steps are happening, each refugee’s file is being continuously reevaluated based on any new, relevant terrorism information.

Less than 1 percent of the global refugee population makes it past the first step in the process currently. The order also suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, but plans to prioritize refugee claims of minority religious-based persecution in their home country.

The ban also sets a 50,000 cap on refugees allowed to enter the states in 2017, compared to the Obama administration’s goal of admitting 110,000 refugees, according to the Pew Research Institute.

The order intends to complete and implement a biometric entry-exit tracking system of fingerprints and digital photos for all travelers to the U.S. which was discussed by prior administrations and committees.

The order also intends that there will be more transparency in reporting facts and data collection to the public regarding the number of foreign nationals who planned or carried out acts of terrorism.

Sperling said most of his clientele come from Hispanic communities and are concerned about the future.

“They’re scared, they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Sperling said. “There’s a great deal of fear and uncertainty in the immigrant community.”

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