By Victoria Espinoza
After calls for more public discussions and town hall meetings from constituents in New York’s 1st Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) held three town halls this past Sunday. Some praised Zeldin for his patience dealing with “organized protestors,” while other attendees were still left wanting more dialogue with their representative.
Cindy Morris, a Stony Brook resident, attended Zeldin’s third and final town hall of the day at St. Patrick’s Church in Smithtown.
“We’ve [progressive groups] been working very hard asking him to meet with us in a public forum since November,” Morris said in a phone interview. “This was his first attempt and I felt it was important to attend, both to thank him and show this is not an attempt for political theater like he’s claimed, but for real dialogue.”
In a previous interview, Zeldin spokesperson Jennifer DiSiena said requesting a town hall with the purpose of disrupting it is wrong and wouldn’t be taken seriously.
“Congressman Zeldin will meet with any constituent interested in a productive, substantive exchange of ideas,” she said. “He is not interested in the type of political theater that this group of liberal obstructionists is interested in promoting.”
DiSiena was addressing Project Free Knowledge, a group who hosted a “mock” town hall in Port Jefferson in March which featured a Zeldin impersonator and little effort for an impartial discussion. However, Zeldin has referred to different forms of protests by constituents in his district similarly.
But Morris insisted this meeting was nothing like the mock town hall. Unlike the first two town halls held earlier that day, where she said attendees did not have an opportunity for audience interaction, she praised the Smithtown event for being well-organized, giving some audience members a chance to ask a question off the cuff, that hadn’t been screened.
“He’s our congressional representative, and the representative piece of that is the most important part of his title,” she said. “We wanted to give him an opportunity to let him know what our values are, what we’re looking for.”
Morris also said after watching the first two town halls on Facebook Live, she recognized sound bites Zeldin had used repeatedly that day.
“There was certainly some messaging,” she said. “Until he’s willing to have a real conversation with his constituents, I think that’s literally political theater.”
The event was hosted by Catholics for Freedom of Religion, and President Barbara Samuells said she thought the event went very well.
“People were able to do what the event was intended for,” she said in a phone interview. “They were able to come forward in an open environment and ask questions.”
Samuells said the environment was respectful and calm, unlike other town halls she has seen across the country, and a variety of different issues were discussed. She also commended Zeldin on his directness, saying he answered questions honestly.
Residents wrote on Zeldin’s Facebook page praising him for attending the meetings. Bob Voss, of Mastic, recognized the congressman’s effort.
“Thank you once again for making yourself available to your district constituents and the opportunity to express their concerns whether there is agreement or not on an issue,” he said. “Most important is the knowledge, skill and ability to listen as opposed to talk/yell which may have various motivations. In community forums like these and when [they are] done with mutual dignity and respect much can be accomplished other than shouting.”
But others agreed with Morris, saying the conversation was not as direct as they would have liked.
Nicolle Zeman, who attended the Riverhead town hall, wrote on a Facebook page called Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin, which is comprised of people urging Zeldin to hold town halls. Many are harsh critics of the congressman.
“There was lots of rambling, avoiding answering direct questions and self-serving monologues,” she said. Zeman asked Zeldin about President Donald Trump’s (R) possible tax plan to eliminate the head of household filing status, and said Zeldin instead “rambled,” on about tax reform in general, and when she pressed him on the specific elimination he couldn’t say definitively if he would support the elimination or not.
Zeldin was one of Trump’s first supporters on Long Island, however as of late he seems to be putting some space between himself and the commander-in-chief.
“He did say a couple of times that Trump needs to clean up the way he speaks, that he’s no longer a television host, he’s the president,” she said. “He’s trying to find ways to distance himself from Trump but he’s voting for the Trump agenda.”
Morris acknowledged Zeldin is committed to fighting cuts against the Environmental Protection Agency and funding to the Long Island Sound, which is the opposite stance of Trump, however he “stands strongly with him,” on immigration and financial issues.
FiveThirtyEight, a website focusing on poll analysis and politics, gave Zeldin a 96 percent score for how often he votes in line with the president’s position on house bills. But in the most recent house bill to repeal an FCC rule stopping internet service providers from sharing data of customer’s activities, Zeldin voted no — the opposite of Trump’s position. The bill had almost unanimous Republican support.
Morris also said Zeldin’s staff was helpful after the events, approaching them and getting their contact information to keep them informed.
“They asked us if we would stop protesting, we used the hashtag #WhereIsZeldin, and they said we found him here, there’s no more reason to use it,” Morris said. “But I told them we wouldn’t stop after a one hour moment.”
After the town halls Zeldin said he enjoyed meeting with the people of his district that day.
“It was such a pleasure to meet with so many great constituents at today’s town halls to hear concerns and answer questions,” he said. “At the community forums, we were able to cover a breadth of very important issues, including health care, the environment, foreign policy, economic growth, several local issues, and so much more. I am willing to work with absolutely anyone to move our country forward, no matter what your ideological background is, and I welcome any opportunity to engage in substantive, productive dialogue.”