Challenges for PEER, by Richard Rosenthal

PEER, Progressive East End Reformers, has seized the attention of liberals on the East End with its strongly stated intention to confront issues of economic inequality and the excessive power of the financial industry in the Democratic Party that were underscored by the Sanders campaign and Clinton defeat. Attendance at its meetings has zoomed from 12 to 90 between PEER’s first meeting in November and its third in February.

With the rising dominance of radical conservatism in Washington, D.C., and a majority of the states, we need groups like PEER on the national scene. With the East Hampton Democratic Party’s resistance to meaningful expansion of affordable housing and enforcement of state and town disabilities laws, we need them locally. PEER’s declaration to be truly inclusive of our population here is welcome and essential.

So it is with respect that I ask PEER the following questions.

Are local African-Americans attending PEER meetings in significant numbers? I gather from the meeting I attended and from friends present at its earlier meetings that very few have. Were serious attempts made to reach out to the predominantly black churches on the East End?

Has PEER sought to enlist economically stressed Hamptons residents who must live from paycheck to paycheck and require a Target or Walmart-type store, even a moderately sized one, on the South Fork? Their case: Prices in East Hampton are much too high; traveling the 60 miles to and from Riverhead to shop at reasonable prices devours income-producing time and is expensive in itself. (For comment by an affected East Hampton resident on the pro-Walmart/Target viewpoint, see “The East Hampton Divide,” a “Guestwords” in the Feb. 26, 2015, Star.)

Has PEER reached out to the clients, agencies, and advocates for adults and children with developmental disabilities? They, especially, will be ravaged if Medicaid or Medicare funding is cut.

Has there been an energetic outreach to students and faculty of Suffolk Community College? To a great extent, this is Trump territory, containing many military veterans and others who hear little of Sanders’s proposals.

What provisions are made for people with physical disabilities to attend and fully participate in PEER’s meetings, decision-making, and other activities? As a person who must use a walker, has a severe hearing loss, and was for 10 years East Hampton Town advocate for people with disabilities, I feel especially connected to this issue.

I am told by attendees of the January meeting that there were no access provisions available, that the meeting was held in a place that was not wheelchair-accessible and was otherwise very difficult for mobility-impaired people to approach and negotiate. At that meeting and the ensuing PEER meeting in February in the meeting room of the Bridgehampton National Bank in Bridgehampton, there was no FM or infrared assistive-listening device, which is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act and essential for me and others with hearing losses to stay apace of and participate in the proceedings. Nor was there as far as I could find an offer of a sign interpreter for people who are deaf.

These are startling omissions by a group that emphasizes a commitment to inclusiveness and to emulating the successful grass-roots organizing methods employed by the Tea Party.

Is PEER’s “grass-roots” approach seriously on its to-do list, or just a nice touch of branding? There are some 2,000 year-round residents with mobility and auditory disabilities on the South Fork.

Surely, PEER has a tougher row to hoe than the Tea Party, which was organized around a unity of resentment at Obama and bicoastal and academic elites. The Tea Party also enjoyed abundant financial support from conservative donors.

PEER’s destiny will depend on its success in guiding disparate East End groups in a common, progressive direction — the Anglo and Latino workers and school parents, our pretty-little-town conservationists and our Walmart-demanding domestic workers.

I’d sure love to see them pull it off. I assume no Koch brothers or Mar-a-Largo steak diners are PEER contributors, but I have a hunch there is enough financial comfort among its members to hire a few organizers to go out there and harvest those grass roots.

Let’s hope so.


Richard Rosenthal’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York magazine, and The London Sunday Telegraph. PEER will meet on March 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Bridgehampton National Bank in Bridgehampton.