“Congressman Zeldin, how could you do this to us?”
This question was posed in a 30-second video ad aired shortly after the May 4 House vote adopting the American Health Care Act, also known as “Trumpcare.” The ad was aimed at the Republican congressman representing New York’s 1st Congressional District, one of two dozen House Republicans targeted by Save My Care, an advocacy group fighting to keep President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in place.
The $500,000 ad campaign, which has already been countered by ads from conservative groups supporting the vote, will likely not move the needle in any of the districts targeted. But it does put Zeldin, one of only two Jewish Republicans in Congress, on the defensive as he approaches the 2018 elections, where he hopes to win a third term representing the East End of Long Island.
“The health care vote certainly didn’t make his re-election easier,” Democratic strategist Evan Stavisky said of the Parkside group. Zeldin’s efforts to reposition himself as a bipartisan lawmaker more palatable to the moderate New York district he represses, Stavisky said, may have taken a blow. “Getting too close to the Trump White House and congressional leadership is like vacationing in Chernobyl,” Stavisky said.
The 217–213 vote repealing Obamacare and potentially making health care out of reach for millions of Americans infuriated Democrats. But it was also seen as a political opportunity, especially in swing districts such as Zeldin’s, which Democrats have already identified as a possible flip in 2018.
Democrats have a long way before agreeing on their candidate to challenge Zeldin, but some are already showing interest.
“Does this offend you?” tweeted Hannah Selinger, a Jewish writer and wine expert, as she quoted Zeldin’s announcement of support for Trumpcare. “It offends me, too. That’s why I’m raising money to unseat @RepLeeZeldin.” Explaining her decision to join the race, Selinger said that she believes “that the Affordable Care Act can be saved and improved upon and that it is our best bet in saving American lives.”
At least two other Democrats have already announced they will also take a shot at unseating Zeldin, fueled by his unyielding support for President Trump and by his vote to repeal Obamacare. They include Vivian Viloria-Fisher, a former Suffolk County legislator, and Elaine DiMasi, a scientist with no previous background in politics.
Zeldin sought to explain his vote in favor of Trumpcare in a May 8 opinion piece published in North Fork Patch. “There is so much misinformation being circulated on this bill, especially on social media,” Zeldin complained, moving on to respond to many of the criticisms against the legislation.
On the issue of hiking premiums for people with pre-existing medical conditions, Zeldin said that the state of New York will not allow insurers to do so, at least for now, and described as “hysteria” the argument that people with pre-existing conditions will not be insured. Zeldin also rejected claims that members voted in favor for the bill without even reading it, promising his constituents he had read all 138 pages plus all amendments by himself.
Zeldin’s office did not respond to the Forward’s requests for comment.
Even before the final House vote, Zeldin witnessed the wrath of Democrats in his districts during town hall meetings. Aware of the potential of having these meetings devolve into a shouting match, the congressman designed an alternative meeting method based on a series of smaller gatherings with a limited number of participants and on questions submitted in advance, instead of the town hall format.
The change did little to quell constituents’ anger. Newsday reported that Zeldin was met in Riverhead and in Farmingville with hisses and was repeatedly interrupted by the crowd. He fielded questions on a range of issues, from health care to North Korea, and was forced to explain his support to President Trump.
One Zeldin constituent, clearly unhappy with the limited access to his congressman, penned an angry letter to the local paper, complaining that he had no chance to engage directly with Zeldin and accusing the congressman of blindly following Trump.
“Is there no depth of corruption, conflicts of interest, nepotism and outright incompetence to which the Trump administration can sink that would lead you to take a stand against him?” he asked. “Are you a partisan or an American?”
But writing in the Forward, Zeldin supporter Cindy Grosz claimed that Zeldin’s meetings with constituents were effective and that he has always been approachable.
“So why is Congressman Lee Zeldin under attack?” Grosz asked. “Could it be because it represents the future of the Republican Party with aspirations to a higher office?
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.