Lee Zeldin has proved to be an agile politician navigating a tricky electoral turf. The boyish-faced two-term Republican congressman from the East End of Long Island, whose district encompasses working-class Smithtown and the celebrity-laden Hamptons, has twice prevailed in an area that has, over the years, swung toward the Democrats, then toward the Republicans and even once elected a candidate on the Conservative line.
In a deep blue state, he is an anomaly: the only Jewish Republican in the New York delegation, and one of only two Jewish GOP members in the entire House of Representatives.
But a year into Donald Trump’s presidency and on the eve of a Zeldin fundraiser whose keynote speaker is the controversial alt-right champion Stephen Bannon, the 37-year-old legislator is facing what political analysts say will be a test of that political agility.
Zeldin won his last race by nearly 18 percentage points, and he has voted with Trump 90.6 percent of the time.
Zeldin won his last race by nearly 18 percentage points, and he has voted with Trump 90.6 percent of the time, according to the political data site FiveThirtyEight. But the specter of Bannon looms, even in a district that went solidly for Trump. And Cook Political Report, which had said Zeldin was in a safe seat for re-election, now finds that he is losing some ground as Trump’s favorability rating has slipped to 35 percent nationally.
Until last August, Bannon had been Trump’s senior strategist. His decision to headline Zeldin’s fundraiser came after House Speaker Paul Ryan canceled an earlier fundraiser for Zeldin, reportedly to punish him because Zeldin voted last month against the tax reform bill because it allowed only a $10,000 deduction for state and local taxes.
Bannon, who has returned to his former position as executive chairman of Breitbart News, has vowed to work for a select group of congressional candidates even as he has declared a “season of war against a GOP establishment,” chief among them Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.).
He is seen by many as a divisive figure. Bend the Arc Jewish Action said he “provides a platform for a white nationalism that frequently demonizes people of color, Jews and other minorities.”
Zeldin did not respond to a question about Bannon — as well as a series of other questions emailed to his office in preparation for this article. Although no other Republican has announced plans to challenge him next year, six Democrats, including businessman Perry Gershon, who is Jewish, will face off in a primary next June for a chance to unseat Zeldin.
Bannon’s appearance comes as some talk of impeaching embattled President Donald Trump — just one year into his presidency — for allegedly seeking to obstruct justice in a case involving his former National Security adviser, Michael Flynn.
But few believe impeachment is in the offing because it would require the support of at least 22 House Republicans and at least 15 Republican Senators. And as Peter Beinart pointed out in The Atlantic, such Republican defections are increasingly unlikely because few of Trump’s supporters have abandoned him. In fact, his Gallup Poll approval rating among Republicans has never slipped below 79 percent. The last poll taken late last month showed him at 81 percent.
However, such an approval rating is “really low among Republicans,” according to Matthew Lebo, a political science professor at Stony Brook University. “I bet [President Barak] Obama’s numbers were not that low among Democrats. And 80 percent is among an ever-shrinking number of people because the number of people who call themselves Republicans is now 5 percent less than a year ago.”
But those Jewish Republicans who like Trump said their support has not diminished.
“I like the fact that Trump is so disruptive,” said Bob Greenberg of Wading River, L.I. “The idea of draining the swamp is terrific. I think he has been doing a great job, and he would be doing even better if the Democrats and establishment Republicans weren’t trying desperately to stop him at every turn. They are trying to stop him from making America great again.”
Peter Price of Westhampton said he, too, supports Trump’s agenda “despite a whole army of people who are trying to stop him.”
“The stock market is going through the roof and he is blamed for everything. The eight prior years we didn’t do so well. He’s a welcome change.”
Price said he voted for Zeldin twice and has found him “honest and hardworking.”
Greenberg also supports Zeldin but said he is disappointed that he is “not supporting our president as strongly as he could.”
Jewish Democrats interviewed questioned Trump’s competency and said they believe he is dishonest, embraces hate groups, foments division and has gutted health care. Except for health care, they said similar things about Bannon.
Zeldin has reportedly developed a bond with Bannon over their mutual support for the State of Israel. But it is unknown how this alliance “will play out with Jews, who tend to be moderate to progressive and usually vote Democratic but have supported Lee because he is Jewish and strong supporter of Israel,” said Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I.
Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, a former Democratic Assemblyman and now a political commentator on News12 Long Island, agreed, saying: “He’s stepping on a minefield.”
“It will not resonate well in the Jewish community,” he said. “He doesn’t need Bannon. He has a base of support and it is fairly strong.”
But Robert Mercer, co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund, is a major financial supporter of both Zeldin and Breitbart, Lebo said.
“Zeldin can’t abandon Breitbart or that Republican base,” he said. “There are some Jews who are Republican and who believe the Republican Party and Trump are better for Israel. But there are lot of Jews who are disgusted with Zeldin and Trump.”
Among those upset with Zeldin is Rabbi Jan Urbach, who, with a colleague, met Zeldin last August to ask him to hold a public meeting because such meetings are the “cornerstone of American democracy.”
“He laughed at us and said he could not hold a meeting because he would be shouted down and it would not be a real meeting,” she said. “We offered to put together a group of interfaith clergy to chair the meeting and use our moral authority as clergy to keep a respectful tone and allow him to be heard. He changed the subject. We repeated the offer in writing and I never heard back from him.”
In fact, Zeldin has not held a public town hall meeting since April. He has met with constituents, but only in small groups and by invitation only, according to Phyllis Hartmann of Bellport, a member of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. She recently picketed one of his closed-door constituent meetings.
But Michael Leselrod, president of the Jewish Center of the Moriches, a Conservative congregation with about 60 members, said Zeldin attended an event last summer marking the 50th anniversary of the congregation’s building. In 2015, Leselrod said, Zeldin attended another event organized by all of the synagogues on the East End.
“He talked of our relationship with Israel and … [most recently] he talked about community, anti-Semitism, his kids and being Jewish,” he said. “We reached out to him and he was happy to do it. Nobody yelled at him; I think our congregation is 90 percent Democrat. He is a nice guy and there is a special feeling about someone Jewish who is running.”
Similarly, Zeldin has visited The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach where Rabbi Marc Schneier said he frequently “mingles with 800 congregants on a Shabbat morning.”
“He has had open discussions on constituent issues and on Israel,” he said. “His door is wide open. He has not missed one milestone event at the synagogue, where he has spoken and participated. He is a stellar congressman both as a representative in the Hamptons and as a very close and personal friend.”
Other than accessibility issues, Zeldin’s critics complain that although the congressman criticized neo-Nazi marchers at the “Unite the Right” demonstration last August in Charlottesville, Va., he said nothing about Trump’s comment that there were some “very fine people” among the marchers who chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
But others, including Jerry Levin, one of Zeldin’s financial supporters, said he could not fault Zeldin for refusing to criticize Trump.
“He’s the president of the United States and to come out and criticize the president … I’m not saying I support everything by any means, but it is important to support the president,” he said.
Zeldin’s district is one of 91 congressional districts designated by House Democrats as competitive, battleground districts. It has relatively few Jews — perhaps fewer than 5 percent, Levy of Hofstra noted.
“There is no doubt some Jews voted for Zeldin because he is a fellow Jew,” he said. “If they decide their vote was misplaced and the Democrats can come up with a strong Democratic candidate, the Jewish vote could be decisive. The biggest issue for Zeldin is Donald Trump. In 2016, Trump carried the district by a large margin [16 points]. While there are signs the president’s popularity has slipped on Long Island — including in the First Congressional District — Trump is still not a major negative for Zeldin. Further slippage of the president’s approval rating could change that, but Zeldin is trying to maintain the Trump base by remaining very loyal to the president on a number of issues.”