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It’s Jew vs. Jew in New York’s 1st Congressional District

With Trump in the White House, decency is not inevitable, unless each one of us is willing to fight for it
Illustrative: East Hampton, New York, March 6, 2010. (iStock)
Illustrative: East Hampton, New York, March 6, 2010. (iStock)

There is now no question: two Jewish candidates — Democrat Perry Gershon and Republican Lee Zeldin — will be facing each other on Election Day in November in a run for New York’s 1st Congressional District seat in the US House of Representatives.

Several decades ago there was a concern by political leaders in Suffolk County, which encompasses most of eastern Long Island, about running Jewish candidates for offices covering much of Suffolk County. This was punctuated by the vote for a candidate with a notably Jewish name running for a countywide position being below what others on his ticket received. Leaders suspected his being Jewish was the cause.

Although Suffolk County includes most of 118-mile Long Island — 86 miles of it — Suffolk’s Jewish population is less than half of that in neighboring Nassau County, where Jews have regularly run for public office. The current Jewish population of Nassau is 230,000.

And compared to the heavily Jewish New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, geographically part of Long Island, too, Suffolk’s estimated 86,000 Jewish residents — out of a population now of 1.5 million — is relatively small.

However, in 2014, Mr. Zeldin, an attorney, a US Army veteran who served as an officer in Iraq, became the first Jew elected to be a member of the House in the 1st Congressional District.

The 1st Congressional District is geographically the largest congressional district in Suffolk — taking in all the five East End towns which includes the famed Hamptons, all of Brookhaven Town, which is bigger than Nassau County, most of Smithtown, and a slice of Islip Town. Zeldin took office in 2015, and for two years was the only Jewish Republican in the House.

Then, in 2016, Howard Kustoff of Tennessee won a seat in the House and took office in 2017 — bringing the number of Jewish GOP House members to two. In contrast, there were and still are 18 Jewish Democrats in the House.

The 1st Congressional District seat was first held by William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He took office in 1789. But through the centuries since, there was no Jews who followed Floyd, until Zeldin.

The win of Gershon of the Democratic nomination to run in the 1st Congressional District came in a Democratic Party primary last month. His victory was about an aggressive, well-financed campaign — but it was more than that.

On the afternoon of Primary Day June 26th, there was a knock on our door — and virtually no uninvited person has come down the long private dirt road to our rather isolated cottage in rural Noyac, adjacent to Sag Harbor, in the 44 years we’ve lived there. (Only one pair of trick-or-treaters, for instance, in all those years.)

The nice-looking young man at the door introduced himself as Marshall Gershon and asked for a vote “for my dad.”

One thing is expending large amounts of money on TV commercials and slick brochures, but this sort of thing is way beyond that — it reflected a remarkable commitment of the Gershon campaign.

(I’m not enrolled in any political party — to emphasize being non-partisan as a journalist. As a professor of journalism, I advise my students going into media to do the same. My wife, however, is an enrolled Democrat and young Gershon was in search of her primary vote.)

Although both Zeldin and Gershon are Jews, politically, they couldn’t be more different.

Zeldin of Shirley is highly conservative. He is personally and politically close to President Donald Trump. Before defeating incumbent Tim Bishop to take the 1st Congressional District seat, he was a New York State senator.

Zeldin has been a Trump administration link to Israel. He was part of the US delegation at Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations. He has met often with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gershon’s key motivation in running, he has repeatedly said, is Trump winning the US presidency and the closeness between Trump and Zeldin.

In the wake of Gershon’s primary win, Zeldin, in the way of Trump who likes to use epithets to denigrate people — “little rocket man,” “crooked Hillary,” etc. — issued a statement referring every several sentences to Gershon as “Park Avenue Perry.”

It will be a hot general election contest ahead.

We’ll be seeing what the extraordinarily high Gershon energy along with Zeldin’s incumbency will mean in a Gershon-Zeldin race.

Remarkable in the Democratic primary were the number of rivals for the 1st Congressional District nomination — five. In more than 50 years of following Suffolk politics, I know of no primary contest of any party in which there were so many contestants. I believe it to be a record.

From the outset, Gershon, a political outsider, broke out of the starting gate strong — and continued strong. A successful New York City businessman with a home in East Hampton, the son of two noted doctors, a graduate of Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, who initially studied medicine but then decided on a business route, his campaign issued hard-hitting literature — going for the jugular.

“Together We Can Beat Lee Zeldin And Stop Donald Trump,” declared one brochure. “It’s Time To Take Back Our Country.” And there were brochures on specific issues: “Medicare For All Isn’t Just My Fight — It’s Our Fight,” said one. “Perry Gershon Has A Plan To End Gun Violence” and this includes “banning assault weapons,” said another, “Our Environmental Treasures Must Be Protected…Perry Gershon will be protecting our coastline and drinking water. Global Warming Is Real, No Offshore Drilling,” said another. “Standing With Planned Parenthood. Protecting The Right To Choose,” said another.

His campaign literature and TV commercials described Gershon as a “bold progressive” — and continued a drumbeat tying Zeldin to Trump.

There was a large primary turn-out — almost double the number of Democrats who turned out for the 2016 primary pitting former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst against David Calone, ex-chair of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, in a race to challenge Zeldin that year.

Former Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning of Shirley, who came in second to Gershon, told supporters this indicated that “Democrats are energized to succeed in November.”

Gershon spent a great deal of money in the primary contest — a lot his own. Federal Election Commission records show that by June 6th, he had raised $2,110,371 and spent $1,660,210. Browning raised the second-highest amount with $493,850.

Gershon received 35.5 percent of the vote, Browning 30%. (Gershon garnered in 7,226 votes, Browning 6,159.)

Other candidates in the race were former Suffolk Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher of Setauket (her husband a Jew) who received 16% of the vote, former New York City Council staffer David Pechefksy, a Patchogue native now of Port Jefferson (and Jewish, too) who got 12%, and former Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist Elaine DiMasi of Ronkonkoma who got 6%.

Through the decades, the 1st Congressional District seat has been held by both Democrats and Republicans and, for a time, a Conservative, William Carney of Hauppauge, who ran with Republican cross-endorsement.

Its first holder, William Floyd (whose estate in Mastic Beach has been preserved and is managed by the National Park Service) was a member of the long defunct Anti-Administration Party.

Gershon’s campaign website stresses his having “first-hand knowledge of Trump.” It says: “Perry and his family have worked consistently for social justice through their synagogue and community and it would have been enough — until Donald Trump. Perry had first-hand knowledge of Trump going back to his start in lending after getting his MBA from Berkeley in 1993. Even then Trump topped the list of untouchable clients… due to his penchant for reneging on his debt, for suing everyone and stiffing contractors. But Perry was most struck… by the similarities between the rise of authoritarian rule in 1930s and Trump and his style of leadership. The demeaning of the press, the denial of facts and science, the scapegoating of immigrants and minority Americans, all stood out as warning signs. Perry thought that these things could not happen in post-World War II America, that the slow march to greater economic, racial, gender, and social equality was inevitable. But Trump in the White House was a defining moment in his life. Now Perry knows that decency is not inevitable unless all of us are willing to fight for it, each in our own way.”

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.
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