A former East End agriculture advocate, who describes himself as “just a farm boy,” has been a staple of Bill Clinton’s stump speech as the former president crisscrosses the country on behalf of his wife and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Joseph Gergela, who retired in 2014 after 26 years with the Long Island Farm Bureau, has been evoked before audiences from Iowa to New Hampshire to Florida to New York.
“The work she did on Long Island for affordable housing, for farmers — I still get tickled,” Bill Clinton said of his wife earlier this month in Elmont. “The guy who was head of the farm bureau on Long Island — when he endorsed her for re-election, the local press out here said, ‘I thought you were a Republican.’ He said, ‘I thought so, too.’ ”
Gergela, 60, himself is tickled by the inclusion.
“I’m very proud of that friendship,” he told Newsday of a relationship that he said began when Hillary Clinton, as a U.S. senator, attended a Calverton event to learn about farmers’ concerns. The Long Island Farm Bureau is a nonprofit membership association that advocates for the local agricultural industry.
The bond grew as Gergela consulted her on funding, conservation and other agricultural policy. But not without some flak from colleagues, he said.
“I’ve been criticized. I’ve lost some members of the farm bureau who were staunch Republicans and said, ‘How dare you?’ ” Gergela said. “She cares about the industry and our people, which is significant. I would have been an idiot not to work with both sides of the aisle.”
The former Jamesport farmer, who grew potatoes and other vegetables with his father and grandfather, also has lived in Manorville. He moved to Boynton Beach, Florida, after retiring.
He said he was a registered Republican until only recently.
Though he voted for Hillary Clinton in New York’s general elections, he and his wife, Donna, switched parties in time to vote for the Democrat in Florida’s presidential primary in March.
Gergela said he speaks regularly with the Clintons, whom he described as “genuine people” who sent him notes and books when he was hospitalized a couple years ago.
Though not by name, Bill Clinton talked about Gergela and his allegiance in Des Moines, Iowa, in October, paraphrasing the Long Island native: “I’m not sure what party I’m in anymore because when she was a senator, she was the only person who ever did anything for our farmers.”
With Paul LaRocco