What if you threw a party and nobody came? That might be how the three Democrats vying for the chance to challenge Republican incumbent U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin feel.
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, East Hampton businessman Perry Gershon, and Stony Brook University chemistry professor Nancy Goroff, the three Democratic challengers, have been forced to abandon live campaign rallies, candidate forums, fundraising events, and even door-to-door canvassing during the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
And while incumbency always has its advantages, that might be doubly true during a major health crisis. Mr. Zeldin, a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, was recently named to a panel convened by the president to reopen the American economy, and he has hosted conference calls with representatives of the Small Business Administration to assist business owners in obtaining financial aid. Then there are all the masks and other personal protective equipment Mr. Zeldin has been able to procure for hospital workers in the district.
Ms. Fleming, for one, says she is not impressed. “Lee Zeldin is unabashedly one of the president’s biggest supporters,” she said. “He needs to be held accountable for the failures of this administration in this crisis.”
She cited the administration’s slow response time, its playing down of the seriousness of the pandemic, and its inability to provide medical equipment where needed in a timely fashion as reasons for why voters would choose “competent leadership in November.”
A recent effort by Mr. Zeldin to sound a more bipartisan tone — he has praised Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the crisis and echoed Democratic calls for more federal aid for hospitals and local governments affected by the pandemic — is just pandering to the voters, Ms. Fleming added.
Mr. Gershon, who beat out five other Democrats and lost by 4 percentage points to Mr. Zeldin in 2018, agreed that New York has been shortchanged by the federal government during the coronavirus pandemic. “That’s where a local congressman, especially one with so much influence with Trump, should be able to do better,” he said. “This pandemic is going to cost Trump and Zeldin in the end. They had months to prepare for it, and they botched it.”
Ms. Goroff agreed Mr. Zeldin’s efforts to sound a more bipartisan tone were just window dressing. “I think he recognizes how vulnerable he is,” she said, arguing he has been “one of the loudest Trump supporters for the past three years and needs to pay the price of supporting this bankrupt administration.”
Ms. Fleming, who was recently reelected to the County Legislature, has enjoyed her own incumbency — holding daily briefings on what the county is doing to bring the coronavirus under control.
“We are in one of the worst crises of our lifetime,” she said. “My priority has to be my county work and responding to the needs of my constituents. My team and I have put our hearts and souls into getting resources and supplies into our area.”
Despite never having held public office, Mr. Gershon said he believes he is the candidate to beat. He said he had run a close race last time, despite being a political neophyte and did respectably well in Brookhaven, a Republican stronghold, and also led all Democrats in signatures collected for his petitions.
Last summer, Mr. Gershon said he got out in the community to introduce himself to more people in the district. “I spent my summer going to every street fair and fire department barbecue in Brookhaven,” he said. He’s had to modify his strategy in the age of social distancing, writing op-ed pieces for local papers and holding town hall meetings. “It’s up to the candidates to find ways to communicate without the power of incumbency,” he said.
Those town hall meetings, at first held before live audiences, have become virtual gatherings, and a recent event drew 750 participants, he said.
Mr. Gershon will hold another on Monday, April 27, when he will be joined by Dean of the Stony Brook Renaissance School of Medicine, Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, and his aunt, Clinical Professor of Epidemiology at the New York University School of Global Public Health Dr. Robyn Gershon, to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. The event, at perrygershon.com/townhall, starts at 7 p.m.
Ms. Goroff, the chairwoman of the chemistry department at Stony Brook, said she was prompted to enter the race last year “because our president and our representative have their priorities so upside down and backward, they are hurting people.”
She cited the Trump administration’s loosening of environmental safeguards, failure to take climate change seriously, and efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.
With the coronavirus outbreak, she said Mr. Trump was guided by an ignorant and anti-scientific viewpoint. “People are responding positively to my campaign,” she said. “People are looking to scientists to lead.”
Although Ms. Goroff said she doubted she’d be able to do another in-person campaign event before the June 23 primary, she said she was pressing ahead with online events and has scheduled a fundraiser for Wednesday, April 29, at 6 p.m. along with Representative Bill Foster, the only other member of Congress with a doctoral degree. A link to that event can be found at her campaign’s Facebook page, Nancy Goroff for Congress.
Ms. Goroff leads the Democrats, having raised $1.1 million for her campaign, including $241,549 in the first quarter. Ms. Fleming, who entered the race late last year, raised $254,770 in the first quarter, but has only raised a total of $493,866. Mr. Gershon, who has raised $1.03 million overall, lagged in the first quarter, raising $175,083. All three trail Mr. Zeldin, who has raised a total of $3.34 million, including $761,925 in the first quarter alone.