William Floyd Parkway is the major road in Shirley, NY, where Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin lives. If you drive along its length, you’ll see large signs proudly announcing his candidacy for Congress, urging voters to show up at their polling place on November 6th. His signs dominate the landscape, showing support for a candidate who’s lived in this school district his entire life – only leaving to serve a tour in Iraq.
It’s plain to see that he’s popular in the area. Although, if you go into the neighborhood where he lives, you’ll see a few signs for his rival, Perry Gershon. One sign, in particular, is on the lawn of his next door neighbor.
“I don’t believe his politics represent our district,” said Samantha Clink-Haug, a volunteer for Brookhaven Town’s Democratic Committee. “How can they when he doesn’t listen to us? How can he when he is hardly here? As his immediate neighbor, he is almost never home because he is in Washington, advancing his future, not ours.”
Zeldin’s rise to Congress came in 2014, after defeating a Tim Bishop, the Democratic incumbent for New York’s first congressional district. Zeldin will be running for his third term as representative for the people of Long Island’s East End.
Zeldin’s voting history is long and is classically Republican. He has been a supporter of President Trump and has appeared several times on Fox News advocating for the party line. Often times, his legislative choices are not in the best interest of his constituents, and neighbors.
“He [Zeldin] is a proud member of the conservative right,” said Dan Fingas, Operating Director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition. ”And has voted against health care and women’s rights.”
Zeldin’s votes against women’s rights fly in the face of his constituents. Over 51% of the people in his neighborhood of Shirley, NY, and neighboring Mastic Beach are women. His votes against the Affordable Care Act are the topic of recent radio campaigns from his rival, Perry Gershon. The ads highlight the rising cost of premiums and criticize Zeldin for not seeing the desperate need for the ACA in his district.
Because he proudly tows the party line, Zeldin connects with people who want to avoid talking politics, and keep discourse simple. “People don’t want to talk politics,” said Samantha Clink-Haug, a volunteer with the Brookhaven town Democratic Committee. “With social media and the constant influx of political talk, which has greatly increased in the past few years, people are inundated with what they should or shouldn’t say, think, or do. It gets harder to vote on things that we actually think or believe, so the best alternative is to just vote blue or red.
When people in small-town communities fail to discuss the issues, they can be blinded by the image of a candidate. They see someone who lives in their community, who has a similar background and vote based off of single issues.
“Zeldin doesn’t represent working-class values,” Fingas said. “He consistently votes with corporations on issues like huge corporate tax breaks and the social safety net.”
Many of the people who live in the Shirley-Mastic area of Long Island are workers. The working class of Long Island got their start building military aircraft for Grumman (now Northrup Grumman) in the nearby hamlet of Calverton. Calverton was the home of the F-14 Tomcat. When the project was tabled, 5,000 workers lost their jobs, effectively changing the culture of Long Island labor for years to come.
There is often an air of misdirection when it comes to his campaigning. In a recent debate, Lee Zeldin and Perry Gershon came to blows over environmental issues. Zeldin has often claimed that he’s strong on environmental issues – and will fight to keep the oceans that Long Islanders are surrounded by and rely on, clean. However, he’s consistently voted in favor of offshore drilling and has a 10% rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
This misdirection can be seen in how Zeldin interacts with the community. “Congressman Zeldin is only active with constituents that share his beliefs,” Clink-Haug said. “The problem is that that is not his entire constituency. When was the last time he went to the North Shore [of Long Island]? He holds private, invite-only sessions with constituents that he knows will only agree with him. He does not hold open debates.”
When representatives surround themselves with people who confirm their bias and spend time away from their homes they can lose the very sense of community that makes a representative democracy like the one in the United States function. Conversation with neighbors cannot be replaced with online surveys and posts on Facebook. For people in the neighborhood, all they see is an empty driveway, a battered fence out of repair, and a district left voiceless.
Fingas spoke on how Zeldin is able to keep his seat. “While NY CD1 has been a swing district since the late 90s,” he said. “It has gotten slightly more conservative since 2010. This fact coupled with the massive amounts of campaign donations from special interests and corporation have allowed Zeldin to win.”
Being slightly more conservative doesn’t mean that the right candidate can flip the seat in 2018.
“Zeldin’s competitor needs to bring a real grassroots campaign with progressive ideals that excite the Democratic base and turn out the vote,” Fingas said. “Democratic voter turnout will be the biggest factor in a successful flip of the seat.”
Gershon, Zeldin’s opponent in the upcoming Congressional election has done just that. His campaign has focused on reaching the voters that Zeldin does not, such as using pop radio stations. His campaign has even sent hand-written postcards to voters in neighborhoods around District 1 in a concerted effort to flip the seat.
“It’s tough to beat an incumbent,” Fingas said. “But there is a chance and Perry is doing the right things”
The Democratic Primary in New York’s first congressional district was initially split among five candidates some local and some newcomers. In the time since the primary, Gershon has successfully unified that 5-person ballot behind a single cause. The hope is, the winner will be a person who finally listens, and understands what’s important to the disenfranchised, working-class voters of Long Island’s East End because they’re ready to finally be heard.