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GOP’s Zeldin running as ardent Trump backer on Long Island

October 30, 2018
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This Aug. 17, 2017 photo, provided by Perry Gershon for Congress shows Gershon, the Democratic candidate from New York's 1st Congressional District, in Stony Brook, N.Y. Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin is campaigning for re-election on the eastern half of Long Island as an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. Zeldin has focused on the public safety threat posed by Central American gangs. Democratic challenger Gershon has accused Zeldin of aligning himself with “anti-immigrant ideologues.” (Perry Gershon for Congress via AP)

Based on its history, New York’s 1st Congressional District would seem like a risky place to campaign as a deeply conservative, unwavering supporter of President Donald Trump. For decades it was a swing district, with voters sending both Democrats and Republicans to Washington. It went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, George W. Bush in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000.

But the district, which sweeps from the sandy, swanky Hamptons to middle class suburbia, has taken a rightward political turn in recent years. Its representative since 2015, Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, is now banking that full-throated support of Trump will carry him to a third term over a well-financed challenge from Democrat Perry Gershon, a commercial real estate lender.

Eastern Long Island’s tilt to the right has coincided with an influx of Hispanic immigrants, and on the campaign trail Zeldin has focused hard on the public safety threat posed by Central American gangs

He has backed policies that would strip gang members of their U.S. citizenship. One recent ad features images of tattooed MS-13 gang members and a warning that “sanctuary city” policies favored by Democrats would attract more of them to Long Island. “Every parent’s worst nightmare,” the narrator said.

Former Trump advisers have joined Zeldin at campaign events, including Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, a national security aide whose hardline views on immigration and terrorism caused discord even inside the White House.

Zeldin has also cast Gershon as an outsider, nicknaming him “Park Avenue Perry” because he grew up in Manhattan and, up until last year, was registered to vote in New York City, though he has had a residence in East Hampton since 1999.

“He admitted to registering in our district just to run for Congress,” Zeldin said. “He decided to move into his East Hampton summer mansion and try to buy himself a seat in Congress.”

Gershon, who is making his first run for elected office, said where he has voted in the past isn’t relevant.

“I am focused on the needs of the people who live here,” he said. And he has accused Zeldin of aligning himself with “anti-immigrant ideologues.”

The son of two professors at Columbia Medical School, Gershon graduated from Yale University and then dropped out of medical school after two and a half years to open a New York City sports bar called the Polo Grounds. He sold the bar after three years, got an MBA at the University of California, Berkeley and embarked on a career in commercial real estate financing.

Gershon said he was inspired to get involved in politics after Trump’s election, calling the president a “snake oil salesman.”

“Everything was going fine and then Donald Trump was elected president,” said Gershon, 56. “I felt a need to do something and fight for the values that I think are part of American society. The president isn’t supposed to be a bully, for one thing.”

Gershon beat four other candidates in a June Democratic primary to earn the right to challenge Zeldin.

His top issues include expanding access to government-backed health care programs.

Gershon said voters haven’t forgotten Zeldin’s 2017 vote to repeal Obamacare.

“Many people in this district got health care who didn’t used to be able to get it because of pre-existing conditions,” Gershon said. “The Affordable Care Act made that possible.”

A lawyer, Army veteran and former state senator, Zeldin defeated a six-term Democrat, U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, in 2014 and easily won re-election in 2016. The district voted for Trump 54 percent to 42 percent in 2016. A Siena College/New York Times poll this month found Zeldin with a modest lead in the race.

Zeldin, 38, says he is willing to break with Trump on occasion, like when he voted against the Republican tax overhaul because of its effect on Long Island homeowners. And he said he has delivered for the district on local issues that matter to Democrats, like dredging of a storm-clogged waterway and getting the Federal Aviation Administration to re-route noisy helicopter traffic bound for the Hamptons.

“There are many very important local issues in this district where people who are considered prime Democratic voters are going to vote for me because they know me,” Zeldin said. “They know I’m all about getting results.”

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