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Rep. Lee Zeldin, Perry Gershon face off at Riverhead forum on the environment

Republican incumbent Rep. Lee Zeldin and Democratic challenger

Republican incumbent Rep. Lee Zeldin and Democratic challenger Perry Gershon. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

First Congressional District Democratic challenger Perry Gershon said at a Riverhead forum Monday night with Republican incumbent Rep. Lee Zeldin that he'd be a check on President Donald Trump's environmental policies while the Shirley-based House member highlighted his local conservation efforts.

In one the first forums attended by both candidates — three weeks before they face off in the Nov. 6 election — Zeldin touted increased federal funding for Long Island Sound protection programs, emergency dredging of the Moriches Inlet, his opposition to offshore drilling off Long Island and his support for blocking the sale of Plum Island to the highest bidder.

"We've made progress and there's more progress to be made," Zeldin said.

In response to a question, Zeldin acknowledged that environmental protections had been weakened under the Trumpadministration. He said the White House was balancing environmental protection rules with economic impacts.

Gershon, a businessman from East Hampton, said a Congress member needs to do more than advocate for local projects but has to "fight" the administration as it rolls back rules on clean air, water and efforts to slow climate change.

"We have an administration that's out to reverse decades of advances on protecting the environment, and we need to …elect representatives who will work essentially against the administration, will fight the administration, or check the administration," Gershon said, citing cuts at the EPA and rules to promote the coal industry since Trump took office. Gershon also said he'd fight locally for more sewer money and research dollars.

He criticized Zeldin for having a 9 percent rating for 2017 from the League of Conservation voters.

Gershon spoke first and answered questions for 45 minutes before Zeldin took his turn. The forum, at the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center in Riverhead, was sponsored by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and questions were asked by representatives from organizations Save the Sound, Defend H20 and Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Suffolk County Community College staff capped the crowd inside at 120, organizers said. Dozens more — many of whom registered to attend through Gershon's website, were not let in, although there appeared to be room in the back of the facility for additional audience members. Both Gershon and Zeldin's campaign said they would have welcomed more people in the room.

Gershon said he'd want to reduce human impact on climate change now, but the ultimate solution to sea level rise was to move away from the ocean.

"Long-term as sea levels rise we’re going to need to move further back from the shore," Gershon said, before adding that to fight climate change in the near term, the United States should re-enter the Paris Accord to reduce emissions and support alternative energy sources.

Later, Zeldin said he supported a multifaceted approach to rising sea levels, including sand replenishment at beaches.

"There are many different aspects we need to be pursuing," Zeldin said, "other than telling your constituents, 'you need to leave.' " 

Zeldin, who has often been a vocal supporter of Trump and held events and fundraisers with former administration figures and family members, in his closing statement called for unity after the election.

"We need to do a better job — and I have a responsibility to do this as well — regardless of how an election comes out," he said. "We as a country need to do a better job of coming together after this election and hugging it out and moving it forward in a positive way."

Gershon supporter Amy Turner, 65 of Wainscott, said it was telling that Zeldin didn't say anything about his environmental record in his closing.

"He was focused on divisiveness and acknowledging he's been a part of it," Turner said. 

Elizabeth Vitanza, 50, of Center Moriches, said she supported Zeldin.

Gershon, she said, had "no ideas of his own. Everything he said was against Lee Zeldin and Trump."

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