I totally get Congressman Lee Zeldin’s refusal to hold the town hall meeting some of his constituents are clamoring for.
Facing a roomful of vocal angry constituents is hard. Been there, done that.
When I was a Riverhead Town councilwoman who had come out in favor of upzoning farmland, I sat through many town hall meetings where I was excoriated by farmers who accused Councilman Rob Pike — who drafted the farmland preservation program they hated — and me of attacking their way of life. They were angry. And loud. I also sat through meetings picketed by town union workers mad over an expired collective bargaining agreement.
There were plenty of other town board meetings during my four-year term that brought me face-to-face with sometimes irate constituents as I tried to do the job I’d sworn to do, so help me God. That’s just how it is as a local town official. There’s no escaping the people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by your decisions — decisions made at a readily accessible town hall meeting, open to the public, held twice a month, where your constituents live.
In his career as an elected official, Lee Zeldin has had the luxury of conducting the business of the people who elected him in a place far, far away — first in Albany, when he was a New York state senator and now in Washington, as the representative of New York’s First Congressional District.
Legislators in Albany and Washington do their jobs, for the most part, outside of the view and beyond the attention of the constituents they represent. What local state legislators and our representative in Congress do — how they vote — is generally ignored by the press. Usually, they don’t get the attention of national — or even regional — media on “big” issues. And local media just don’t have the resources to cover their far-away activities in the state or national capitals.
So representatives like Mr. Zeldin are used to flying under the radar — and making appearances before friendly crowds when they’re presenting proclamations and awards, say, or flags that have flown over the U.S. Capitol. They’re not accustomed to hostile audiences.
Why wouldn’t they want to avoid them? It’s very unpleasant. And as a town board member, I had the luxury of a much more controlled environment. Because a town board meeting in town hall is not the same as a “town hall meeting.” The latter is much, much more of a free-for-all, a forum without rules. And, as we’ve seen in recent video clips recorded from coast to coast, a forum without decorum.
Why would — why should — a member of Congress submit him or herself to a public flogging? Why convene a meeting where the chance for honest dialogue is probably nonexistent?
I get that.
But the congressman needs to understand that his constituents — even if they were a minority at the polls in November — have few alternatives. They can’t show up where his — our — business is conducted and speak their minds. Nevertheless, they deserve to be heard and addressed.
And the congressman deserves to be heard and addressed, too — respectfully. He deserves a respectful interchange. No shouting, no interruptions, no mob scenes.
Unfortunately, when it comes to making the case for deserving respectful treatment, Congressman Zeldin has unclean hands. He sat silently at a debate I hosted in 2014 when a mob of supporters — many bused in by his campaign — shouted down and interrupted his opponent (then-incumbent congressman Tim Bishop). When I asked him to ask his supporters to calm down and be civil, Lee Zeldin just shrugged. So it’s hard for me to take him seriously when — through spokespersons — he tries to make the case for avoiding the face-to-face interactions because, well, it will just be confronting an unruly mob.
I don’t support unruly mobs. I found that behavior reprehensible in 2014 and I don’t condone it now. It seems to be an in-person expression of the lack of civility permeating public discourse these days — discourse mostly conducted online. And it’s awful.
Our congressman would do well to take a cold, hard honest look at his own social media messages before complaining that the constituents who demand a “town hall” only want a chance to yell at him. He — or whoever is managing his social media accounts — has posted hostile Facebook messages indicating that our congressman feels no obligation to represent people who disagree with him. These posts have been antagonistic and goading. They are immature and counterproductive.
I don’t agree with Lee Zeldin on many, many issues and I did not vote for him. But he’s our congressman and I respect him. I believe in citizens’ right to protest, but don’t believe it’s right to shout him down at a meeting — and I agree with him that this would be the likely result of convening such a meeting.
Though I don’t agree with him on many issues, I don’t believe Zeldin is, at heart, a bad guy. I think it’s worth an honest dialogue with him. And I wish that he and his opponents would give honest dialogue a chance. For real, and not just for show.
There is common ground to be found. There has to be.
Denise Civiletti is an owner of East End Local Media Corp., publishers of SoutholdLOCAL and RiverheadLOCAL. An award-winning reporter, including a “Writer of the Year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015, she is an attorney, former Riverhead Town councilwoman (1988-1991) and former co-publisher and executive editor of The Suffolk Times. The views expressed in this column are hers alone.
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