Eastern Long Island is a study in contrasts. It’s got acres of farms, punctuated by mom-and-pop stores. But it’s also home to the Hamptons, where New York’s elite summers.
After a day on the stump in early October, Perry Gershon’s campaign for the area’s congressional seat was working that Hamptons glitz with Alec Baldwin, who owns a renovated 18th-century farmhouse in Amagansett.
Gershon, 56, is running to unseat two-term Republican Representative Lee Zeldin in a district President Trump won by 12 percentage points. Outside a golf club’s two-story colonial home where Gershon was scheduled to speak, Baldwin told the Forward he thought the Democrat had a strong shot at winning.
“I’ve never seen America so demoralized in my life. So hopefully we take back the House,” he said, before turning to Gershon and adding wryly, “Then you’re under a lot of pressure, my friend.”
Indeed, many pollsters say the Democrats have a chance to flip enough House seats that they will gain a majority. But it’s unlikely that New York State’s 1st district will be one of them, experts say. Zeldin, an early Trump supporter who recently received the president’s endorsement, is the favorite to win again.
Non-partisan election forecasters Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections all rate the race either lean or likely Republican. A recent New York Times live poll had Zeldin up nearly 8 points, but 10% of voters surveyed said they were still undecided.
Inside Elections expert Nathan Gonzales told the Forward they still favor Zeldin for the win, and that Trump’s endorsement is a big asset.
Congressman Lee Zeldin is doing a fantastic job in D.C. Tough and smart, he loves our Country and will always be there to do the right thing. He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2018
To be sure, Gershon has raised more than $1.5 million from 41,800 individual donors from July through September, according to the campaign, and Democrats have also seen a surge in voter enthusiasm. The party garnered nearly 10,000 more primary votes than in 2016.
Gershon’s fundraising numbers were impressive, Gonzales said, but then again Democrats across the country have posted strong numbers. A lot of that money could be from outside the district.
Gershon, 56, is a commercial real estate lender who used to live in Manhattan. He’s a Jewish Democrat in the classic style: a proud progressive who’s also a strong supporter of Israel.
During the Baldwin fundraiser, both men spoke about the importance of Medicare for all and other pet liberal projects.
He says the two-state solution is the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, and adds Israel needs friends on the Democratic side of the aisle as Republicans increasingly try to sell themselves as the country’s stronger ally.
He added that he supported the American embassy move to Jerusalem, though he didn’t agree with the way Trump carried it out, and was critical of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, which he called “code for anti-Semitism.”
Gershon has also been hammering Zeldin’s embrace of Trump, betting that enough voters have soured on the president’s divisive remarks and policies to turn the district blue.
FEC records show Sheldon and Miriam Adelson each donated the max $5,400 to Zeldin’s campaign on June 19, just ahead Gershon’s win in the primary.
“Lee Zeldin gets a large chunk of his funding from Sheldon Adelson,” Gershon pointed out while touring Stony Brook University before the Baldwin event, referring to the casino mogul and Republican mega-donor. “I think that says a lot about Lee Zeldin’s policies and the way he looks at life. I’m not a Sheldon Adelson guy. I’m proud of that fact. I advertise it. Lee Zeldin does his campaign rallies with Sebastian Gorka, with Steve Bannon and with Roger Stone.”
Zeldin’s campaign refers to the challenger as “Park Avenue Perry” in an effort to frame him as a carpetbagger who moved into the district from the Upper East Side.
The campaign also pointed out what they saw as Gershon’s hypocrisy for trying to tie Zeldin to people like Adelson and Gorka.
“That’s quite rich coming from someone who just yesterday held a fundraiser with Alec Baldwin who was fired from MSNBC for using homophobic slurs against a New York Post reporter, has admitted to openly bullying women, and has called his own 12-year-old daughter insulting names,” spokesman Chris Boyle told the Forward in an email.
“Gershon should do some self reflection and recalibrating of his own moral compass first and foremost.”
Baldwin also recently came under fire for saying “black people love me” for his impression of Trump.
While Gershon touts his progressive bona fides, he still leans more to the center on issues like immigration — he says he doesn’t support abolishing ICE — and touts his strong support of Israel.
Gershon — whose father’s family emigrated from Russia and Poland and whose maternal grandfather has Sephardic roots — grew up in a non-practicing household until he started attending Hebrew school on the sly with a friend.
“My parents were called into the synagogue and [they] said, ‘Your son’s been going to Hebrew school here, do you want to pay us tuition and join?’ And my father kind of got shamed into it. From that the family got more involved in religion.”
Like many Jews running for public office, he says he’s very inspired by the value of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world.
“The majority of Jews in this country are progressive, and I am the candidate of the progressive Jewish voice, so I see a victory for me is a victory for progressive Judaism in this country,” he said.