Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who is eyeing the Republican nomination in next year’s gubernatorial race, made a campaign stop in Riverhead Sunday morning.
The event, hosted by the Nofo Patriots group, was billed as a food donation drive that morphed into a political rally and car parade bound for Greenport, Shelter Island and the South Fork. It began with a rally at the former Walmart parking lot along Route 58 in Riverhead, where similar pro-Trump caravans began prior to the 2020 election.
In a 20-minute speech, Mr. Zeldin addressed a crowd of nearly 100 supporters, freshly energized by the ‘red wave’ that swept Long Island during the Nov. 2 general election.
“We need change,” Mr. Zeldin said. “We need a new direction for our country…and we need balance in our state.”
During his speech, Mr. Zeldin spoke about the need to strengthen public safety, repeal the state’s cashless bail reforms and support law enforcement officers. He said he’s running as a “last stand” to save the state.
“We want you to stay and afford to live here in New York,” he said, calling for balance in Albany.
Mr. Zeldin also seized on what’s become a hotly debated topic in suburban areas regarding “parental rights.” The education issues range from mask mandates and COVID-19 restrictions to how children are taught about racism and even sex education, which Mr. Zeldin said is often not “age appropriate” for children.
“We believe that our students should go to school for a quality education,” he said. “Do not try to indoctrinate our kids — do not try to brainwash our kids.”
Mr. Zeldin’s hometown of Shirley and Mastic Beach remain at the bottom of vaccination rates in Suffolk County, according to data from the New York Department of Health. While he has said he is fully vaccinated, his messaging to 313,000 followers on Twitter has centered entirely on anti-mandates.
Some of the vehicles participating in the parade featured flags and messages written on the windows like “We will not comply” and “Unmask the kids.”
In addition to American flags and “thin blue line” flags, some also featured messages like “Trump Won” and “Let’s Go Brandon,” an anti-Biden slogan.
Several Riverhead Town police officers were on scene as a safety precaution and to help direct traffic. As Mr. Zeldin concluded his remarks, a woman in the crowd who was not taking part in the caravan was heckled as she asked him to comment on the Jan. 6. Capitol riots.
While that led to a brief, tense moment between the woman and others in the crowd, police officers at the scene said there was no incident.
Mr. Zeldin served two terms in the New York State Senate beginning in 2010 before defeating former Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) in 2014.
Since announcing his candidacy in April, he’s secured backing from virtually all county GOP leaders, including in Nassau and Suffolk County. Former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, have also launched bids for governor.
New York hasn’t had a Republican governor since Gov. George Pataki’s term ended in 2007.
“We’re going to have an election that 40 years from now they are still going to be talking about the history that this group made,” Mr. Zeldin said Sunday. “We will for the first time ever elect a governor from Suffolk County. We’re going to have a bigger seat at the table than we’ve ever had before.”
Mr. Zeldin spoke Sunday having recently voted against both the Build Back Better bill and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that was signed into law Monday.
After Sunday’s rally, which featured several other speakers, a caravan of more than 50 vehicles set off for the parade, which co-organizer Vinny Tirelli also said was being held to collect donations of food and money for local food pantries, General Needs, a local organization that assists homeless veterans and Mission 22, which helps offer treatment for traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans.
“We’re a very patriotic group but what we want to do is show that it’s not about party lines, it’s not about politics,” Mr. Tirelli said. “Even though we are a Republican and Conservative organization, it’s all about giving back to the people that need it right now. There’s a lot of people going without this year, especially with everything going on. A lot of people are out of work.”
By mid-morning, Mr. Tirelli said the group had filled approximately four pickup trucks with food donations that will benefit pantries on both the North and South forks.