After months of urging from his constituents, Congressman Lee Zeldin held a marathon series of three town hall community forums on Sunday throughout the First Congressional District.
Mr. Zeldin took the stage at the first forum at Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern Campus in Northampton at 2 p.m., charging into the room in shirtsleeves and blue jeans to thunderous applause from a crowd that contained many skeptics who, momentarily at least, seemed happy that the congressman had finally decided to hold an in-person public town hall meeting.
But that applause turned quickly to impatient muttering as Mr. Zeldin gave his introductory remarks on issues he said most of his constituents could agree on, including preserving Plum Island and funding for the National Estuary Program.
The crowd had only been given an hour with their congressman, and Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy, who was moderating the forum, had a slew of index cards full of questions from constituents to ask Mr. Zeldin.
Throughout the forum, Mr. Zeldin distanced himself from President Donald Trump’s positions on national issues, despite the fact that he’d been a major supporter of the president during last year’s campaigns.
Mr. Zeldin said a border wall between the United States and Mexico doesn’t make sense in areas like the Huachuca Mountains between Arizona and Sonora, which range from 4,000 to 9,500 feet, where he was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Fort Huachuca.
Mr. Zeldin, who is Jewish, also said he’s repeatedly publicly criticized White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertion that Adolph Hitler didn’t engage in chemical warfare against his own people.
“It’s really important to set the record straight. Millions of Jews were killed as a result of chemical warfare,” he said.
Mr. Zeldin also said he believes Russia is an adversary to the United States.
“Vladimir Putin acts with a long game, 15 to 20 years out,” he said. “I was critical of Barack Obama’s policy on Russia, and I’ve been critical of Donald Trump’s as well. You have to have a long game if you want to win.”
When asked directly if there should be an independent investigation into Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Zeldin said he has faith that the FBI, CIA, NSA and Director of National Intelligence will conduct nonpartisan investigations.
When asked what he believes is a “tolerable number of uninsured residents,” Mr. Zeldin first said that he believes most of the 24 million people whom the Congressional Budget Office said would lose health insurance under the defunct American Health Care Act would have opted out of insurance once the Obamacare individual mandate was lifted.
His comments were met with a chorus of “no” from the crowd, and after being urged to answer the question, he elaborated that “no one wants a number [of uninsured residents ] higher than zero” after which he was met with cries of “let’s do it!”
As Mr. Zeldin was answering a question about his commitment to combatting opioid addiction, a mother who said her son is a heroin addict interrupted and asked Mr. Zeldin to make a commitment to not back a health care plan that doesn’t provide access to mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Mr. Zeldin was met with hisses from the crowd when he responded by beginning to explain his position on the American Health Care Act, after which he shut his mouth and asked to hear the next question.
Mr. Zeldin said he’d voted against a plan in the last Congress to cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by 17 percent, and said “we should be improving the EPA. Hopefully that’s a shared goal amongst everyone.”
Mr. Zeldin also said he would like to sign on to a bill committing Congress to take action to address climate change, but would first like to see some wording in it changed, including language stating that the “2014 Quadrennial Defense Review states that the effects of a changing climate are ‘threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions.’”
Mr. Zeldin was also met with hisses over his support for Mr. Trump’s travel ban executive order.
“As far as the original roll-out goes, it was deeply flawed,” he said, after which a woman in the audience piped up that it was “deeply unconstitutional.”
“I don’t believe whatsoever that it is a targeting of individuals solely based on religion,” he said.
Mr. Zeldin said, when dealing with North Korea’s nuclear provocations, “the top few options would all involve China’s leadership.”
He began talking about a “madman” without mentioning North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un by name, saying “he cannot have the ability to hit the mainland United States,” after which members of the audience, who had been grumbling Donand Trump’s name in conjunction with the word “madman,” laughed and said, “oh, that madman.”
“This is not funny,” said Mr. Zeldin. “We should figure out how we can possibly come together and unite as Americans as far as North Korea goes.”
Mr. Zeldin said he stands by his co-sponsorship of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would allow gun owners with a concealed carry permit to cross state lines with their weapons.
“I would hope it would be passed and signed into law,” he said.
When asked if he would favor a tax plan that no longer included a head of household tax credit, which could prove a burden to families headed by a single parent, Mr. Zeldin brought up how tax changes could affect the mortgage interest itemized deduction, and added that he’s in favor of reducing the corporate income tax rate.
When asked again to answer the question on the head of household credit, Mr. Zeldin said “I’m not advocating for that change,” but “in the spirit of compromise, I’m not going to get everything I want all the time.”
Mr. Zeldin also said he personally believes Donald Trump should release his tax returns, but he’s not “going to pledge to resist, persist, obstruct and oppose everything.”
“I would definitely argue there was a ton of audience participation today,” said Mr. Zeldin after about an hour and ten minutes of questions, before leaving as abruptly as he had arrived for two more stops, in Farmingville and Smithtown.