As about 30 students started assembling care packages Monday for American troops overseas, Republican Rep.-elect Lee Zeldin unobtrusively slipped in and began talking to several of the veterans present.
A few minutes later, Zeldin — who wore a lapel pin from Operation Iraqi Freedom in which he served with an infantry battalion during four years of active duty in the Army — took a picture with the Suffolk Community College students and thanked them for their efforts on the eve of Veterans Day.
“There are a lot of people who spend the day not thinking about our veterans, but you do,” he said. “You care. The highlight of a day for a vet deployed is getting these boxes. I remember getting a picture from a third or fifth grader I never met before — it was the best part of the day.”
Zeldin, who was elected last Tuesday, will be the only Republican Jew in the House of Representatives following former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in the primary. The 34-year-old easily defeated six-term Democratic incumbent Tim Bishop with 55 percent of the vote.
But Monday’s college audience might prove among the easiest for him to please as he heads to Washington. His job is set to begin this week with the congressional orientation for newly elected members.
A conservative Republican, Zeldin will find a party divided by internal struggles with moderates in the House and Senate leadership on one side and Tea Party reformers on the other. Each is seeking the upper hand as the Republicans move from backbench kibitzers to lawmakers now that they have captured control of both the Senate and the House.
Despite his conservative credentials, Zeldin, a two-term state senator, speaks like the last nationally prominent New York Republican Jew, the late Sen. Jacob Javits. A liberal, Javits nevertheless argued for diversity within the party.
When asked about the Tea Party, Zeldin replied: “I work with anybody; I work with everybody. I’m my own man. There are times when you are working on an issue that you will align [yourself] based on party or geography or a shared position on a particular issue. You might be working with one person one day on one bill, you might be working with someone else the next day on something else.”
He added, “Every single thing I was able to accomplish in Albany was done by getting the support of Democrats. When you have a Democratic governor, a Democratic State Assembly, and Republicans and Democrats sharing power in the Senate, there is no way to get anything done if you are not willing to work with those on both sides of the aisle.”
Last week’s election was the second time Zeldin had challenged Bishop, 64, for the seat that encompasses the bulk of Suffolk County. The first time, in 2008, Bishop won handily with more than 58 percent of the vote. But Zeldin’s increased name recognition — he was twice elected to the State Senate beginning in 2010 — as well as a strong anti-Obama vote and a massive media blitz that pummeled both candidates swept Zeldin to victory.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, said that although Zeldin can’t go too far afoul of the Tea Party base that helped elect him, he will be a one-termer in that moderate swing district if he doesn’t come across as a pragmatic, get-things-done legislator. He has managed to appeal to the full spectrum of the Republican Party, and has attracted a substantial number of votes from moderates and independents, by coming across as someone who doesn’t put ideology or partisanship above representing everybody in the district.
“If the Republican Party wants to hold this seat in 2016, its leaders will not push him to take extreme positions,” Levy said. “He knows the district and that it is politically and ideologically diverse. The people who decide elections are moderate independents, which is true of a lot of swing suburban districts.”
Among those that had set up tables at Monday’s college event was the PFC Joseph Dwyer Program that helps returning veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
And Regina Pfeifer was there in behalf of the Soldiers Project, which provides free counseling to service members returning from the war. When she saw Zeldin, she rushed up, embraced him and said she had voted for him. When she said she had been upset by the repetitive TV ads against him, Zeldin said he had to stop watching television.
“I was getting ready to vote against myself,” he quipped.
A native Long Islander, Zeldin grew up in Suffolk County and graduated from William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Albany and a law degree from Albany Law School. He became the state’s youngest attorney when he was sworn in at the age of 23. He next embarked on his military career, which Zeldin said has informed his “outlook on foreign policy, understanding threats. … and how to build and participate in a coalition of allies to get something productive done.”
After the military, Zeldin had his own law practice from 2008 until his election to the State Senate.
With respect to his Congressional victory, Zeldin said simply: “There was certainly a lot of significant swing in our favor. They decided they were not happy with the status quo and wanted a better direction for our country.”
He said he, too, is unhappy with the Obama administration’s relationship with “our nation’s strongest ally – Israel. We have a president and an administration that has been less supportive than I would like.” And he said Republican support for Israel “presents an opportunity for the Republican Party to expand its outreach to Jewish Americans [so that they] consider supporting Republicans causes a little more going forward.”
Exit polls last week showed that 65 percent of the Jews who voted supported Democratic candidates.
“I believe we need a stronger, more consistent foreign policy. The president said there would be consequences if chemical weapons were used by Syria, but there weren’t any — and enemies respect only strength.”
Obama’s decision to ease sanctions against Iran was a mistake, Zeldin said, because despite its promises, Iran continues its research efforts to build a nuclear bomb. “I believe sanctions should be increased, not decreased,” he said.
Zeldin said he also would like to repeal Obama’s prime legislative achievement, the Affordable Health Care Act, because “for every one person I come across who tells me it has helped them, I come across more who say it has adversely impacted them and they are not happy. I am hopeful we can get past partisan bickering and improve health care.”
Regarding immigration, Zeldin said he is “greatly concerned that this president will continue to take unilateral actions that he does not have the authority to do. … It is important that Republicans and Democrats and the White House find common ground and move our country forward.”
In addition, Zeldin said he is against common core education standards. He said officials in Albany are “reluctant to change it because they believe they risk … $700 million in federal funding. I believe the federal government needs to give states the flexibility to do what is best for their students regardless of the money being spent.”
An only child, Zeldin was raised in Shirley, L.I. and celebrated his bar mitzvah at B’nai Israel Reform Temple of Oakdale, L.I. He and his wife, Diana, continue to live in Shirley. Although Diana, a Mormon, did not convert to Judaism, Zeldin said the family joined B’nai Israel Reform Temple and that his 8-year-old identical twin daughters, Mikayla and Arianna, will be enrolling in Hebrew school there.
Asked about his upbringing, Zeldin said it was sometimes Reform, sometimes Conservative, “depending on who [in the family] we were with.” In addition to B’nai Israel, the family often attended the Conservative synagogue Farmingdale Jewish Center, where his grandfather is a founder.
Asked if Judaism has influenced his way of thinking, he replied: “There are many important values that help build character when faced with a decision. The best thing you can do when you have a strong sense of right and wrong is to do what your gut tells you is right.”
Although some analysts questioned why Zeldin risked giving up his relatively secure Senate seat to challenge Bishop again, Zeldin said he felt a compunction to run.
“It’s one thing to sit on the sidelines and complain and another to raise your hand and serve,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to make a positive difference, and it required me to leave a safe seat to run.”