Republican Congressman Peter King has not shied away from talking about controversial issues in minority communities, often railing against "amnesty" for immigrants in the country illegally and at one time launching hearings on what he called Muslim "radicalization."
Thursday night he faced a diverse audience of constituents he inherited in a new district reflecting demographic shifts: residents including Latinos, African Americans and Muslims.
The meeting was mostly cordial, though King (R-Seaford) did quip at one point that many in attendance "wouldn't vote" for him.
He fielded questions on subjects ranging from affordable housing to sequestration cuts to the social safety net. He also said he'd back immigration reform giving legal status to millions who crossed the border illegally or stayed on expired visas, as long as robust enforcement is guaranteed.
"If I can be assured that there's going to be real security in there . . . I would support the bill," King told about 200 people at the Brentwood Public Library. "I always feel that immigrants make the best Americans."
Observers said the congressman is just coping with change.
Going from the 3rd District to the 2nd under census-based reapportionment in the spring of 2012, King saw a boost of 184 percent in the voting-age population of minority groups, based on 2002 and 2010 figures.
Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other nonwhite voters make up 31 percent of a district that includes diverse hamlets like Brentwood, Central Islip and Wyandanch. White voters plunged by 14 percent in his district.
That means moving to the center on issues and doing more outreach, said Rosanna Perotti, a political-science professor at Hofstra University.
"We are looking at a member who was very secure in his old district," Perotti said. "One could say . . . 'My goodness, now he has to worry about challengers coming from this community or even perhaps from his own party.' "
But King, she said, has proved skillful at bucking his party on issues like gun control and wooing working-class voters.
The meeting was called by the Islip Town Branch of the NAACP and the Long Island Civic Engagement Table.
"We had a new congressman in the community that didn't know anything about us," said Ruth Negrón-Gaines, religious affairs chair for the Islip NAACP.
King drew measured applause, but some gasped when he said he didn't believe Islamophobia was a serious concern.
"I don't think it changes my views" to have a new district, King later said. "It gives me a chance to explain them."
Some remained skeptical of his commitment to their issues.
"He is being very cautious," said María Magdalena Hernández, 48, of Bay Shore. "He speaks about wanting more security, but we are not asking for him to militarize the border."