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Editorial: Grades are in for Zeldin’s ‘town hall’ community forum

Town halls are often fiery forums where members of the public express concerns to their elected officials, who find themselves having to defend policy positions that are unpopular with many in the room.

Anyone who’s attended such an event in the 1st Congressional District — whether it be Sunday’s community forum with Congressman Lee Zeldin in Northampton or one of the 2009 town hall events featuring his predecessor, Tim Bishop — would expect it to be confrontational.

These types of meetings are raucous and uncomfortable, but also an important part of the governing process. Even if they sometimes feel like pure political theater, town halls provide an opportunity for constituents to be in the same room with their representatives to air grievances.

Sure, some members of the public might attend to learn a little more about what’s going on in their district, but audiences are mostly stacked with folks who show up for a reason — to voice displeasure or pledge unwavering support for the politician at the front of the room.

This week, we took time to reflect on Sunday’s performances — by both Mr. Zeldin and the crowd — and offer this town hall report card.

Congressman Lee Zeldin: B

No one is in a more difficult position at a town hall than the elected official answering the questions. Even in an evenly divided room, the answers will frustrate 50 percent of the people in attendance, who won’t hesitate to interrupt and boo.

How officials answer questions should be held against them come Election Day, but what matters more for the candidate during an event is maintaining composure. Mr. Zeldin was mostly effective in that area.

He was right to say he wasn’t there to speak in sound bites, and many of the questions were too complex to answer without providing broader context.

Yes, like every other politician in the world, he ducked a few queries, and the format didn’t allow for the type of follow-up that might have held his feet to the fire.

He did, however, meet his constituents halfway by hosting an event similar to what they’d been requesting and he’d been trying to avoid —  and he remained respectful throughout. 

The anti-Zeldin crowd: C

The problem with the group of East End progressives organizing against Mr. Zeldin is that they complain about everything. From the lights being turned off to the temperature in the room, it’s hard to even keep track of the things they’re upset about.

There’s plenty to take away from what the congressman had to say — the fact that he couldn’t deliver a coherent message on climate change sits near the top of the list — without sweating the small stuff.

Stop worrying about who the people taking pictures in the room are or how the lighting will affect your social media videos, and start focusing on becoming a group other people might want to join at the polls come Election Day.

Loud outbursts today won’t necessarily help a Democrat win that seat in the House come 2018. But find a coherent message and a candidate who can drive it home and you just might have a chance.

Zeldin supporters: C+

The conservatives in the room Sunday were definitely a bit quieter than the liberals, which is really saying something considering the tea party theatrics of years past. In fact, this grade might have been higher, if not for the one dope who yelled out “They’re not in your backyard” when the issue of immigration came up.

We’re sure that guy’s a real patriot who loves freedom more than the next guy, but he’s also something else: a racist.

Moderator John Kennedy: D

This was a poor moderator performance. The only thing saving Mr. Kennedy from a failing grade is that he is an elected official who was volunteering his time and not someone who ordinarily does this sort of thing.

Moderating is really quite simple, though: You ask the question on the card, control the crowd as best you can and get out of the way.

Mr. Kennedy fumbled with cards, paraphrased what was written to the point that they weren’t even questions and then answered himself.

Event security: C-

The amount of police and security working the event Sunday was a complaint we heard from the anti-Zeldin crowd.

It was a bit over the top, with women being told to leave their purses in the car and members of the media having to pass multiple checkpoints with their bags of equipment. It got the event off to a bit of a jarring start and, while security is important, it seemed like overkill.

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