A popular refrain at protests happening across the nation demands, “Tell me what democracy looks like!” It most certainly doesn’t look like the conduct of Congressman Lee Zeldin, who, since being sworn in for a second term on January 3, has insulted constituents who dare oppose his policies, refused repeated requests to schedule a town hall meeting, canceled an appearance where his constituents would finally have had an opportunity to question him directly, and then, taking a page right out of the Trump playbook, justified that cancellation by grossly misrepresenting the nature of a recent peaceful protest in East Patchogue. Perhaps Congressman Zeldin believes that having been elected to a second term, he is no longer required to represent or listen to the concerns of his entire district. Must we remind Zeldin that his obligations as a representative extend to all of us, even those of us who disagree with him?
Zeldin’s hostility toward those who dissent is evident in the tone and content of his Facebook postings regarding the recent women’s marches, which took place across the nation and the district. Thousands of CD#1 residents participated in protests from Sag Harbor to New York City and Washington, D.C., but our Congressman chose to focus on the narrow, unrepresentative comments of one incendiary presenter rather than the message of the millions who marched nationwide. In another post related to the march, he suggested that some of his constituents might hold views that are “off the reservation.” Two weeks later he again questioned his constituents’ sanity, using his 37th birthday as an occasion to express his “love” for “even those Hillary supporters who have lost [their] beautiful minds since the election.”
Zeldin’s “Trump-esque” behavior further degrades the standards of public office and is an insult to the integrity of public service. Zeldin’s un-statesmanlike behavior is not confined to his Facebook posts. Despite countless repeated and respectful requests of his constituents, he has refused to schedule a town hall meeting. Those requests began over a month ago, when sixty residents appeared at his Riverhead office to express their concerns about the repeal of the ACA and to ask for a public meeting at which they could pose their questions directly to the congressman, rather than a staff member. Several visits and hundreds, if not thousands of calls later, still, no town hall meeting has been scheduled.
Last Thursday, our congressman figuratively slammed another door on his constituents by canceling the only appearance on his schedule which would have afforded the public an opportunity to ask questions. That April 13 event, which was to be held at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, was already “sold out,” with a growing waiting list. Zeldin apparently, didn’t care.
This cancellation was all the more shocking because it came a day after nearly 90 people braved the snowy roads to attend a meeting with Zeldin’s district director Mark Woolley at the Riverhead Free Library in order to peacefully and respectfully express their serious concerns about the Muslim travel ban, and, again, request a town hall meeting. Any congressman who takes seriously his obligation to represent all of his constituents would have interpreted this outpouring as a clear signal that public dialogue is needed. Indeed, not long ago, we had a congressman who did just that. In 2009, Congressman Tim Bishop received similar pressure from constituents. Bishop responded by agreeing to a town hall, knowing that many would be angry, but recognizing it was his duty to listen and consider dissenting views. Clearly, our new Congressman still has much to learn.
Zeldin’s refusal to hold a town hall meeting is particularly hypocritical since he initially rode into office on the coattails of the Tea Party. Many readers may recall his October 8, 2014 debate with then Congressman Tim Bishop, which was repeatedly disrupted by rowdy Zeldin supporters. As reported in an October 10, 2014 editorial in SoutholdLOCAL, when the debate moderator asked Zeldin to assist in quieting his “unruly supporters, Zeldin declined, putting his hands up in the air in a gesture of helplessness.” Clearly, Zeldin can’t handle the pressure when the tables are turned. And, if Zeldin fears that we will engage in the same type of unruly conduct that he tacitly approved in his Tea Party supporters, he should know that is a strategy most constituents have intentionally chosen not to adopt. And surely his own staff member, Mark Woolley, can attest to the respect with which he has been treated at constituent meetings. IF only we could get the same from the Congressman.
Hiding from dissent will not make it go away, Congressman Zeldin. Although just a little over a month ago you swore to uphold the Constitution, it seems you now have little regard for one of the greatest freedoms in a democracy like ours: the right to free speech. Come out from your hiding place, Congressman, and listen to all of your constituents.
Amy Turner is a retired attorney and educator and a longtime resident of Wainscott.
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