Democrats to Vie at Friday Forum

Field of seven, including one from East Hampton, hope to take on Zeldin
Perry Gershon, the only Democratic congressional hopeful from East Hampton, believes he is best suited to win the general election. Durell Godfrey

The sole East Hampton resident seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Representative Lee Zeldin in November, Perry Gershon, will be among a field of seven hopefuls at a forum in Amagansett on Friday.

The 7 p.m. gathering at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church on Montauk Highway will be at least the 12th time the candidates have made their pitches as a group. It is organized by the East Hampton Democratic Town Committee and will be moderated by Arthur Schiff and Phyllis Italiano.

Two of the candidates’ names are familiar, at least to some First Congressional District voters, Kate Browning and Vivian Viloria-Fisher are former Suffolk legislators from points west. The latest to enter the race for the nomination is Bruce Miller, a Port Jefferson Village trustee and former school board member.

David Pechefsky has held a variety of posts in New York City government, including as assistant director of housing and economic development, and he ran for City Council in 2009 as a Green Party candidate.

The others, including Mr. Gershon, have no direct political experience. Brendon Henry is a bartender from Center Moriches. Elaine DiMasi worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory for more than 20 years. 

At this point, even more candidates could enter the race. The deadline for filing petitions is April 12. The primary itself is on June 26. So far, there has been no indication that anyone will challenge Mr. Zeldin for the Republican nomination.

Mr. Gershon got to know East Hampton through his then-girlfriend, Lisa Post, whom he married at East Hampton Point in 1995. His wife’s family had had a house here since the 1970s.

The Gershons first bought on Mile Hill Road in East Hampton’s Northwest Woods in 1999, building a house that Mr. Gershon said was a refuge for him from the rest of the world. He changed his voting registration from Manhattan to East Hampton last year.

Scuba and running marathons are among Mr. Gershon’s interests, as are the New York Mets. He ran a sports bar in Manhattan in the 1980s. When the Mets were in the 2015 World Series, he attended the Saturday night loss to the Kansas City Royals then, crestfallen, ran the New York Marathon the following morning, completing the 26.2-mile course in 3 hours and 54 minutes.

Mr. Gershon graduated from Yale University, a member of the class of 1984, and received a business degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He had attended medical school for two years (his parents were doctors) before changing course and deciding to go into business. He is taking time out from his commercial lending company to run for Congress, he said.

Amid a crowded field, the candidates have had to work hard to distinguish themselves. Ms. Viloria-Fisher and Mr. Gershon attended a Feb. 17 vigil in East Hampton Village for victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shootings. Mr. Pechefsky recently opened his campaign headquarters in a building next door to Mr. Zeldin’s Patchogue office.

In an interview, Mr. Gershon said that he believed that he had the best chance among the Democratic hopefuls of beating Mr. Zeldin in the general election, citing his message and fund-raising. “Zeldin has something like $2 million now, and he is going to get a whole lot more,” he said.

Mr. Gershon’s campaign had more than $812,000 on hand as of this week, according to campaign disclosures; Mr. Zeldin had about $1.2 million in the bank. 

The Gershon campaign was well ahead of its nearest Democratic competitor, Mr. Pechefsky, who reported about $175,000 in his war chest. Mr. Pechefsky put $100,000 into his campaign last year. Mr. Gershon has so far contributed $400,000 of his own money.

Much has been made of the fact that Mr. Zeldin is the only Jewish Republican in Congress. Mr. Gershon said that the fact that he too is Jewish could neutralize that as a campaign plus for Mr. Zeldin.

One takeaway Mr. Gershon said that he hoped the audience at Friday’s forum would have would be that he has the ability to win the general election. 

“My campaign has tried to highlight Mr. Zeldin’s vulnerability,” he said, citing the Republican’s embrace of Steve Bannon, opposition to the Russia probe, and Mr. Zeldin’s sponsorship of a bill that would allow holders of concealed pistol permits from other states to carry their guns in New York.

He said that Mr. Zeldin had sought to obscure the issues of gun control following the Feb. 14 school shootings by putting a focus on mental health and not limiting assault weapons. “And he has attacked law enforcement,” Mr. Gershon said.

Mr. Gershon said he did not see any signs that Mr. Zeldin had made a tack to the center, as many politicians do as elections approach. “He has gone further right,” he said. “He has gone the other way and attached himself to Donald Trump. I don’t think this will play well. Trump’s numbers are going to continue to decline,” he said.

Turnout will be key in November, he said. To win, he said, Democrats will have to rally their base in north Brookhaven and on the South Fork, as well as capture independents and moderate Republicans across the district who have had their fill of President Trump.

He said that enthusiasm seems to favor Democrats at this point. Of the more than 10 candidate forums that he has taken part in, all of the rooms have been full and he said the crowds are building. “There is a fierce dislike of Zeldin,” Mr. Gershon said.

For Mr. Gershon, the key to winning is to get the message across on jobs, health care, and the environment. On the East End, the effects of global warming are particularly noticeable, he said. “Zeldin is far off base on this,” he said.