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Fleming Will Vie to Take on Zeldin

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 16:07

Newly re-elected legislator is 'up for challenge'

Bridget Fleming, seen here stepping off a Suffolk County bus in 2017, has decided to seek the Democratic Party's nomination to represent New York's First Congressional District in 2020.
Durell Godfrey

Weeks after a re-election campaign that saw her win 60 percent of the vote over her Republican challenger, Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming announced on Tuesday morning her intention to challenge Representative Lee Zeldin in New York's First Congressional District next year.

Ms. Fleming's entry represents a significant turn in a race for the Democratic Party's nomination that already has two candidates vying to challenge Mr. Zeldin, one of President Trump's most strident defenders before and during the present impeachment inquiry.

"The stakes are just too high for me to stay on the sidelines," Ms. Fleming said on Tuesday. "We need a change in our congressional representation. Right now, our congressman seems to be spending most of his time circling the wagons in defense of the president, when there are real concerns in our district that need to be addressed."

If she is the Democratic nominee, Ms. Fleming, who lives in Southampton, will have to win votes in the more densely populated and conservative-leaning western part of the district. (Her legislative district includes the South Fork, Shelter Island, Southampton, and part of Brookhaven Town.)

"There's no question that that's where a great part of the challenge will be," she said on Tuesday, "but one of the reasons I am excited and see that this change is achievable is because the results we saw county-wide, and particularly in Smithtown and Brookhaven in the county executive race, really did demonstrate to me and my team that it is achievable to change our representation and elect a congresswoman who is focused on the needs of the district, and not just the president and what's happening in Washington." County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, won re-election on Nov. 5 by a 10-percentage-point margin over his challenger.  

Mr. Zeldin ran a negative campaign in the 2018 race, portraying Perry Gershon, his Democratic challenger, as a carpetbagger and dubbing him "Park Avenue Perry" within hours of Mr. Gershon winning his party's primary election. "My family and I have thought carefully about it," Ms. Fleming said of the prospect of a negative campaign, "and we recognize that it's going to be a difficult race. But . . . I'm up for the challenge. I've run and won difficult races in the past, and I've endured negative races in the past. . . . I intend to run on my record and my integrity, and I'm confident the voters will appreciate that."

Should she be the Democratic nominee, Ms. Fleming may face a deficit in name recognition district-wide, as Mr. Gershon did in 2018. Overcoming that will be a focus, she said, "but I can say since the launch this morning I'm seeing a lot of enthusiasm, so it's very heartening. But we recognize we have work to do." The strength of her re-election victory "was also very heartening in terms of the level of support."

Elected to represent the Second Legislative District in 2015, Ms. Fleming serves as chairwoman of the Legislature's Ways and Means Committee, co-chairwoman of the Health Committee, and as a member of the Public Works, E.P.A., and Public Safety Committees. Previously, she won a special election to the Southampton Town Board in 2010 and was re-elected to a four-year term the following year. Prior to her political career, she worked as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's office.

Running on the Democratic, Independence, and Working Families Party lines, she won a third term on Nov. 5, besting former Southampton Town Supervisor and Councilwoman Linda Kabot, the Republican, Conservative, and Libertarian candidate, by nearly 4,000 votes, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections' unofficial count.

Mr. Zeldin, a former state senator, won a seat in Congress in 2014, when he defeated the six-term Representative Tim Bishop. He easily won re-election two years later, besting former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst by 16 percentage points. Last year, he bucked the "blue wave" in which Democrats saw a net gain of 41 seats in the House of Representatives and retook the majority, by defeating Mr. Gershon, a first-time candidate who lives in East Hampton, by just 4 percentage points.

In April, Mr. Gershon announced his intention to challenge Mr. Zeldin again. He is conducting town hall meetings throughout the district, highlighting the charge that Mr. Zeldin has not held such an event in more than two years. In regular communications to supporters he emphasizes Mr. Zeldin's defense of the president in the ongoing impeachment inquiry.

"I have spent over two years crisscrossing the district and talking to thousands of voters, including at three recent town halls hosted by my campaign," Mr. Gershon told The Star on Tuesday. "I intend to go to Washington to fight for affordable health care and to lower prescription drug costs, eliminate the [state and local income taxes] cap, tackle the climate crisis that is adversely affecting Long Island, take care of our veterans, and restore American values. I welcome anyone to the race who wants to have that conversation."

Nancy Goroff, a professor and chairwoman of Stony Brook University's chemistry department, threw her hat into the ring in July, emphasizing her credentials as a scientist. The Stony Brook resident has the backing of 314 Action, a group working to elect Democratic scientists; Emily's List, a political action committee that works to elect pro-choice female candidates; Legislator Kara Hahn, the majority leader in the County Legislature, and Democratic candidates in Brookhaven's 2019 elections.

"Nancy's campaign has shown incredible strength over the past few months," Jacob Sarkozi, Ms. Goroff's campaign manager, said in a statement on Tuesday. "As seen in her local and national endorsements as well as incredible fund-raising haul in her first quarter, her message of bringing facts and evidence into policy-making has resonated across the district. We're excited to keep making the case to voters that she is the strongest candidate to take on Lee Zeldin."

Ms. Fleming said on Tuesday that, "although I respect the folks who have stepped up and are in the race, neither of them has any experience in public office, and I've spent the better part of this decade addressing the very needs and concerns of the district that I think are being neglected by our congressman."

Mr. Zeldin's political fortunes may rest on those of Mr. Trump. He is a relentless defender of the president on cable news channels and on Twitter, where he launches regular attacks on his Democratic colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee, which recently heard testimony from current and former foreign service officials during public hearings and is now preparing a report for the Judiciary Committee.

The congressman's re-election prospects had dimmed somewhat even before he emerged as a champion of the president. Months before Mr. Trump's alleged effort to withhold military assistance and a meeting at the White House from the president of Ukraine until he publicly announced an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, the National Republican Congressional Committee named Mr. Zeldin to a list of eight incumbents expected to face tough re-election campaigns.

In January, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee identified 33 Republican-held seats to target in next year's elections, Mr. Zeldin's among them. The same month, it attacked 25 House Republicans, including Mr. Zeldin, with Facebook ads tying them to the government shutdown of December 2018 and January of this year.

Last year, the D.C.C.C. included Mr. Gershon on its Red to Blue list of top-tier candidates to which it provides financial and organizational support.

As of Friday, however, the website Election Projection had Mr. Zeldin winning by 6 percentage points in a preliminary projection of next year's race against a still-to-be-determined opponent.

Mr. Zeldin's Long Island colleague in the House, Representative Peter King of the State's Second Congressional District, announced his retirement on Nov. 11, prompting the Cook Political Report to move its prediction from "likely Republican" to "lean Republican." Mr. King is the 101st House Republican to leave Congress -- via retirement, re-election defeat, campaign for another office, or position in the president's administration -- since Mr. Trump was elected, representing 42 percent of the Republican caucus's 241 members at that time.

An email to Mr. Zeldin's communications director had not been returned as of Tuesday afternoon.
 

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