Perry Gershon of East Hampton won the Democratic primary in June for the 1st Congressional District. He’ll challenge Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in November for his seat in Congress. Mr. Gershon sat down with the editors and reporters of The Suffolk Times ahead of the election to discuss a few of the issues that are a focus in the campaign.
Here is a condensed version of the conversation.
Q: What are you hearing from people and how do you think you are doing?
A: We have tremendous Democratic energy right now in this district at a level that, best I can tell, we haven’t seen since at least 2012 and some may say 2006/2008. It’s a culmination of the Trump administration and people’s general reaction to that and just a feeling of dissatisfaction with [Congressman] Lee Zeldin himself and a lot of the policies that he’s been behind.
Q: Do you hear more things about Zeldin or more things about [President Donald] Trump?
A: At the moment, hearing more things about Zeldin. I’d say in the Democratic primary if you’re trying to bring them out to get people to vote you talk Trump. But I think now the focus is on issues. It’s on health care probably more than anything else … There’s another issue that matters to everyone in Long Island and in the state, really. The Republican tax plan and the loss of state and local/property tax deductions.
Q: When they talk about Zeldin, what’s bothering people that you’re encountering?
A: It’s a combination of extremism, feeling abandoned that he’s become political. I do think Zeldin was elected as a moderate. People thought he represented something and in this last term he’s been anything but that. He’s got one thing in particular in common with Trump, which is governing for one party as opposed to everybody … Zeldin doesn’t hold town halls, he holds mobile town halls and controls who can participate in it. Which is representing your supporters, perhaps, but it’s not hearing the point of view of the district.
Q: Are there issues unique to out here, like fishing or farming or small businesses, that you think he’s really dropped the ball on?
A: Yes. Let’s start with his signature issue, Plum Island. I’m not going to attack his position on Plum Island. I think the right idea is to preserve it and keep it from being developed and ideally to keep it useful as a research facility. And he likes to say that he has gotten Plum Island through the House, numerous times. But he’s not getting anything passed into law. There’s more to being a successful legislator than just passing laws, even if your name is on it.
Q: If the House flips over in November, would you be in favor of seeking impeachment against the president or just more digging into things, like tax returns?
A: I don’t think it’s fair to prejudge any inquiry. There’s a probe going on and it’s a criminal probe of what happened in the election. [Special counsel Robert] Mueller is studying it … So let him finish, let’s see what the results show and then let’s make a decision. It wouldn’t be right, regardless of what I feel, for me to take a position on it today because I don’t know what he’s going to find.
Q: In terms of foreign policy where do you think Zeldin has gone off the rails?
A: I think, in many ways, he’s too rah-rah with President Trump. I’ll start with the recent meeting Trump had with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin … Zeldin was willing to say that, yes, the Russians interfered. But he had no criticism of the president … Iran is another good example. Whether you supported the JCPOA at the time or not it was in place and it was serving as a deterrent … It’s unclear what’s going to happen from here. I’m hopeful. I root for the United States. So I’m hopeful that Trump somehow does cut a better deal … There are lots of ways you can make it better. But why not work on making it better while you’re still in it instead of pulling out?
Q: Mr. Zeldin was very much in favor of moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. How did you feel about that?
A: Like Zeldin, I’m Jewish. I’m a very, very strong supporter of the state of Israel. Congress decided 20-plus years ago that the embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem … The last thing I wanna do is say that I don’t think the embassy belongs in Jerusalem because I think it does. I think the timing and the ceremony could have been handled better. I don’t think you need to incite people. If you’re moving the embassy to Jerusalem, do it quietly.
Q: How do you think Zeldin responded when the separations at the border were taking place?
A: I certainly would have responded differently. I’m very much for comprehensive immigration reform and I’m very much for border security. There was a rally in East Quogue and some people came to me and asked me if I was for abolishing ICE. I’m like absolutely not — ICE is important and it is wrong to take that position. But at the same time you can be pro-ICE and still be for reforming ICE. We should have comprehensive immigration reform and we should have strong and enforceable borders … You don’t separate children from their parents because that creates problems. There are other issues with immigration that are important. You’ve got people who’ve been in this country for a long period of time. You have the DREAMers. And they should have a path to citizenship.
Q: In some circles of the Democratic party now there seems to be a very lefty, socialist view of the direction your party should be taken, on things like health care. Where do you come in on that?
A: You can look at who our Democratic congressmen were historically and they were all moderate and I think that’s what works [in New York One.] I consider myself to be a progressive, but at the same time I also consider myself to be a moderate and strongly pro-business. I have a business background. I’m a capitalist, I’m not a socialist. I think business is the engine that drives America. I think health care is also a right. It’s not a privilege. I’d like to see everybody have universal health care, but I’d do it in steps. Not being penalized for preexisting conditions is probably the most important gain we have. And if that’s under attack I’m going to focus on preserving that.
Q: How do you combat the image that Zeldin’s pushed out there? That you’re a guy from the city, you don’t represent the East End, you’re just parachuting in?
A: I’m certainly not just parachuting in anywhere. I’ve lived here for 20 years. I got married in this district. My wife’s family has been in the Hamptons since the 1970s. I think I have a pretty good, strong connection to New York One. I’ve been a taxpayer for 20 years. But having said all that I really don’t want to respond to it. What I want to talk about is health care. I want to talk about taxes. I want to talk about some of the crazy things he’s for, like concealed carry reciprocity … I want to talk about job creation and how to do that.
Q: How do you combat all the millennials stuck at home or leaving Long Island because they can’t afford to live here?
A: You have to invest in yourself first. What Zeldin and the Republicans got behind is just a general tax cut to everybody. Their feeling is if you cut taxes the wealth will trickle down. Well, it doesn’t trickle down here in Long Island. But if you invest in what you have then you can make yourselves better. If we can invest in our plans and our infrastructure businesses will want to open here and they’ll be able to offer a higher paying jobs which will work for younger people. There are other things we need to do. Student debt is an absolute killer for young people. And I think we need a federal program that alleviates that burden and alleviates it not just for the people in school today but for the people who are shackled by their student debt.
Q: Just briefly, what’s your background?
A: I graduated Yale in 1984. I was a molecular biochemistry and biophysics major. I went to medical school for 2 1/2 years and in 1987 I left because I realized I was living in my parents’ shadow. My mom is a very famous researcher: she developed the chickenpox vaccine. My dad is also a very famous neurobiologist. So in January of ’87 I left and opened a sports bar. I ran it for 3 1/2 years and then sold it. I moved out to California and went to business school at Berkley and came back in 1993 and got involved in a startup real estate lending business.
Photo caption: Perry Gershon pictured in June after winning the Democratic primary. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)