Zeroing In on Zeldin

Dems don’t hold back at forum for candidates
David Pechefsky and Elaine DiMasi, each in a Democratic primary bid to opposed Representative Lee Zeldin in November, at a candidates' forum in Amagansett on Friday. Christopher Walsh

Democratic candidates seeking to unseat Representative Lee Zeldin in New York’s First Congressional District in the Nov. 6 midterm election sharpened their focus on the second-term congressman at a forum on Friday, attacking the Republican’s positions on guns, foreign policy, and his ties to President Trump.

The forum, hosted by the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett, had been rescheduled from March 2 after a northeaster forced its postponement. On Friday, town residents listened as five of the six declared candidates repeatedly hammered Mr. Zeldin, in contrast to a forum held at Stony Brook Southampton in January, where nearly an hour passed before the congressman’s name was uttered. 

Mr. Zeldin “is too right-wing for this district,” said Perry Gershon, an East Hampton resident seeking the Democratic nomination. While many of his positions are “relatively standard Republican fare,” which he called “anti-environment, anti-choice, anti-consumer protection,” Mr. Zeldin is an extremist on important issues including guns and the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election. 

“Wrong response to Parkland,” Mr. Gershon said of the mass shooting that killed 17 at a high school in Florida last month, citing Mr. Zeldin’s call to arm teachers and his sponsorship of legislation that would require all states to recognize any other state’s concealed-carry permit. “No one in New York is for that,” he said. Mr. Zeldin is “supporting Trump to the nth degree, at a level that we need to highlight,” he said. “That’s where we’re going to nail him. That’s where he’s vulnerable. 

Mr. Zeldin is “so wrong on the gun issue,” Kate Browning, a former Suffolk County legislator, said to applause. “We cannot have more guns in our schools to fight off the guns.” 

Vivian Viloria Fisher, another former member of the Legislature and a former teacher, said, “As a teacher, I cannot imagine asking teachers to bear weapons in classrooms.” 

All five candidates said they would not accept donations from the National Rifle Association, which they denounced, and pledged to work to ban assault rifles. 

David Pechefsky, a former senior staff member at the New York City Council, called Mr. Zeldin “an apologist” for the president who “is sponsoring egregious legislation” pertaining to immigration and health care. “He’s vulnerable on all these issues,” he said. On foreign policy, “what he’s saying is madness,” Mr. Pechefsky said of Mr. Zeldin, challenging policies he said are based on militarism. 

“What does coal do for Long Island?” asked Elaine DiMasi, a former project manager and physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, referring to the president’s emphasis on fossil-fuel energy sources and denial of climate change. Air quality here suffers because of coal-fired power plants elsewhere, she said, and Mr. Zeldin, “with his piecemeal voting, doesn’t seem to understand that.” Renewable energy and smart-grid technology should be catalysts for “Long Island’s re-energized economy,” she said, but Mr. Zeldin “has not had any solutions or ideas. . . . His idea of protecting the environment is piecemeal, his idea of protecting human rights is nonexistent.” 

Along with Ms. DiMasi’s, the other candidates’ criticism extended to the president, and they sought to highlight the ties between him and Mr. Zeldin. 

“I’m running because I’m fed up with Lee Zeldin and what he represents — the right-wing politics, the personal profit, enablement of Donald Trump, who’s dividing our nation,” Mr. Gershon said. He condemned the president’s scapegoating of the media and immigrants, and his “renouncement of facts,” all of which he said leave him disgusted. “When Trump got elected, I said I have to fight back.” The best way do to that, he said, is by challenging Mr. Zeldin, who he said believes in trickle-down economics and “is doing nothing to help locate business” in the district. 

The candidates, pledging their support for marriage equality and a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, also hit Mr. Zeldin on his vote in favor of a federal ban on abortions after the 20th week of gestation, which the House of Representatives passed but the Senate voted down. 

Brendon Henry, who was unable to reschedule another commitment, was represented at the forum by Kyle Cranston, a member of his campaign. Asked about loans or donations the candidate has made to his own campaign, Mr. Cranston did not have a ready answer, saying that “almost all” of the donations have come from supporters.

Mr. Pechefsky said that he and his wife have lent $100,000 to his campaign. Ms. DiMasi has lent her campaign $20,000. Ms. Browning said that she has not contributed to her own campaign, but her husband made a $1,000 donation. Ms. Viloria Fisher said that she and her husband have lent her campaign $110,000. 

Mr. Gershon, whose campaign announced last month that he had raised more than $1 million, said that $400,000 of that figure came in the form of a loan from himself and his wife. 

A confident attitude accompanied the sharper attacks directed at Mr. Zeldin on Friday, and events outside the district may justify the candidates’ collective mood. Yesterday, Democrats were celebrating the apparent victory, pending any legal challenge, of their candidate in Tuesday’s special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, which Mr. Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. In recent months, many Republicans in Congress have announced their retirement, and pundits predict more to come if Tuesday’s results stand, the unpopular president potentially a greater liability than asset. 

“This is not the time for us to be cautious,” Mr. Pechefsky said. “It’s time to say we are Democrats, the party of working people, the party of fairness, of inclusion. If we stick to our principles, we will rally Democrats who feel disaffected, the people who don’t come out to vote. If we do, we will win and in a way that resonates across the country.”