U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, who was reelected to represent the 1st Congressional District in November, has canceled an upcoming 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.
According to Mr. Zeldin’s communications director, Jennifer DiSiena, the April 18 event was canceled due to concerns about anticipated harassment by groups that had rallied at a recent event in East Patchogue, where Mr. Zeldin was honored as Man of the Year by the Rotary Club of Shirley and the Mastics.
Regarding the upcoming library event in Southampton Village in April, Ms. DiSiena said in an email last Thursday, February 2, “This meeting was co-opted, renamed and re-branded by a group of liberal activists who were already holding strategy meetings to turn it into a disruptive show for their own political theater.”
The recent East Patchogue protest, dubbed “Listen Up Lee Zeldin” by organizers, was held outside the Rotary Club meeting in East Patchogue on January 28. According to a press release from three local activist organizations—Project Free Knowledge, Patchogue Indivisible Against Hate and Time2Care Long Island—the rally was staged in response to a refusal by Mr. Zeldin’s staff to schedule a meeting to talk, despite multiple requests from the organizations.
“Regardless of his intentions, Mr. Zeldin has an obligation to explain his lack of availability and to begin direct communication with constituents,” East Patchogue rally coordinators wrote in the press release.
However, Ms. DiSiena said the rally was not civil and was a factor in the decision to cancel the April meeting in Southampton Village.
“It is greatly unfortunate that this great event, which the congressman has attended before, was hijacked by those who just this past weekend chose reprehensible tactics to harass attendees at an event the congressman was at, including banging on the sides of the cars driving by and jumping in front of cars to stop them. Requiring a police presence just to get cars through into a venue does not reflect well or help their cause,” Ms. DiSiena wrote in the email last Thursday.
“That’s simply false,” countered Austin Sposato, co-founder of Project Free Knowledge, an activist group based in Port Jefferson. “That is slanderous. We have probably 150 eyewitnesses there. They’re good people. They came out on a cold, dark night to demand that their representative speak with them. It’s a pretty low bar.”
Mr. Sposato noted that most of the rally attendees were local residents and were primarily women over the age of 45.
Cindy Morris, founder of Suffolk County activist group Time2Care Long Island, wrote in an email that she was the one who personally requested Suffolk County Police presence, and that she did not witness any disturbances.
“I encouraged everyone to recognize that we were standing in front of private residences and that the people living there should be disturbed as little as possible,” Ms. Morris wrote. “The police did not have to step in a single time to ensure this was done.”
According to Inspector William Silva, commanding officer of the Suffolk County 5th Precinct, his officers were present at the rally of more than 100 people, and there were no official reports of any incidents.
“As far as I know, it was peaceful,” Inspector Silva said on Monday. “If anything happened, they didn’t report it to us.”
According to Ms. DiSiena’s account of the night, Mr. Zeldin was in a car with a Suffolk County Police detective, whom she did not identify, as well as his wife and children, when the incident took place. In a follow-up email on Friday, she reaffirmed her previous assertion about what happened at the rally, stating again that there were “many people banging on the sides of the car in addition to one person who jumped in front of the vehicle to try to stop it.”
Ms. DiSiena provided The Press with the contact information of three attendees of the event. One was Howard Ehrenshaft, a Kings Park resident and vocal supporter of the congressman who went to the event with his wife, Linda. According to his account of the night, protesters attacked his vehicle.
“As we attempted to enter the club, my wife was driving—she was scared,” Mr. Ehrenshaft said. “They swarmed around the car. They tried to prevent us from entering and waved their signs in front of the windshield, blocking the view, banging on my side of the car.
“We drove very, very slow,” he continued. “They refused to get out of the way. We had to inch our way forward, feeling terrified, not knowing what was going to happen.”
One of the other two contacts provided by Ms. DiSiena, Robert Vecchio, a Shirley resident and the William Floyd School District Board of Education president, said protesters did not attempt to stop his pickup truck, though he said protesters created an unsafe situation by standing so close to his truck on either side that they had to move to avoid being hit by his side mirror. According to Mr. Vecchio, one protester did shine a flashlight in his face as he was driving through the crowd.
“It wasn’t violent,” he said. “Was it harassing, intimidating and unsafe? Absolutely.”
The other, Robert Guerriero, a member of Rotary, said once he was inside the venue, several attendees told him protesters had “punched” their cars, although he said that did not happen to his personal vehicle. But, like Mr. Vecchio, he noted that as he drove through, the crowd, while not violent, was close to his vehicle on both sides. “They crowded the street so you could barely drive through,” he said. “They were right on your car.”
Robin Goodman, one of the creators of the “Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin” Facebook page, said video of the protest does not show the accounts described by the three men, and that their descriptions were not accurate.
“When your message is ‘love trumps hate’... we don’t want to hurt anyone. It’s just not what we’re about. We just want a meeting with a person whose salary we pay for. That’s part of being a public servant.”
Another rally to try and get a meeting with Mr. Zeldin was held on Tuesday in Riverhead.
In response to protesters’ concerns about being able to communicate with the representative, Ms. DiSiena noted that Mr. Zeldin frequently attends events throughout the district, including in the evenings and on weekends. She added that he holds mobile office hours across the district, conducts telephone “town halls” and distributes a monthly email newsletter.
“Every single constituent who contacts our office receives a response from the congressman or staff by either phone, email or letter,” she wrote in an email. “Congressman Zeldin has had two straight years of public forums, telephone town halls and mobile office hours. The legislative calendar at this particular moment in time is packed. Staff is always on hand to take immediate concerns and get them to him and the legislative team. We already have several mobile office hours and telephone town halls being planned for the year.”
Mr. Sposato said multiple attempts by his organization to schedule a meeting with Mr. Zeldin have been unsuccessful.
According to Ms. Morris, the activist organizations had planned to attend the April meeting at the Rogers Memorial Library as “community members with questions for our congressional representative.”
According to library officials, Mr. Zeldin was scheduled to speak at the April event, which has been hosted by the library for many years, to give a Washington legislative update and answer questions from the community. Elizabeth Burns, the library director, said that library officials still plan to explore the possibility of rescheduling the event.
Mr. Zeldin attended this event at the Rogers Memorial Library last February, when he gave a speech about focusing his efforts working on three committees in the House of Representatives: Transportation and Infrastructure, Foreign Affairs, and Veteran Affairs. It is unclear when, if at all, the event will be rescheduled.