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SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Gershon - Zeldin Battle In 2020?


By Karl Grossman

Perry Gershon is “strongly leaning to another go” at running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the lst C.D. against incumbent Lee Zeldin. 

Although a newcomer to Suffolk politics, Mr. Gershon, of East Hampton, won last year over a record number of other would-be candidates in a Democratic primary in Suffolk, including two former Suffolk County legislators, to get the Democratic nomination. Then he did better against Mr. Zeldin, of Shirley, than the last two Democrats who ran against Mr. Zeldin, then incumbent Tim Bishop, in 2014, and former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst in 2016.

Mr. Zeldin, an attorney, was a two-term state senator before his election to the House.

Mr. Gershon lost to Mr. Zeldin by 4 percent of the district vote but carried East Hampton, Southampton, Southold and Shelter Island. He lost in Smithtown. And in the most populous segment of the district, Brookhaven Town, “we tied on the Democratic-versus-Republican lines,” said Mr. Gershon with Mr. Zeldin only beating him in Brookhaven by also being on the Conservative Party ticket.

If Mr. Gershon decides to run again—and I predict he will—he said last week that “I will need to convince the district at large that I represent a better future for them. I was at my stride at the end of the campaign, talking about bringing people together without demonizing the other side, the opposite of Zeldin’s vision.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has just named the lst C.D. as one of 25 “target districts” in the United States—a designation meaning this arm of the national Democratic Party considers the incumbent vulnerable. “The district was not viewed as competitive by the DCCC last year,” noted Mr. Gershon. 

There is precedent in the lst C.D. for a Democratic candidate losing and then, after intensive activity, winning over the Republican incumbent. Otis G. Pike, a town justice from Riverhead, initially lost his race for the seat in 1958 to GOPer Stuyvesant Wainwright of Wainsott. Mr. Pike then embarked on a two-year marathon of going to virtually every meeting of civic and community groups in the lst C.D., mixing with residents at every opportunity, not stopping campaigning. And in 1960 Mr. Pike won over four-term incumbent Wainwright and held the lst C.D. seat for 18 years, longer than anyone in history since the district was formed with its first representative Declaration of Independence-signer William Floyd of Mastic.

Mr. Gershon is also preparing for a whirlwind of activities. Indeed, he was heading off after we talked last week to appear before a business organization in Patchogue.

A major indication of Mr. Gershon seeking to run again came in an email he sent to supporters towards the end of last year. “As the year draws to a close, I’m thankful that all our hard work in 2018 made a huge difference. While we came up short in our campaign against Lee Zeldin, our loss was narrow—only about 4 percent. That shows that, if we keep working, 2020 could be our year to finally send Lee packing.”

In making a second run, Mr. Gershon would again emphasize strategies he stressed last year including, he said, widening “voter participation.” 

The impetus for Mr. Gershon, a successful businessman, to jump into politics was President Donald Trump and his actions and also Mr. Zeldin’s close political and personal ties to Mr. Trump. That might be a double-edged sword in Suffolk. Mr. Trump won Suffolk in running for the presidency in 2016. Has Mr. Trump retained a substantial edge here? Has Mr. Zeldin’s support of Mr. Trump taken a toll or is he still supported for his backing of Mr. Trump?

 “Zeldin is out-of-touch with the district,” claimed Mr. Gershon last week.

As a recent example, Mr. Gershon points to the partial government shutdown and Mr. Zeldin being “100% with Trump behind the shutdown.” 

Mr. Trump is seeking to run for re-election as president in 2020 and that would coincide with elections to the House—he would be on top of the Republican ticket. Mr. Gershon sees Mr. Trump, if he is a candidate for re-election in 2020, as being “wounded,” increasingly damaged politically by “disclosures” involving his presidency and initial campaign.

Mr. Gershon said “I believe the 2020 election is going to be about visions for the future.” If making the race, “I am going to run for a better Long Island, for better economic opportunity, for better environmental protection and dealing with what might be the biggest threat to the future—climate change.” He said he supports the recently proposed “Green New Deal”—a plan for environmental and economic actions—in challenging climate change. 

Mr. Zeldin would have the advantage of incumbency and a hefty campaign war chest. But Mr. Gershon raised plenty of money last time around: more than $3 million. A Gershon-Zeldin rematch will make for lively politics.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. 

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