Dems Ready for a Fight, but Not With Each Other

Democrats look past primary to race with Zeldin
Democratic candidates hoping to challenge Representative Lee Zeldin in November met for a debate in Hampton Bays last Thursday. Christopher Walsh

With the June 26 primary election fast approaching, the five Democratic candidates seeking to challenge Representative Lee Zeldin in New York’s First Congressional District were measured in their remarks at a debate last Thursday at Hampton Bays High School. 

Barely a month before the primary, the candidates remained largely in lockstep on issues including immigration, guns, health care, the opioid crisis, and an economy driven by clean-energy technology that they said the district can and should have. Any efforts to criticize one another were mild and indirect at the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons debate last Thursday. The candidates instead pressed the case for their own electability in a district Mr. Zeldin won by 16 percentage points in 2016, when he defeated Anna Throne-Holst, the former Southampton Town supervisor. 

Though the Cook Political Report puts the seat in its “likely Republican” column, the eventual nominee can win by appealing to moderate and independent voters as well as the base, said one candidate, Perry Gershon, who lives in East Hampton. “We did not get that in the last two elections,” but many Republicans and Independents are unhappy with President Trump, who won the district in 2016, he said. With the right message, the Democratic nominee can carry Republican-leaning areas like Smithtown, he said, citing fellow Democrats Steve Bellone, the county executive, and Tim Sini, who was elected district attorney in November. 

“My messaging is jobs,” Mr. Gershon said. “We didn’t do that with working- class people in the last election.” He called for “credible messaging that we’re going to bring better paying jobs, particularly in clean energy,” and run against the Republican-led tax overhaul of 2017, which eliminated state and local tax deductions. (Mr. Zeldin voted against the tax bill.)

Kate Browning, a former county legislator who lives in Shirley, pointed to her six decisive victories in her district, which she said is “more Republican than Democratic,” as evidence of her electability. She also criticized the elimination of the state and local tax deduction, as well as Mr. Zeldin’s votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which she said would take health insurance from 30,000 people in the district. 

She called on Congress to produce a romised infrastructure bill, for a focus on renewable energy, and for protection of organized labor, marriage equality, and a woman’s right to choose.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher, of East Setauket, said that she, too, was repeatedly re-elected to the Legislature in a majority Republican district “because people saw I was able to produce, and represent my community.” Noting that “the environment is important to everyone in Suffolk County,” she pointed to legislation she sponsored to require new municipal buildings to use green technologies and pass Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards, as well as ban a carcinogenic additive in gasoline and promote community gardening and sustainable food sources. 

“To win, we’re going to have to excite and engage people that are not typical midterm voters,” said David Pechefsky, who worked in New York City government and as an adviser in efforts to build democratic institutions abroad. “If we don’t, we won’t win. My campaign is in part about speaking out to young people, to newly registered voters,” including Muslims, said Mr. Pechefsky, who lives in Port Jefferson. “They should be part of the broader Democratic community.” 

Elaine DiMasi, who spent 21 years “building infrastructure for the research community” at Brookhaven National Laboratory, described a crisis situation in Washington. “The stakes are very high for this election,” she said. Ms. DiMasi, who lives in Ronkonkoma, has a plan for creating “new, clean-energy jobs for the district” by harnessing the sun and wind, she said, which would “allow us to work on health care, gun violence, opioid addiction. We need Congress to be doing a better job working together to solve problems, to collaborate.” The district’s biggest problem, she said, is that “Lee Zeldin is our representative.” 

Mr. Gershon trained his criticism on President Trump, of whom Mr. Zeldin is a stalwart supporter. He is challenging Mr. Zeldin “because our country is under attack,” he said. “Donald Trump and his election has really changed the landscape,” not only putting just causes in jeopardy “but our whole republic, the core that holds us together.” When Mr. Trump won the 2016 election, “I said I had to find a way to fight back.” 

The 2018 election will be about health care, environmental protection, gun control, and an economic agenda, Mr. Gershon said. “I can speak to all” of those issues, he said, and “bring a coalition together to get elected as a Democrat in the fall.” 

Ms. Viloria-Fisher recalled her family fleeing the Dominican Republic and its then-dictator, Rafael Trujillo, when she was 3 months old. “Imagine how I felt when I began to get a glimpse of what Donald Trump was, and is,” she said. She said that she visited Mr. Zeldin prior to his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “When he responded with just talking points — no depth, no empathy — I knew I had to run. The country was in an existential crisis.” 

Mr. Zeldin is a co-sponsor of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would allow a person with a concealed carry permit from one state to carry a firearm in any other state and on any federal land. “Law enforcement said don’t do it,” said Ms. Browning, whose husband is a detective in the New York City Police Department, “and he did it.” The congressman “is absent from the district,” she said. “He’s so far to the right, he’s forgotten who he’s supposed to be representing.” 

Instead of a government “truly working in the public interest,” ours has been “captured by warmongers,” Mr. Pechefsky said. He decried both a “reckless” and “immoral” foreign policy and the widening gap between average workers and chief executive officers, citing a 2017 report from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that concluded that the C.E.O. of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company is paid 335 times that of a rank-and-file worker. “A smaller and smaller population is capturing more and more wealth,” he said. “We need to fight back against that.”