The Candidate Targets the In-Betweens
“We are going to win in November!” Perry Gershon told a lively gathering of East Hampton Democrats on Aug. 15 at the East Hampton Presbyterian Church. “Our time has come!” The Democratic Party is energized and united, he told the assembled, and “We are all in to see Lee Zeldin out.”
Mr. Gershon, who bested four others to win the Democratic Party’s nomination to represent New York’s First Congressional District, is nothing if not confident. Polls indicate a close race against Mr. Zeldin, who has represented the district since 2015 after defeating its longtime incumbent, Tim Bishop, and Mr. Zeldin knows it, Mr. Gershon said.
“Generally, when an incumbent who’s running against an unknown challenger is comfortable with the race, the last thing he wants to do is bring national attention to that unknown challenger,” he said on Aug. 15. “Well, Lee Zeldin had Donald Trump Jr. tweeting about me and Rush Limbaugh talking about me. Somebody’s worried, and it’s not me.”
The Cook Political Report lists the race in its “likely Republican” column and the website Real Clear Politics says it “leans Republican,” but on Aug. 15, and in an interview with Star staff on Friday, Mr. Gershon, who built a house in East Hampton in 1999 and became a year-round resident last year, further explained his confidence. Turnout in the primary was up 76 percent over 2016, when Mr. Zeldin was re-elected by a 59-to-41-percent margin in a race against Anna Throne-Holst, the former Southampton Town supervisor. “That means the Democrats are energized, but even better, two days after the primary all five of us . . . sat down together and had a unity rally,” he told The Star. “Everybody was there behind one candidate, which we didn’t have two years ago. That’s how you win.”
The candidate is also confident that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s campaign arm for the House of Representatives, will soon add him to its “red to blue” list of top-tier candidates to which it provides funding and organizational support. “They’re aware of our race, they know it’s winnable,” he said. Moreover, “We are raising money really, really well,” some $800,000 since the June 26 primary, he said. “And that’s not with any of my money,” Mr. Gershon, who put $1.3 million into the primary campaign, added.
That said, “I’m also encountering a lot of donors who contribute to races around the country who are reluctant to get involved in this race because the external validators are not pointing to it.” Polling data indicates a close race, but those outside the district “are still adjusting their landscape” since Mr. Gershon upended an expectation that Kate Browning, a former Suffolk County legislator, would win the Democratic nomination. The First District’s primary was also overshadowed by the state’s 14th district, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored an upset victory over the longtime incumbent Joe Crowley.
The First District, Mr. Gershon said, is polarized. “There is a large number of people who dislike Lee Zeldin and want no part of him. There are a good number of people who love Donald Trump and Lee Zeldin, and there’s nothing I could do to change their minds.” In between, he said, is “a middle group of the electorate, maybe 15 percent, that’s persuadable. . . . It’s our view that, if I’m presented as a credible alternative — meaning a relatively moderate individual, not a radical on the other side — they will vote for me.”
“They don’t know me, they’ve never heard of me. They need to get comfortable with me, but their inclination will be to vote against Zeldin because they don’t like the direction of the country and they don’t like his stand on the issues.”
Mr. Zeldin, he charged, is “on the wrong side of just about every issue that matters to people here in New York One. All of the enthusiasm, and we think the likelihood to vote, goes on our side.”
Turnout, he told the gathering at the church, is crucial. Mr. Zeldin, he noted, won more votes in his unsuccessful 2008 effort to oust Mr. Bishop than in his successful 2014 campaign. “The difference is that Democrats didn’t turn out” in 2014, he said. “We’re going to turn out . . . as long as we don’t take it for granted.”
The race will be won or lost in Brookhaven, its population dwarfing East Hampton’s. Ms. Throne-Holst “failed in part because she was particularly weak in Brookhaven,” Mr. Gershon said. She and her primary opponent, David Calone, “never really reconciled afterward, and Anna never reached out to Brookhaven people, including the town Democratic committee, to get their support. There was no energy at all in Brookhaven for the Democrats.”
While registered Republicans are in the majority there, “they do carry Democrats. Tim Bishop tells me all the time . . . that I can’t take my eye off the ball, I have to win in Brookhaven.” Ms. Browning, along with the former candidates Vivian Viloria-Fisher and Elaine DiMasi, are all supporting him, Mr. Gershon said. “Kate will make a difference in Mastic-Shirley.”
President Trump gets most of the public and media attention, but “I’m running against Lee Zeldin,” the candidate told The Star. “Trump is out there in the background. I can run against Zeldin, Zeldin ties himself to Trump, so indirectly I’ll be running against Trump. . . . I’m running on issues that matter to people who live here.”
These, he told the Aug. 15 gathering, include health care. “We want to see the gains that we made in the Obama administration remain in place. That means when someone has a pre-existing condition, they cannot be denied insurance. . . . Candidate Trump was right on this, not President Trump: We need to reduce prescription drug costs to make them more affordable to people. Trump said he was going to let Medicare negotiate with the drug companies, but President Trump is in big with Big Pharma, and Congressman Zeldin is in with President Trump.”
He referred to an Aug. 13 rally in Patchogue with Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. “I am going to stand up to the gun lobby,” he said. Mr. Zeldin is the recipient of more contributions from the National Rifle Association than anyone else in New York State’s Congressional delegation, he said, and co-sponsored the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would require all states to recognize concealed carry permits by other states and allow permit holders to carry a concealed weapon in school zones in any state. “There is no constituency for that in New York One,” he said.
While the national economy is strong, “we don’t have job growth here in New York One or on Long Island,” Mr. Gershon said. “There’s a reason for it: Our infrastructure is crumbling. We have not invested in ourselves. We have to do that to make us more competitive.” To The Star, he said that “the future of Suffolk County may be manufacturing the turbines for offshore wind . . . If you’re going to have multiple offshore wind power plants in this area, you need to build the turbines locally, because it’s too expensive to import them from Europe.”
The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court means that a woman’s right to choose is “under attack,” Mr. Gershon said. “That’s why Democrats need to take back the House, and we need to be aware and cognizant of where Lee Zeldin stands.” Mr. Zeldin voted for the American Health Care Act of 2017, a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act that would have imposed a nationwide ban on private insurance coverage of abortion, among other restrictions.
Mr. Gershon assailed Mr. Zeldin’s record on the environment, noting the League of Conservation Voters’ 9-percent score awarded the congressman for 2017. “He’s quiet when Donald Trump takes on all the advancements we’ve made, not just under Obama but on presidents going back to Richard Nixon,” he said. “He cheered Trump when he pulled out of the Paris Accord,” in which nearly every country pledged to cut its carbon-dioxide emissions.
“This race is fully in play,” Mr. Gershon told The Star. “The only thing Zeldin has over me, going into this, is name recognition. I intend to fix that, and make sure voters get to know me. I did it well in the primary for Democrats, and I’m going to do it well for non-Democrats now.”