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Listen up, Lee

Tara Smith
The Long Island Advance

As the Rotary Club of Shirley and the Mastics honored Congressman Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1) as Man of the Year Saturday night, a protest was brewing.

Nearly 150 local residents gathered outside of Sunset Harbour in East Patchogue to make their voices heard, holding signs promoting peace, truth and humanity. Their main cause of coming out was to call for Zeldin to address their concerns in the form of a public town hall meeting.

The Listen Up event was coordinated by a Stony Brook organization, Project Free Knowledge, with help from Patchogue Indivisible, a grassroots community organization formed to keep Zeldin aware that he has many constituents who reject President Donald Trump’s agenda. According to their Facebook page, “Trump’s agenda explicitly targets immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ people, the poor and working class, and women. It is critical that our resistance group reflect and center the voices of those who are most directly threatened by the Trump agenda.”

Many in attendance expressed concerns that Zeldin has been unwilling to work with 1st District constituents, particularly those who did not vote for him. “We protested because Zeldin, like many other Republicans, are refusing to meet with their non-Republican constituents,” said John A. Smith, Patchogue resident and founder of Patchogue Indivisible.

Last year, he met personally with Zeldin to discuss important issues such as campaign finance reform and Citizens United. This year, Smith says he has not had the same luck in scheduling a meeting, explaining a back-and-forth between Zeldin’s local and D.C. offices, and empty promises of returned phone calls.

However, Zeldin’s communications director Jennifer DiSiena assured the Advance that the congressman was willing to listen. “Every single person who requests a meeting is offered one with at least a member of our staff, if not with the congressman himself, in order to address each and every concern,” she said, citing the hundreds of meeting requests received per week.

A legislative aide told Smith that they were working on getting a staffer to New York to address their concerns, an olive-branch move that isn’t enough for Smith and the hundreds of other voters who crowded the roadways outside of the Rotary event.

“We don’t need lip service from an aide,” Smith said. “We need for Zeldin to listen to our concerns. He can’t represent us if he doesn’t hear us.”

Many constituents still hope for a more open line of communication. “The bottom line is to try to ask Lee Zeldin to have a town meeting, so people can explain their position and he can respond to what we are looking for, and get to know a little more about him,” said Mastic Beach resident Joyce Stanley. “We’re feeling that with our Republican representation, there’s no way to get their ideas across or even talk with them,” she added, expressing the need for both political sides to come together and at least listen.

Their issues ranged from healthcare to climate and education and immigration, all of which have been altered under the new administration. Immigration was the issue most protesters were passionate about. Some held signs referencing #NoBanNoWall, in response to Trump’s recent executive orders. Over the weekend, protests erupted at major airports all over the country against Trump’s travel ban on those coming from Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq.

“[Zeldin] has failed to speak out against the inflammatory remarks and false statements of the new administration,” said Adam Blair in a Project Free Knowledge press release on the demonstration.

But he isn’t obligated to. Zeldin was a vocal supporter of Trump throughout the campaign and released this statement in regard to the travel ban on Sunday:

“I support the temporary entry restriction from certain nations until the administration, Congress and the American people know with confidence that any individual being granted admission does not pose a threat to our security. As the executive order correctly states, ‘Secretaries of State and Homeland Security may, on a case-by-case basis, and when in the national interest, issue visas or other immigration benefits to nationals of countries for which visas and benefits are otherwise blocked.’ Additionally, lawful permanent residents and green card holders should not be adversely impacted by this executive order. Every American has sympathy for the innocent person who is looking to come to America for a better life, but the process must, without exception, prioritize America’s national security first. We cannot allow someone entry until we know for sure they will not pose a risk. The ultimate humanitarian victory is to assist with efforts to stabilize these nations and eliminate the threats there to peace. With all that being said, I will be closely monitoring the execution of this EO to make sure that any misapplication is corrected immediately.”

Despite his longtime support of President Trump, many were still shocked to hear his position.

“In the world we live in today, [Zeldin] needs to realize that there will never be a time when we can be sure someone doesn’t pose a threat,” Smith said, adding that he was sad to see this imposed, since we have always prided ourselves as being a nation of immigrants, a melting pot.

Blair and the others are committed to getting their town hall meeting. “We will continue to put pressure on Mr. Zeldin until he fulfills this fundamental responsibility by meeting to discuss the shared concerns of hundreds of his constituents,” Blair said.

DiSiena reiterated that their office conducts several telephone town hall meetings each year in addition to mobile office hours across the district. Since 2015, Zeldin and his staff have held these mobile office hours everywhere from Southampton to Smithtown, Mount Sinai to Mastic. Zeldin’s district manager, Mark Woolley met with constituents from the East End and Brookhaven Tuesday at the Riverhead Free Library. DiSiena advised that anyone interested in keeping up with these events should sign up for their newsletter and follow other direct outreach platforms, including social media.

“As for the protesters at the Rotary Club dinner, it is greatly unfortunate that they chose reprehensible tactics to harass attendees, including banging on the sides of the cars driving by and jumping in front of cars to stop them. Requiring a police presence just to get cars through into the venue does not reflect well or help their cause,” DiSiena said.

Suffolk County Police officials reported that there were no arrests made Saturday night.

Despite the political climate and surge in protests, Stanley thinks it is an overall net positive. “I’m excited about seeing people join groups and get involved,” Stanley said. “There are so many avenues to make your voice heard and it does feel like you are making a difference,” she added. “Most of us never thought about getting involved with politics at all, aside from writing a check. This is more hands-on.”