The congressional debate we hosted Wednesday night got hijacked. Our effort to present an impartial forum where local residents could hear the candidates discuss important issues was turned into a campaign rally for candidate Lee Zeldin by the Zeldin campaign.
When I arrived at Polish Hall, I found not only dozens of Zeldin signs lining the roads outside the catering hall, but also very large Zeldin posters taped to the front of the building itself. The lobby had Zeldin campaign literature on tables and the spacious hall itself was quickly filling with Zeldin supporters — many of whom, I later learned, were bused in for the occasion from points west.
Things went downhill from there.
Although both the Lee Zeldin and Tim Bishop campaigns had agreed to our ground rules prohibiting outside video recording of the event, there were three different video cameras set up and ready to roll. One man with the camera said he was with the Republican National Committee, a second man wouldn’t identify himself, and a third said he was “a private citizen” who had a right to video the debate because it was open to the public and it was his First Amendment right to record the debate and disseminate it to “a larger audience.”
I’m all for informing the public. In fact, that’s what I do for a living. And we were recording the debate for uploading to YouTube in its entirety. I emphasize that — in its entirety — because it’s important. The content of our video would not be edited or altered.
We established the rule about outside recording because of the practice of campaigns and their operatives recording every utterance a candidate makes, then cutting, editing and patching together out-of-context quotes. I didn’t want any debate I was sponsoring being used that way.
The “private citizen” — who noted, by the way, that he possessed “a professional broadcast camera” — turned out to be Jacques Ditte. He described himself as “an independent person… a citizen of the United States” who has “nothing to do with either campaign.” He claimed he was not advocating for either candidate and just wanted to document the debate for a wider audience, because I guess Riverhead and SoutholdLOCAL’s audience isn’t wide enough for him.
While I attempted to advise him that recording was not allowed, Ditte held his iPhone in my face, recording me as I spoke. Here’s a clip from that interchange he posted on his YouTube channel — “saveamerica1” is his user name — with the title “MODERATOR THREATENS CAMERAMAN AT TIM BISHOP LEE ZELDIN DEBATE” — documenting me trying to enforce the rules of the debate agreed to by both sides weeks in advance. (You will note I was not threatening Ditte in any way, despite his attempt to goad me into a confrontation.)
Here’s an example of private citizen Ditte’s work, what he does with his video clips of Tim Bishop: “Tim Bishop THROWN OUT OF OFFICE.” Clearly, Mr. SaveAmerica is only trying to inform the general public, as he assured me. Very well done, Mr. Ditte. And why shouldn’t it be? Ditte’s a pro, an owner of Black Sheep Television of Westhampton, which produces, among other things, TV ads. Black Sheep has been paid tens of thousands of dollars by political committees, including the Riverhead Republican Committee, for advertising services; there is no record to date of any relationship with the Zeldin campaign, however.
I tried to get the Zeldin campaign to put a stop to the activity it agreed would not take place at this debate, but they put up their hands and said, “That’s not us.” Even though one of the other men with a video camera admits to Ditte in his recording that he is affiliated with the Zeldin campaign. Never mind the “Republican National Committee” guy. As we learned later on in the evening, the Republican National Committee’s involvement in Zeldin’s campaign is not within Zeldin’s control. And he likes it that way just fine.
The hall packed out and that should be a good thing; but the vast majority of people in the room were steadfast members of one camp or the other. Sadly, this is not unusual. In this case, though, the vast majority of the people in the room were there for a Zeldin campaign rally at which — in their view, it seemed — the incumbent congressman was fresh meat thrown to the lions in the Colosseum arena.
The room pulsated with hatred.
Many times, the hatred could barely contain itself and the heckling and shouting began, interrupting the congressman during his answers to questions. This happened throughout the evening. And though I requested his assistance in calming and quieting his unruly supporters, Zeldin declined, putting his hands up in the air in a gesture of helplessness.
Zeldin took the same “it’s not me” posture when I asked him about “his” attack ads.
“Not my ads,” he replied. No. “His” ads — the one produced by his campaign committee — are all Mom, Chevrolet and apple pie. “Nothing but positive,” he said.
True that. The nasty ads are being produced by the National Republican Congressional Committee. I misspoke. They are not “his” ads.
As I told Zeldin after the debate concluded, if I were running for Congress, I wouldn’t accept the support and assistance of any committee with ads like that. If he truly believes Washington needs fixing because it’s too divided and if he expects us to believe he can build bridges as a legislator, why would he tolerate ads like the ones being run “for” him, if not “by” him?
I also asked him how he could possibly condone such rude and downright juvenile behavior by his supporters as the kind displayed in Polish Hall Wednesday night. He could have put a stop to it. He refused to even try.
Zeldin had no answers for me. There was nothing he could say, really.
Fact is, Zeldin staged a campaign rally Wednesday, hijacking my debate, which I and members of my staff worked hard to produce thoughtfully and impartially, for the public good. He brought an angry mob with him to harass his opponent — and the moderator. He may put his hands up and say none of this was his doing, just like the attack ads aren’t his responsibility, or the video cameras.
I reflected a good part of the day yesterday on the Wednesday night debacle. It was deeply disturbing. And then I remembered how, two months ago, when we were trying to set up debates in this and the assembly race, we couldn’t even get the Zeldin campaign manager to respond to our calls and emails during the month of August. On Aug. 22, I asked Riverhead Republican leader Mason Haas if he could reach out to them for us. In my Aug. 22 email to Haas, I said I found this behavior perplexing.
“In any case, it’s pretty rude not to call back or write back, even if they want to say no.
“Is there anything you can do to help with this? The irony is I know Lee personally and he’s such a nice man,” I wrote. I speculated that the people running his campaign must have been parachuted in by Washington, since I couldn’t imagine he’d be like that.
Haas forwarded my email to Zeldin campaign manager Eric Amidon, who wrote to me later that day to inform me I was wrong. He is not from Washington, but lives in Suffolk. He wrote:
“We are doing Lee a great service because we actually care about Lee. Part of my job as campaign manager is to make sure Lee is not walking into a trap. I noticed right away that you made sure that the date worked for the Congressman before even contacting us. When a formerly elected democrat sends an e-mail requesting to host a debate, I immediately ask the local people their opinion and history with the moderator. That is what I did here. I emailed 8 people from riverhead and asked them if they felt you could be fair and balanced. This included Chairman Haas, who on Wednesday confirmed that he has found you to be fair.”
Yes, I cleared dates with the incumbent Bishop first, as is customary. I did the same with incumbent Palumbo for the assembly debate. Their party enrollment had nothing to do with it. Just manners.
And yes, I was an elected Democrat. I served one four-year term on the Riverhead Town Board from 1988 to 1991. I’ve been working in community news since 1999, first as an opinion columnist, then as a reporter and editor. I consider myself a professional and approach my job in that manner. My dedication and loyalty lies with my community, not with any political party. In fact, that’s how I approached my job as a councilwoman and worked well with elected Republicans to get the job done for our town. Imagine that. It got me into plenty of trouble with Democratic partisan zealots at the time.
If Zeldin’s campaign manager’s worry that his man would be “walking into a trap” weren’t so insulting, it would be funny.
But what happened Wednesday night illuminated that little interchange for me.
Who walked into a trap in Polish Hall? Not Zeldin. It was Bishop. And yours truly.
I don’t know what it was all intended to prove. Perhaps his campaign “strategists” find it amusing. Or they simply enjoy the bullying. But as the host and moderator, I can say I felt thoroughly exploited and completely disrespected. As a citizen and voter, I felt utterly disgusted. And as the mother of a young student who was experiencing a congressional debate live for the first time in her life, I felt ashamed.
One thing I know for sure: I will never again spend my money, time and energy hosting a congressional debate. Lesson learned.
Denise Civiletti is an owner of East End Local Media Corp., publishers of RiverheadLOCAL.com and SoutholdLOCAL.com. An award-winning reporter, she is an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman (1988-1991); she lives in Riverhead with her husband and business partner, Peter Blasl and their two college-student daughters. The views expressed in her blog are hers alone.