U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin met privately with some opposition groups this week, and at least one came away from the meeting dissatisfied.
Mr. Zeldin posted a photo on Facebook with an unidentified group of organizers that he met with on Tuesday. “Had several really great meetings today in my Riverhead office with constituents who may be on the other side of the aisle, but were very thoughtfully sharing their questions and concerns on important policy issues facing our country,” the congressman wrote in the post. “Just because we sometimes disagree politically doesn’t mean that we can’t have productive dialogue as fellow citizens.”
Also on Tuesday, Mr. Zeldin met with organizers from the Port Jefferson-based group Project Free Knowledge, whose stated mission is to keep people informed about and involved in government policy—and a member of the protest group came away unhappy with the way she was treated by his staff, and concerned that the congressman would not support the group’s “core values.”
Project Free Knowledge co-founder Anna Sitzmann described the process of getting into the meeting with Mr. Zeldin. She said she and three other members of the organization planned on meeting with the congressman—but one of her coworkers was not allowed into the meeting by the congressman’s staff.
“His staff was incredibly hostile,” she said. “They said we either had to come in with only three people or we wouldn’t get a meeting at all. It really felt like being let into a fortress. There was so much security—they were so hostile. I felt like I was a criminal being brought from a jail to a courtroom.”
She described being rushed into the building, past police, being locked in a vestibule for several minutes, and eventually allowed into a conference room with the congressman—who exhibited a much calmer demeanor.
She said although the discussion was cordial, she was disappointed that the congressman refused to fully agree to a list of “core values” that the group proposed in search of common ground. The list included broad statements, like “the constitution is the foundation of our country and the decisions of our leaders should be consistent with it,” and “we should assist people who are stuck and need a helping hand.”
She also said Mr. Zeldin would not agree to an in-person town hall or a retraction of statements he made about a January protest in Patchogue in which Project Free Knowledge participated. “There were a few points at which he seemed to think the whole thing was a big joke,” she said of Tuesday’s meeting.
“That was one of the odder meetings that the Congressman has ever had,” Mr. Zeldin’s communications director, Jennifer DiSiena, said regarding the meeting with PFK organizers. “The Congressman has had several really great meetings with constituents who may be on the other side of the aisle but they can still very thoughtfully share their questions and concerns on important policy issues facing our country.”
She noted that the fourth person was not in the list of attendees that was required for the meeting, although Ms. Sitzmann said they did include the fourth person’s name in an email.
Currently, Mr. Zeldin has no in-person “town hall” meeting scheduled in the 1st District, which he represents. Last month, he canceled an April event for constituents at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton Village following reports that local organizations planned to hold a protest rally at the event.
A one-hour telephone meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 23, and requires constituents of the 1st District to fill out a form on Mr. Zeldin’s website with their name, address and other information. He said he also will hold mobile office hours in the district next week and will continue his online presence on social media.
“A lot of the people all across the country at this particular moment in time—that are requesting town halls—are doing so for the purpose of disrupting it,” Mr. Zeldin said on Tuesday. “It’s impossible to take that seriously.”
When asked what other groups he has met with, he cited the Long Island Federation of Labor, which represents a wide range of union workers, as well as Move On, a progressive national action group. Mr. Zeldin said recently he met with a group of local women and talked about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act relating to preexisting conditions. He said they discussed the issue for almost an hour, and he said that although these type of meetings take longer, they are more productive than town halls.
“In the individual and small group meetings … they don’t just start booing you,” he said. “That’s just not how that works in reality. You’re actually able to have a conversation.”
Mr. Zeldin said he thought having an open public forum where elected officials speak and constituents are able to ask questions can be very productive—only when both sides are allowing each other to speak.
“But what’s happening right now is the member of Congress gets a word or two deep into their answer, when many in the crowd, for political theater, start shouting them down to disrupt the entire town hall,” he said. “The member of Congress isn’t able to get three words deep unless they are going after the president—in which case they can talk for as long as they want and they’ll get a thunderous applause.”
This week, in an email to The Press, Ms. DiSiena defended Mr. Zeldin’s reluctance to participate in public town hall meetings. “Our office received a request for a town hall this week where the person was advocating for the congressman to be shot,” she wrote. “We have forwarded that threat on to Capitol Police.”
She said for those interested in having a “productive discussion” about issues, individual and small group meetings like the one with Project Free Knowledge can be scheduled through Mr. Zeldin’s office.
“I will meet with anyone to hear their concerns and to be able to answer their questions,” Mr. Zeldin said. “I believe it’s a very helpful, substantive opportunity to engage in that dialogue where each side is heard and you’re able to better understand why we have the positions that we have.”