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Congressman Zeldin spars with constituents at ‘community forum’

04/24/2017 4:38 PM |

It started the moment the lights dimmed and continued with nearly every question asked.

A large portion of the audience at Congressman Lee Zeldin’s first town hall-style event wanted to make it clear to their representative that they’re frustrated with his performance. And the congressman, while remaining on a mostly even keel, showed he was willing to dish it back. 

“I’ll tell you what, if you could just stop for a second, if I can’t even have like four minutes to say hello and share some thoughts on some issues I’ll refuse to,” Mr. Zeldin said after his opening remarks were interrupted by an audience member urging him to answer questions. “It’s important that we all get to have a productive, substantive dialogue.”

The forum, which was moderated by Republican Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy and held at Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern Campus in Northampton, was one of three public events the congressman hosted Sunday.

Announced just three evenings in advance and billed then as a “community forum,” the event gave about 200 residents the opportunity to submit cards with questions for Mr. Zeldin (R-Shirley). After being sorted through by a group of the congressman’s associates seated in the front row, including Mr. Kennedy’s wife, Leslie, a Suffolk County legislator, about 20 queries were then put to Mr. Zeldin by the moderator. Topics included health care, the environment, defunding Planned Parenthood, immigration, tax reform, North Korea and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Zeldin often stopped mid-answer to address audience disruptions.

The event lasted about 70 minutes, and the congressman exited quickly through a side door without further interaction with the audience, which included dozens of supporters and several fellow elected Republican officials.

Hours later, Mr. Zeldin issued a statement through his press secretary that referred to Sunday’s forums as “town halls,” the very type of gathering he’s been criticized for not hosting in the first 100 days of his second term.

“It was such a pleasure to meet with so many great constituents at today’s town halls to hear concerns and answer questions,” the congressman said. “I am willing to work with absolutely anyone to move our country forward, no matter what your ideological background is, and I welcome any opportunity to engage in substantive, productive dialogue.”

At the Northampton event, however, both sides seemed to doubt the interaction was productive, with some even questioning its substance.

“He doesn’t really answer questions,” said Eileen Duffy of Quogue. “We get a lot of lists, civic and history lessons, and we get a lot of whining about how he doesn’t get a chance to answer. I think if he cut a lot of that out, people might have been walking out a little happier this afternoon.”

An audience member interrupts Congressman Lee Zeldin at one point in the event to say he didn’t believe the congressman answered the question posed. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Ms. Duffy was among a group of East End residents, many of whom have organized through a Facebook group started in January, who stuck around for a few minutes after the event to recap what they’d just witnessed. Many of them expressed frustration that Mr. Kennedy posed the questions instead of audience members themselves, a format more commonly associated with town halls.

“It took away the chance to ask follow-up questions,” said Kathryn Casey Quigley of Greenport.

Mr. Kennedy also came under fire for combining or paraphrasing questions, and also for beginning to answer some questions himself before allowing Mr. Zeldin to speak.

Asked how she might have set things up differently, Ms. Quigley, who has called for a Zeldin town hall in the past, said that aside from allowing direct interaction with the congressman, she would have hoped for a longer event. Ms. Duffy said she wouldn’t consider the forum a “town hall.”

Mr. Kennedy, meanwhile, said it was a “robust exchange of ideas.”

“He did the most fundamental thing any elected official must do,” Mr. Kennedy said of his fellow Republican. “He stood before his electorate, heard their concerns and he’s informed for when it comes time to vote.”

Mr. Kennedy said he volunteered to moderate after Mr. Zeldin approached him to do so. He said he didn’t choose the format.

“I was invited to do this and I’m happy to stand with him,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Additional forums with similar formats but different moderators were held later on Sunday in Farmingville and Smithtown.

About 200 people attended Sunday’s first community forum in Northampton. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Zeldin on the issues …

Whether those in the audience agreed with what he had to say or not, Congressman Lee Zeldin did respond to about 20 audience questions posed through moderator John Kennedy Sunday afternoon. Here’s what Congressman Zeldin had to say about some of the topics raised at his first community forum of the year. His answers have been excerpted from his overall remarks.

BORDER WALL

That’s something that’s part of [budget] negotiations right now. As far as our border goes, I was stationed right on the Mexican border [with Arizona]. We have a 9,000 foot wall [in Arizona] … it’s called the Huachuca Mountains. In Texas you already have a barrier between the United States and Mexico. There are areas where we have a physical barrier between the two countries. You have other areas with a physical barrier where there are vulnerabilities. I don’t believe that we should have a 30-foot wall on top of the 9,000-foot high Huachuca Mountains.

TRAVEL BAN

I am supportive of what was a temporary restriction on travel from six countries. As far as the original rollout goes, I think what is very important is when you are executing something as complex as what that was, it’s important that all federal employees responsible for rolling it out can answer all questions about it effectively. What happens is you end up with a federal employee not properly implementing the executive order. It’s also important when traveling to know if anything being implemented can impact your travel. So the problem with the original rollout was it was deeply flawed.

DEFUNDING PLANNED PARENTHOOD

That might be part of the continuing [budget] resolution this week. It’s important to note that the bill doesn’t, a lot of people say defunding as if that money is going into the treasury, that’s not what the proposal is. We have six community health centers in the 1st Congressional District. As a result of what has passed, and I can’t speak for a bill that doesn’t yet exist, what often gets completely lost in this entire debate is that the six community health centers — we have three Planned Parenthood centers and six community health centers — the community health centers end up getting more. There is more money that ends up getting driven toward women’s health care as a result of that funding proposal, but all that’s been discussed has been as if you’re just cutting the money and it’s going toward the treasury. It’s not just going toward the treasury. It’s going toward women’s health.

DEFUNDING THE EPA

Last Congress there was a vote on decreasing funding of the EPA by 17 percent … I voted against that. My position is that we should be improving the EPA and that’s hopefully a shared goal amongst everyone.

CLIMATE CHANGE

[The congressman said he agrees with most of what’s been presented in a climate solutions resolution, but not all of it. He didn’t elaborate on any specifics.]

NORTH KOREA

If you could ask me for the top solutions of how to deal with North Korea they would all involve China’s leadership. That’s why from one administration to the next no administration has been really able to crack the code on what’s going on in North Korea, because in that region it really needs China’s leadership. As North Korea gets further along with its nuclear missiles and nuclear capabilities they have the capability to be able to hit the mainland of the United States. As they get closer and closer with that madmen at the helm of North Korea, we get closer and closer to having no choice but to act without China … I believe that all options should be on the table. He can not have the capability to hit the mainland of the United States.

RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE

I’m the opposite party of the DNC, the DCCC and [Clinton campaign president] John Podesta, but besides that we’re Americans and cyber security is an important issue that impacts all of us. We as Americans should all be concerned about what happened to the DNC, the DCCC and John Podesta from a security standpoint. Am I concerned about it? Yes. Should it be investigated? Absolutely … I look at Russia as our adversary. I believe that Vladimir Putin wants to be Vladimir the Great and he thinks he’s 8 feet tall. He’d like to put the U.S.S.R. back together and he meddles where we have troops in harm’s way.

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S TAX RETURNS

It was my position during the campaign and it’s my position now that he should release his tax returns.

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