It was a largely hostile crowd that filled the lecture hall at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead where Rep. Lee Zeldin convened the first of three community forums today.
Zeldin, a second-term Republican re-elected in November with nearly 60 percent of the votes cast, entered the room to dimmed lights and music, accompanied by loud cheers and applause from his supporters in the audience — a minority of the standing-room only crowd.
Forum moderator and Republican Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy introduced Zeldin and began with a plea to the audience to let the congressman speak uninterrupted.
It wasn’t heeded.
Members of the audience immediately began shouting their objection to the room lights remaining dimmed.
They interrupted the congressman’s opening statement, which focused on local environmental issues like Plum Island, Montauk beach replenishment and the Long Island Sound Program. They shouted for him to answer the questions they had submitted on cards, as required by the rules Zeldin laid down in advance.
“If I can’t have like four minutes to share some thoughts on issues,” Zeldin told them. “It’s important that we all get to have a productive, substantive dialogue,” he said.
Again, he was met with shouts from audience members who wanted the congressman to answer their questions, which focused mostly on non-local issues. The questions submitted by the audience dealt mostly with the controversial, hot-button national issues: immigration, the border wall, climate change, health care, defunding the EPA and Planned Parenthood, gun control, North Korea, Russian interference in the 2016 election and tax reform, among others.
Audience members objected to how the moderator read — or paraphrased the questions — and they objected to how Zeldin went about answering them, with some accusing him of sidestepping questions. Shouts from the audience were met with Kennedy shouting back to try to quiet them down.
A thick stack of question cards was sorted by Kennedy’s wife, Suffolk County Legislator Leslie Kennedy and two other women, who grouped questions about the same topic together and handed them to the moderator.
None of the topics was pre-selected and all of the questions asked came from the audience, Kennedy said.
Zeldin took only one question off the floor, posed by a woman who said her son is a heroin addict. She asked him if he would commit to opposing a health care act that does not include mental health and substance abuse treatment. He started to answer it but, when interrupted, asked Kennedy to read the next question.
“You want to answer your own questions,” Zeldin told the crowd. “It’s okay if you disagree but give me an opportunity to answer the question.”
Zeldin drew jeers from the crowd when he reiterated his support for the president. He defended the first version of Trump’s travel ban, which he said was poorly implemented. He parts ways with Trump, he said, on several areas, including funding for the national estuary program and on foreign policy as it relates to Russia.
“I look at Russia as our adversary,” Zeldin said. “I believe that Vladimir Putin wants to be Vladimir the Great. He wants to put the USSR back together.”
Asked if he would support an independent commission to investigate Russian involvement in the election, Zeldin said he is satisfied that U.S. intelligence agencies are independent entities.
“I’m not one of those people who blindly follows anyone,” Zeldin said.
He said he believes the president should release his tax returns, a position he said he made clear during the campaign. But he said he is not “willing to shut everything down over it” and did not respond to shouted questions asking if he would vote to require Trump to do so.
Zeldin expressed frustration at not being allowed, he said, the chance to give a 60-second or 90-second answer explaining an issue and his position on it. “You can’t reduce everything to a sound bite.”
The congressman has for months resisted demands that he hold an open town hall meeting. The three community forums today were his compromise: a face-to-face with constituents but with questions screened by and asked through a moderator.
The format and execution of the event left Zeldin’s opponents in the audience feeling frustrated — though not necessarily surprised.
“I thought it was as expected,” said Kathryn Casey Quigley of Greenport. “I did not expect there to be a true dialogue between the people who ware attending and the congressman. I think a true dialogue is an opportunity for someone to stand up and ask a question and get an answer, then be able to ask a follow-up. I think that’s why people where upset,” she said.
“He would go on and on about process and data — of course he wants to explain himself, but I think you get that opportunity if you’re also willing to listen to people,” she said.
“It was dark in there — he couldn’t even see us.”
“It’s interesting that they managed to turn the lights on when it was over,” said Leslie Weisman of Southold.
Robin Long of Hampton Bays said she told John Kennedy after the event had ended that the format “just made anyone who was an opponent look like a disruptor,” she said.
“They handed out cards, you had to give our name. phone number and email. You had to give photo ID showing you live in the First CD,” Long said. “Look at what happened to Congressman Bishop. The Tea Party people followed him around.They harassed him if he went out to lunch,” she said.
“So don’t tell us we’re disruptors.”
Zeldin left immediately after the Riverhead forum ended for his next scheduled forum in Farmingville.
Kennedy said afterward he thought the event went well.
“It was a robust exchange that covered a wide variety of topics. He did an outstanding job,” Kennedy said.
“Agree or disagree with him, what he did today is the most basic thing any elected must do: stand before your constituents and hear their concerns so you can be informed when it comes time for you to vote.”
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