Zeldin defends his environmental record at a forum with his Congressional opponent

In the first of a number of scheduled events featuring both candidates for the 1st Congressional District, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Democratic challenger Perry Gershon answered a battery of questions Monday evening about their environmental views, posed by some of the region’s most vocal environmental protection advocates.

Mr. Zeldin, who has been given low grades for his voting record by the event’s hosts, the League of Conservation Voters, admitted that he thinks protection of the environment nationwide has been weakened by the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental regulations. He split from President Donald Trump’s stance on climate change by saying he believes the warming climate has been caused or exacerbated by human activity.

At the same time, Mr. Zeldin defended his own record while in Congress and spotlighted what he saw as environmental successes for the region — funding support for Long Island Sound and the National Estuary Program — and his own opposition to the administration’s proposal to open the Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil exploration.

“I believe it is hugely important that we have stringent standards to provide clean air and clean water,” he said. “We have to set ambitious goals, but they have to be attainable goals.”

Mr. Gershon, for his part, was resoundingly critical of the Trump administration’s “attack” on the environment and said that voters in the 1st District and elsewhere should elect representatives next month who will vote to stall the administration’s anti-environmental policies.

“Like many institutions in this country, the environment is under attack by the current administration,” Mr. Gershon said. “It used to be the role of a congressman was to ensure money flowing to the environmental projects in your district. But there is an attack on clean air and water standards, there is an attack on the [Environmental Protection Agency], and we need a congressman who is going to stand up to this administration.”

Mr. Gershon’s view was clearly shared by the hosts of Monday’s debate and the three environmental advocates who posed the questions to the two candidates.

“We think the environment is a bipartisan issue,” Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said in posing one of her questions. “Yet the Trump administration seems to be working very hard at eviscerating protection measures while Suffolk County regularly receives an ‘F’ for air quality.”

Each candidate appeared separately before the panel and audience of 150 people for about 40 minutes each, answering the same questions.

Outside the event, which was held at the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center on Main Street in Riverhead, dozens of Gershon supporters gathered holding signs, angry that they were barred from filling the only half-full room, because college staff had set a limit on the number of attendees. Nearby, patriotic music played from a pickup truck adorned with Zeldin banners, with an American flag mounted in its bed.

Some Gershon supporters said that people who had registered to attend the event through Mr. Zeldin’s website had been unfairly allowed to take up all the chairs in the audience before those who registered through Mr. Gershon’s site could get in. But the audience inside appeared about evenly split between supporters of Mr. Zeldin and those of Mr. Gershon.

Mr. Zeldin and Mr. Gershon are scheduled to hold a handful of debates or forums at which both will be in attendance — as compared to the dozens that have been the tradition between the candidates for the 1st District seat. Both men are scheduled to sit for a forum hosted by the Press News Group and Sag Harbor Express Thursday, Oct. 25, that will not be open to the public but will be televised on LTV and SeaTV. There will be a public debate between both candidates at Hampton Bays High School Monday, Oct. 29, hosted by the League of Women Voters.

On Monday night, Mr. Zeldin made nary a mention of his opponent, who a recent poll showed is trailing him by 8 percentage points, and actually toed some of the same policy lines that Mr. Gershon leapt across with both feet. Each man said he would support more federal funding for expanding sewer systems on Long Island to help improve water quality. Mr. Zeldin said there is also substantial state funding available for such projects.

The men differed on how to address sea level rise, with Mr. Gershon saying that moving development off the coastline must ultimately be the goal, while Mr. Zeldin said that sand replenishment projects and other protections, when suitable, could protect homes and businesses from sea level rise.

“You can put Band-Aids—they work sometimes, they don’t work sometimes — but the real answer is to move back away from the shores,” Mr. Gershon said. “And the steps we should be taking to make our future better is to fight climate change.”

Mr. Gershon called for Congress to restore funding to the EPA and once again press for enforcement of clean air and clean water standards abandoned by the Trump administration. “We need members of Congress that are making sure the EPA is doing what the EPA is supposed to do,” he said.

Mr. Zeldin pointed to Long Island, which draws much of its power from inefficient decades-old diesel power plants. Requiring upgrades would help efficiency, but would be costly. “I don’t want to support something just because it sounds good,” he said.

Mr. Gershon said the federal government should entirely abandon Trump administration proposals to sell off some federally owned lands for mineral exploration and to turn control of others over to states to oversee. Mr. Zeldin said he agreed, but that such issues, particularly in western states, are more complicated than most Long Islanders understand.

He pointed to his own lobbying to keep Plum Island in federal ownership after the disease research labs are moved to new facilities in Kansas sometime after 2022, and said he wants to see public access to the property increased and the mostly undeveloped nature of the island kept intact.

While Mr. Gershon noted Mr. Zeldin’s legislative opposition to the Trump offshore drilling plan, he said that Eastern Long Island’s congressman should be advocating for incentives to boost the use of alternative energies like solar power as well as electric vehicles.

With a subtle hint at what he expects will be another successful reelection bid, Mr. Zeldin closed by urging supporters of both sides to start thinking about how they will comport themselves after Election Day.

“My message to anyone who is running … we need to do a better job of working together,” Mr. Zeldin said. “Regardless of whether you come in first or second, you accept those results and work together. This is what America is all about.”

The author is a writer for The Southampton Press.

Photo caption: Congressman Lee Zeldin and Perry Gershon spoke at Monday’s debate. (Michael Wright photos)