By Stephen J. Kotz
The day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president on January 20, millions of protesters poured into Washington, D.C., and gathered in major cities across the country for marches highlighting women’s issues. In the days and weeks following his inauguration, constituents began showing up at appearances by their elected representatives, including Congressman Lee Zeldin, demanding that the Affordable Care Act be saved, that the ban on Muslim refugees be lifted, or that the administration hold off on threats to deport illegal immigrants.
Organizers say their activism is not a passing fad, but that it will persist for as long as necessary, and they charge Republicans —Mr. Zeldin, in particular — have dodged their efforts to meet with them.
“We are here for the long haul. We will outlive Trump,” said Kathryn Szoka of Sag Harbor, one of the organizers of a group called PEER, which stands for Progressive East End Reformers. “We will see a day when progressive politics once again will be in the forefront.”
Ms. Szoka said PEER, which is affiliated with the New York Progressive Action Network, had its start with another acronym, BEES, which stood for Bernie East End Supporters, and was organized in the spring to back Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president. The organization swiftly shifted its focus to supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign before turning its attention to what it sees as the dangers posed by the Trump presidency.
About 90 people turned out for group’s most recent meeting, on February 7, at the Bridgehampton National Bank. It plans to meet again on March 9 and is inviting those interested to join.
On Tuesday, members of PEER, and another group, which takes its name from its Facebook page, Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin, joined other demonstrators in gathering at the congressman’s two district offices, in Patchogue and Riverhead, in support of the Affordable Care Act.
“We’ve tried to pick an issue for each meeting” at Mr. Zeldin’s offices, said Eileen Duffy of Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin. She said members of her organization have been disheartened that the second term Republican, who was an early and steadfast supporter of Mr. Trump, has been hard to pin down.
She complained that Mr. Zeldin has dropped the practice of allowing drop-in visitors to his office on West Main Street in Riverhead and was now only allowing visits by appointment.
Locally, she said Mr. Zeldin cancelled a meeting with constituents scheduled for April at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton Village, shortly after protesters showed up at an event on January 28 in East Patchogue at which he was honored by the local Rotary Club.
Although Mr. Zeldin’s office accused protesters with blocking vehicles and pounding on the cars of people trying to attend the event, that account has been vigorously disputed by protesters, who say they were chanting but otherwise orderly.
Ms. Duffy said one woman in her group who called Mr. Zeldin’s office to try to schedule a meeting with him was “was told by a volunteer on the phone that Zeldin is canceling all public appearances because he fears for his life.” She dismissed the notion as almost comical. “All we want is a ‘town hall,” she said.
The charges drew a rebuttal from Jennifer DiSiena, Mr. Zeldin’s communications director, who said the main district office in Patchogue continues to be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday but that drop-in visits to the smaller Riverhead office had to be dropped in favor of appointments only because of “the new disruption tactics of these liberal obstructionists locally and nationally.”
“Many of the people at the moment requesting town halls across the country are doing so with the purpose of disrupting the town hall without any interest at all in decorum,” she continued. “It’s impossible to take a request like that seriously. For those who are interested in having a productive discussion on an array of issues, Congressman Zeldin and our staff are meeting with them in small groups.”
Ms. Szoka argued that Mr. Zeldin’s refusal to meet with constituents who do not share his political opinion “just makes him look like a coward.”
She compared his behavior to that of former Congressman Tim Bishop, who faced the wrath of the Tea Party at town hall meetings when he supported the Affordable Care Act in 2009. “He was excoriated,” she said. “The Tea Party was out of control, but he put himself out there. It takes some moral fiber to do that. We are seeing that our current representative lacks that.”
She added that each rally seems to be drawing more people. “Soon, there will be town hall meetings with or without him,” she said.
With Republicans controlling the House, Senate and the White House, as well as most state governments, Ms. Szoka said those interested in encouraging a progressive focusing on major issues from immigration, racial justice, the environment, and racial issues, and women’s issues need to be patient, not be discouraged with setbacks and continue to work locally.
She cited healthcare as an example. With the Affordable Care Act threatened with repeal by the Republicans, progressives should concentrate on an effort to get a universal healthcare law passed in New York State, she said. The Democratic-controlled Assembly has already passed such a measure, but the Senate has not.
“We are looking for New York and California to be the light of the country,” she said.
Ms. Duffy said constituents unhappy with Mr. Trump’s agenda have to keep the pressure on and noted that Mr. Zeldin has had to bring in volunteers to help answer the volume of calls from people upset about the way things are going in Washington.
“Politics have always zigzagged,” said Ms. Szoka, “but this is clearly the most extreme swing in one direction.”’