Not Hillary and Donald, It’s Anna and Lee

Sunday’s candidate forum was a real slugfest
Representative Lee Zeldin and Anna Throne-Holst, his challenger. Morgan McGivern

The tone was heated and the attacks were sometimes personal when Representative Lee Zeldin and Anna Throne-Holst, his challenger to represent New York’s First Congressional District, met at Concerned Citizens of Montauk’s 46th annual candidates forum on Sunday at the Montauk School.

Questions on environmental issues were interspersed with sharply contested queries, submitted by the audience, on topics including gun violence and immigration. But in this “election of our lifetime,” as the challenger put it, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the major-party candidates for president, continue to cast a long shadow over this congressional campaign.

With a recent poll indicating a 15-point lead for the incumbent, Ms. Throne-Holst made multiple efforts to tie her opponent to Mr. Trump, whom he has endorsed. While Mr. Zeldin conceded that inaction on immigration reform was due to partisanship in Congress, Ms. Throne-Holst said that “he supports Mr. Trump’s building a wall” at the Mexican border. She also noted that Mr. Zeldin, as a Republican, is part of the current legislative majority. “If the spirit is actually there to get this done,” she asked of immigration reform, “why isn’t it getting done?”

The tension rose as Ms. Throne-Holst continued her attack. Asked if Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state gave her pause, along with the Clinton Foundation’s practices and “her abuse of women attacked by her husband,” former President Bill Clinton, she turned to the 2005 videotape on which Mr. Trump is heard bragging about kissing and grabbing women.

“We have an individual running for the White House today that has, over years, sexually abused women, and makes no bones about it,” she said, scornful of Mr. Trump’s defense of his remarks as “locker room talk.”

“Answer the question,” an audience member called out.

“Yeah, I’ll be happy to answer the question,” she replied. “Do I think that a man like that, that speaks disparagingly of Gold Star families, that puts a whole nationality, across the board, as criminals and rapists, has any business running for president of this country? And the fact that Mr. Zeldin’s moral compass is so off that he will troll for votes thinking that the Trump base will doesn’t, as a father and a husband, speak up” about Mr. Trump’s remarks “is a real issue, and it goes way beyond anything else.” Much of the gathering applauded.

Mr. Zeldin responded angrily. “To be asked a substantive question from someone in this crowd on whether or not anything that happens to be a flaw or imperfection in her own candidate gives her pause . . . instead of answering that, you’re going to attack me as a husband? You’re going to attack me as a father? And you’re going to bring my family into it? It’s disgusting.” His remarks also drew applause.

When Peter Lowenstein, the moderator, asked Ms. Throne-Holst if she would like to “take another crack at answering some of these questions,” she admitted to disagreeing with Mrs. Clinton with regard to “entirely opening our doors to Syrian refugees” before implementation of “a vetting system that is airtight,” and called her use of a private email server a mistake. “But does any of that rise to the level of condoning sexually molesting women?” she asked. “No, it doesn’t.”

The tone continued when the discussion turned to gun violence. Ms. Throne-Holst charged that Mr. Zeldin has voted 28 times to prevent a vote on legislation that would prohibit terrorism suspects on the government’s “no-fly” list from buying guns. “The skating and slip-sliding around this issue is almost comical,” she said of her opponent. “Just ask him that question: Have you or have you not voted 28 times not to permit the bill to come forward and a discussion on the floor of the House of Representatives to take guns out of the hands of terrorists through ‘No fly, no buy’? The simple answer is yes, he has done that 28 times.”

Loopholes can be closed to protect public safety, she said, but “because our Congress is so mired in dysfunction under people like Lee Zeldin, they are not happening.”

Mr. Zeldin said that gun legislation has to both prevent terrorists from buying firearms and protect Americans’ due-process rights, referring to a bill he introduced that would stop a gun sale to a suspected terrorist only after law enforcement obtained a court order. He also suggested that so-called gun-free zones were to blame for the scope of mass shootings at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

The candidates also clashed on the controversial Army Corps of Engineers barrier on the downtown Montauk beach that was damaged last month by Tropical Storm Hermine. Mr. Zeldin stressed solidarity with East Hampton Town officials. He said that all agreed that more sand was needed, both in the barrier’s initial construction and in the longer-term plan to add sand to the beach every four years, and that he had helped secure a commitment to it.

Local control is paramount, Ms. Throne-Holst said, but “doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have representatives on the higher levels of government” ensuring that that protocol is followed. Town officials, she said, “knew full well that putting the hardening structures in is something that every coastal engineer today will tell you is not the way to do it, that this is a project that will start to encroach on itself” as a result. Mr. Zeldin, “who’s responsible for making sure that the Army Corps did a project which was what local control was asking for, in my opinion fell down on the job,” she said.

Mr. Zeldin called that “a pretty remarkable spin,” and repeated, “I’ve secured a commitment to increase the amount of sand that’s coming to East Hampton Town.”

Ms. Throne-Holst repeated that the town “did not want hardening structures as part of this project, and it was allowed to go forward.”

In a rare moment of accord, both candidates agreed that climate change is a real phenomenon. Both pointed to their own accomplishments, Mr. Zeldin citing support for energy-efficiency programs as a state senator and funding for Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University as a congressman. Ms. Throne-Holst detailed sustainability measures in Southampton under her stewardship, including the Southampton 400 Plus update to the town’s comprehensive plan, the Solarize Southampton initiative, and her role in creating the Clean Water Technology Center at Stony Brook University.