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Source: Southampton Press

Zeldin's Telephone Town Hall Leaves Some Angry, Others Wanting Longer, In Person Meet Ups

Some constituents were angry after the call, in person discussion; others said it was informative but wanted a longer session.


Posted: February 27, 2017
Originally Published: February 24, 2017

Rep. Lee Zeldin hosted a live telephone Town Hall Thursday night that left some livid and others asking for a longer, or an in-person, session.

Zeldin said Telephone Town Hall was a "modern way to bring a town hall directly to the constituents’ home;" he pointed out that has hosting the sessions for years, approximately quarterly, since he was in the State Senate.

Telephone Town Halls allow Zeldin to "productively reach the maximum amount of constituents who are interested in constructive dialogue," he said.

Approximately 100,000 homes were called and constituents on the call were able to ask the questions — 9,116 constituents participated in the call.

The audio file can be found here.

Telephone Town Halls

Zeldin began the call by saying he's working to advance his "New Year Of American Strength" agenda, with a focus on security at home and abroad, growing the economy, job creation, supporting veterans and first responders, repairing infrastructure, improving health care and safeguarding the environment.

Zeldin said he supports repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act with a "new reality" that he believes will work better and be more affordable, as well as continue to cover pre-existing conditions and allow children under 26 to remain on their parents' policies.

He also said he wants to safeguard the environment, "so important to our life, culture and economy. Everyone should have access to clean air and water. We must protect and preserve our abundance of natural resources."

Zeldin then answered a series of questions from constituents on the phone and online.

Transgender bathrooms

A caller named Melody asked about the issue of transgender bathrooms. Zeldin said the main issue in the news currently is President Donald Trump's movement to rescind an order that allows transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding with their internal sense of gender.

Zeldin said one of the most controversial elements of the "sensitive" issue was the loss of federal funding if schools did not comply with former President Barack Obama's directive. As a former prosecutor, Zeldin said one of his concerns would be how a person would prove their internal sense of gender if under legal challenge.

He said he supported Trump's decision to reverse Obama's directive on transgender individual's use of bathrooms.

But, he added, "I don't support discrimination in any form."

Zeldin said he respects "those who may disagree. These are not the easiest of topics, but that's my personal opinion."

Anti-Semitism addressed

Another call, Joe, asked for Zeldin's stance on Trump's "belated condemnation of the rise of anti-Semitism."

Zeldin said he's been critical of the statement that went out on Holocaust Remembrnce Day "that didn't mention Jews." While it's important to remember all lives lost, he said, "It's very important to mention that Hitler and the Nazis were trying to exterminate the entire Jewish religion, and murdered several million Jews."

He said the bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers and centers of sacred Jewish sites "deserve the strongest condemnation."

The caller asked why Trump didn't go visit a mosque down South after it burned, a move that would have shown him reaching out to everyone, not just his own party.

Zeldin agreed speaking up is a leadership opportunity and the chance to show support for those who may not have voted in the president's favor.

Environmental concerns

Next, Zeldin was asked, since he said he cared about clean water and the environment, if he voted to rescind resolution that would prevent coal companies from dumping ash and waste into waterways.

Zeldin brought up the Congressional review and said toward the end of Obama's administration, a number of regulations that were passed in the "eleventh hour before he had left office."

He said he did vote to rescind the initial resolution, stating that he did not believe the administration should eliminate an "entire way of life" for different states. "In our district, we are not relying on coal," he said, whereas in West Virginia, he said, residents are reliant on the industry.

Zeldin discussed his support of reducing reliance on foreign oil and fossil fuels altogether and lauded SUNY Stony Brook and Brookhaven National Laboratory for pursuing alternative energy options.

Affordable Care Act

An online question from Tina addressed how her middle class family would be able to afford health insurance, which was not offered through her job.

Zeldin said the main focus right now is to repeal and replace the ACA, with a "smooth transition" key. "No one wants to pull the rug out from under someone who's already covered," Zeldin said.

He said the Republican delegation was working to repeal and replace and fighting for a baseline to mitigate the financial impact to New York State and to Medicaid costs. New York State, he said, spends a $1 billion per week on Medicaid, more than Texas, Illinois and Florida combined; although New York's population's is less than Florida's, the state's Medicaid costs equal the entire state budget of Florida, Zeldin said.

Individuals, he added, are "making tens of millions off the Medicaid system. We need to become more efficient, to get care for those who need it most and not put the burden on New York State taxpayers."

He asked the woman to call his office directly so that he could get specificity regarding her unique situation.

"What is the plan and how will you pay for it?"

Another call then asked, if the ACA is to be repealed and replaced, "What is the plan and how will you pay for it?"

Zeldin said there are three different parts, or "buckets" to consider, including the budget reconciliation bill, the responsibility of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to ensure a smooth transition, and the need for bipartisan support of whatever else needs to be done legislatively that can't be encompassed by budget reconciliation.

The night's Town Hall also included a series of polls for those on the line.

Caller Gerard blasted a "spineless" Congress and those "taking jabs at this president," stating the there's a need to get the House and Senate in order and that he supports term limits.

Zeldin said he also supports term limits. He said his goal is "to find common ground whenever possible. I'm willing to work with anyone to move this country forward" and said he's met in his office with protestors. He added that he has mobile hours coming up on Friday, March 3 in East Patchogue.

Caller Arlene asked about present or future Medicare cuts.

"We must preserve and protect Social Security and Medicare for everyone," for those who are paying into it, Zeldin said, adding that there's a need to find a way to strengthen the programs as much as possible so they exist for the younger generation when the time comes and also protect seniors.

Concealed carry concerns

Another question centered on the reciprocity between states honoring the concealed carry of weapons.

Zeldin said New York's laws were much stricter than in other states. He said he co-sponsored the concealed carry reciprocity legislation and would like to see it passed. "I strongly support the Second Amendment," Zeldin said. He said background checks currently exist on the books that aren't being enforced.

"I'm going to be candid. I'm never going to try to be all things to all people. Mayor Koch said, 'If you agree with me nine times out of 10, vote for me. If you agree with me 12 times out of 12, get a psychiatrist,'" Zeldin said. "I support the concealed carry legislation."

Another caller, Cynthia, asked about Trump's possible conflicts of interest and asked if he would support a bill that would require the president to release taxes and divest their assets into a blind trust.

Zeldin said "hyper partisan" Democrats have been pushing the issue. "There are people just wanting to impeach the President. The guy just got sworn in," he said. "That's not something I relate to."

Jaqueline Rooney called in with a question about the ACA and asked, with regard to the repeal and replace efforts, without a mandate, how would it be possible to ensure that healthy people will sign up for health insurance and not wait until they get sick to sign on.

"Right now we have that issue, with a lot less signing up than predicted," Zeldin said, adding once again that the goal was to covering pre-existing conditions, keep children under 26 on their parents' policies, and provide more access. He pointed to the failed Health Republic Insurance of New York, "a business model destined to fail."

Small businesses need to be able to pool policies, with individuals able to look at markets in other states to find policies that work; options for long term care management are important, too, he said.

And, he said, "Someone with a deductible of $8,000 doesn't feel like they have insurance. If you can't afford it, you don't have access to it."

After the talk, Rooney said, "He didn't answer my question. All he said was that it was a problem even with the present form of the ACA and then went off on political talking points that didn't address the issue. When I tried to intercept to clarify my point and challenge the fact that I wasn't really getting a response I was muted out and could not ask another question or offer rebuttal to the answer he gave me." In addition, she said, she had a second question. "It was a waste of time and it made me feel even more insignificant since it obviously felt like they were manipulating the forum to screen and censor his constituents. A face to face Town Hall would have been better to allow us to better voice our concerns and for more of us to ask questions. It was awful."

Climate change on the table

Caller Ashley asked a question about climate change and what direction he hoped the bi-partisan climate concern caucus, of which he is a member, might go.

"Coming from Long Island we all want clean air and clean water," Zeldin said, adding that the goal is to focus on bi-partisan solutions.

Veterans' rights

Another caller, Rachel, then asked about veterans' rights, something Zeldin said he completely supports. He told her he agreed veterans should be able to take their veterans' benefits to any provider they choose.

He gave contact information and said he hoped residents continued to reach out. "I am willing to meet with absolutely anyone," Zeldin said.

Residents voice anger, wish to hear more

After the talk, residents voiced their anger, concerns, and wish to hear an even longer discussion.

Deidre Dolan, in an email to Patch, said, "The number I signed up with was never called. My landline, which I never give out — I don't even know the number; I have to always look it up — which I use only for work was called twice today. Once earlier today to alert me of the town hall call and then again around 7:15 p.m. after the call was already in progress.

"The format of the call was extremely frustrating. Follow up questions and an open dialogue was impossible. This was no substitute to an open and public town hall," she said.

She added that more than 1,000 signatures exist on a petition, asking for an in-person Town Hall. To access that petition, click here.

"I was contacted by the operator late in the call," Dolan said. "I had to provide my full name and full mailing address and what my question was. After a long delay operator put me back on call. I was never called on. Call started about 7:10 p.m. and ended at 8:15 p.m. or so. I know many people who also had questions that were never called on."

Southold Town Councilman Jim Dinizio was also on the call. "It was a very orderly and informative event. I wish it were longer but that's probably because I'm a political junkie. I can also say this: It upsets me that the state of our public discourse has come to this. There used to be a time when a meeting with your Congressman was an honor. Now it seems it's just a political opportunity. It's sad."

Elena Polyakova said if she had a live Town Hall to attend, she'd ask about why the public cannot see Trump's tax returns, how he is going to provide far better health insurance for less money and "his and his staff's Russia connections."

Angela Scott Berner added, "Nothing to tell. He screened all his callers and vetted their questions. It supported his own agenda but did not allow for real constituent views and questions. Very controlled and contrived environment. Not a place for real discourse or follow up."

Another constituent, Jeff Keister, wrote on the Let's Visit Lee Zeldin Facebook page: "Well done! A lot of good questions. But we must keep pushing for a real Town Hall!"

Eileen Duffy, an organizer of the Let's Visit Lee Zeldin group, added, "I don't think Rep. Zeldin did himself any favors tonight with the tele town hall. It started late; he took very few questions and did not give direct answers."

Jonathan Jacobs told Patch: "Last night Congressman Lee Zeldin finally offered the opportunity for constituents to have a public dialogue with the man who represents them in Congress. Of course, that opportunity was highly controlled, lacked transparency, and was shoddily run.

"A town hall is not an opportunity for a member of Congress to receive confidence-boosting feedback. It’s a time for a person who represents a diverse population to come before them to discuss the issues that matter most to the individuals he/she represents.

"If a Congressman or woman is afraid of difficult questions, I say good, they should be. Being a member of Congress is not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to isolate you from negative feedback. It’s supposed to expose you to voices and opinions from all sides, and hold you accountable. A tele-town hall does nothing of the sort.

"And in the course of the call, our Congressman opined several times that he is 'willing to meet with absolutely anyone,' and that he is 'willing to work with absolutely anyone to move our country forward.' A town hall is the opportunity to do just that, and yet, Congressman Zeldin gladly punted the opportunity. So does the Congressman only seek to do this when it is ideologically convenient for him? When he won’t have to pause for self-reflection when constituents express objection with his positions and actions?

"Lastly, the town hall neglected to truly provide a platform for constituents," he said.

Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, added her voice: "It's contradictory to say you are for clean water and then vote to allow the coal industry and to pollute streams and rivers. We cannot allow the justification of polluting our water and our air under the guise of jobs. We need to be smart enough to protect our water and also create jobs."

Gregg Bloomfeld wrote, "An interesting angle would be, where do partisan hacks and Trump sycophants go politically when the eventual Trump blowback actually occurs? Zeldin is consistent with his unwavering Trump support and also consistently on the wrong side of history."

And, said Jennifer Eager, "I felt as if he were simply reading from a script because his answers never matched the questions. It was more or less the same topic, but it was extremely self serving while it brushed off all our concerns. For example, he was asked about clean water and started taking about climate change 'debate,' because of course politicians know so much more than scientists do about the trouble we are in regarding climate change. Highly unsatisfactory."

Ali Gordon sent Zeldin a message after the call: "Thank you for the opportunity to participate in your tele-town hall this evening. While I appreciate the effort to communicate, I was left feeling disappointed. I have no idea how many people were on the call, or how many people requested to ask questions. Just over one hour, with instructions, polls and random info sprinkled throughout left minimal time for actual interaction. I understand your concerns about having an in-person town hall — but I wholeheartedly believe it is imperative that you do. To characterize those of us who may disagree with you as liberal obstructionists is intentionally dismissive. It's the same tactic President Trump uses when calling people by derogatory nicknames. I hope that you can see that there are many actual residents of CD 1 who are not paid in any way to protest or harass you. We have real, legitimate concerns for the future.

"As a mother, I am very concerned about the state of our environmental protections," Gordon said. "To allow coal companies to dump into rivers or streams because it's expensive not to, makes no sense to me. As a Board of Education trustee, I worry very much about the privatization efforts which may get a boost with the new administration and Education Secretary. I do not understand your vote to allow people who have a disability which requires others to make decisions for them to purchase guns. And I believe that I have a right to ask you, as my representative to explain your stance. So do my neighbors. You represent all of us, no matter who we voted for," she said, adding that she was not called upon to ask her question.

"Given the fact that I had to tell your staffer my question ahead of time, I'm not surprised. Whether the questions were filtered so you only got the ones you wanted or not, the screening process certainly gives that impression. . . I do hope you will see the value of an in-person Town Hall and schedule one soon. There is too much at stake not to," Gordon said.

When asked about constituents' comments, a statement from Zeldin's office, sent by email, said: "During a Telephone Town Hall, anyone who is on the call can ask a question. We had 9,116 people were on the call listening. There were also an additional 1,015 listening online. For anyone who didn't have the opportunity to ask a question, they were able to leave a message at the end of the call. There were almost 200 voicemails left last night and all of these questions will be answered through our office. The questions were very focused on the ACA last night. Through the years as we have done these calls, we have found that there are certain topics in particular that are being asked a lot more than others, which was the case again during the call with the ACA questions."

When asked for comment earlier this month why Zeldin was hosting a Telephone Town Hall, rather than a live Town Hall, as requested by his residents, who have been rallying outside his office for weeks and asking for meetings, Jennifer DiSiena, media representative for Zeldin, sent a response via email.

"Telephone Town Hall is a perfect example of an outreach effort with the public that has proven to be extremely effective. For years, Telephone Town Halls have allowed the Congressman to productively reach the maximum amount of constituents who are interested in constructive dialogue. This is a modern way to bring a town hall directly to the constituents’ home. It is true that liberal obstructionists cannot disrupt the call; such claims reinforce their true intention," she said.

"Way too 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. It's impossible to take a request like that seriously.

"A large majority of the people saying that Congressman Zeldin won't meet with them haven't even requested a meeting. For those who are interested in having a good discussion on an array of issues, Congressman Zeldin and our staff are meeting with them individually and in small groups; these meetings include people who have been involved in protests. These individual meetings take more time, but have proven to be much more productive.

"Congressman Zeldin has had two straight years of public forums, telephone town halls, and mobile office hours. These outreach efforts with the public have proven to be extremely effective and allow him to productively reach the maximum amount of constituents who are interested in constructive dialogue.

"Since 2015, our office has hosted mobile offices hours across the district, including in Southampton, Bridgehampton, Riverhead, Southold, Smithtown, Mount Sinai and Mastic, just to list a few of the towns. Our office also conducts many Telephone Town Halls and distributes a monthly e-newsletter as well as other direct outreach. Every single constituent who contacts our office receives a response from the Congressman or staff by either phone, email or letter. 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, including the telephone town hall this week and mobile office hours next week."

The issue became heated when Zeldin canceled an April event scheduled for Southampton after he said there was harassment and violence at a Rotary Man of the Year event in East Patchogue. Protestors claimed their gathering was a peaceful one, while others who attended the event told Patch they were verbally harassed. To read that prior report, click here.