Nearly 200 constituents of Rep. Lee Zeldin, some wearing pink hats symbolizing women’s resistance to President Donald Trump and a few in T-shirts reading #WhereIsZeldin, packed an East Patchogue firehouse this month for Zeldin’s “mobile office hours.”
Belinda Groneman, a Zeldin staff member, explained the rules: A few people at a time would be brought back to meet with Zeldin (R-Shirley) or a staff member.
“Why not make it a town hall?” shouted Suzanne Marmo, 46, of Sound Beach, a student affairs coordinator at Adelphi University. Some in the crowd erupted into a brief chant: “We want Lee! We want Lee!”
Six weeks after Inauguration Day, Long Islanders opposed to Trump’s presidency are attempting to create a groundswell of political activity that disrupts the president’s policy plans and lays the groundwork for an electoral shift in congressional elections in 2018.
At least two dozen local groups have formed since the presidential election in November to pressure members of Congress to stand up to administration policies.
They are organizing regular protests outside the district offices of Zeldin and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), and have held demonstrations outside the Melville office of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Group members also have helped fill town hall forums hosted by Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), and flooded congressional Facebook accounts with comments.
Local Democratic and progressive organizations also report a surge in volunteers. Brookhaven Democrats, for example, have seen the number of town committee members nearly double since Election Day, pushing the number from 160 to 300 in the past few months.
The activity on Long Island mirrors the nationwide movement that has packed and sometimes disrupted town hall meetings of Republican members of Congress.
Across the country, such groups are pushing their representatives to oppose a host of Trump policies — repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s border wall, regulatory rollbacks and the ban on refugees and immigrants from a set of Muslim-majority countries.
The Long Island groups, with names such as Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin and Project Free Knowledge, are composed primarily of newcomers to political activism: small-business owners, stay-at-home moms, professors, nurses, students and retirees. They are meeting through Facebook, and figuring out the basics of how to find their representatives, and how to influence them.
“I was angry for two months, and then decided to do something about it,” said Liuba Grechen Shirley, 35, an international economic development consultant from Amityville and founder of New York’s 2nd District Democrats. King represents the district.
Grechen Shirley said in a phone interview this month she offered to volunteer for the Suffolk County Democratic Party and local elected officials but got a lukewarm response.
So she created a group on Facebook. Her first meeting, in January, drew 20 people to a local Starbucks. Now her page has more than 1,300 members. Grechen Shirley organized a rally of 400 people in front of King’s Massapequa Park office in February to protest Trump executive orders imposing a travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries and to build a wall along the Mexican border.
Among her group’s goals are to unseat King in 2018. More immediately, she is looking at local elections, including the May 23 special election for the Assembly seat vacated by Republican Joseph Saladino, who was appointed Oyster Bay supervisor, and the races for Nassau County executive and Suffolk County Legislature in November.
King, who met with Grechen Shirley after she organized the rally in front of his office, questioned the influence of such groups.
“With 400 demonstrators, of course I listen,” King said in an interview. But “when I go to bagel shops, diners, blood drives, local church events — I’m not picking up anything negative. People might not love Trump, but I don’t find that kind of anger.”
During a telephone town hall forum he hosted Wednesday night, King said Americans should give Trump a chance.
“People having crying towels and compassion seminars for themselves, that’s the wrong way to start,” King said of some of the reaction to Trump’s election. “We should support the president of the United States and wish he does well.”
Zeldin has called protesters “liberal obstructionists” and said town hall gatherings would turn into political theater.
“There are people calling my office for the purpose of jamming my phone lines,” Zeldin said in an interview. “That kind of work isn’t what’s appropriate or appreciated.”
Zeldin canceled a scheduled appearance at Southampton’s Rogers Memorial Library in April, saying he was concerned that critics were taking over the event. He changed his office’s walk-in office hours to appointment-only after protests.
Still, he said he is willing to meet with constituents, including protesters. His mobile office hours went from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on March 3, when they were scheduled to end at 1 p.m. Zeldin said he met with 110 constituents one-on-one.
At the office hours, some Zeldin supporters complained about the protesters.
“Lee Zeldin is doing amazing constituent services,” said Kathy Mizrahi of Centereach. “The intention of all these people is to come here and make fun of Lee Zeldin.”
Other constituents said they waited hours without getting in to see Zeldin.
“He’s pretending to give access to his constituency through very tightly controlled scenarios in which he doesn’t have to be concerned with what the optics look like,” said Cindy Morris, a 38-year-old Stony Brook resident who formed the group Time2Care Long Island after the election. “It took him eight hours to meet with 100 people. He could meet with 500 people in probably an hour, but he’s scared of the optics.”
She left the Hagerman Fire House in East Patchogue after waiting more than four hours, to pick her children up off the school bus.
For former Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who experienced the tea party movement in 2009 and 2010, Zeldin appears to be hiding.
“What I find ironic is that Congressman Zeldin rode the tea party wave in 2010,” said Bishop, whom Zeldin unseated in 2014. “He’s now bemoaning the fact that town halls aren’t as staid events as he’d like them to be.”
Bishop recalled raucous town hall events at which he was screamed at over the Affordable Care Act and opponents brought in coffins to symbolize “death panels” that they falsely believed were part of Obamacare.
He called the current movement “the tea party of the left.”
Political veterans on both sides of the aisle are watching to see whether the new civic energy has staying power.
Michael Dawidziak, a Suffolk political consultant who works mostly for Republicans, said protests can be effective if there are specific goals.
But Dawidziak said Democrats are avoiding examining their own failings, particularly in a place such as Suffolk County, where Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 7 percentage points. Clinton beat Trump by 6 percentage points in Nassau.
“The first place they should be looking is in the mirror,” Dawidziak said. “They lost a significant amount of their base. They have to be looking at what went wrong. Just being anti-Trump is not going to be enough.”
Still, Democrats have recognized the energy and see it as a chance to make electoral gains. Suffolk County Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer called a meeting earlier this month with about 20 newly involved organizers from 10 groups at Democratic headquarters in Bohemia.
“We’re gathering to make sure we can make it sustainable,” Schaffer said of the postelection activism. “I’ve seen these types of things in the past be a flash in the pan.”
Schaffer pointed to bright but brief enthusiasm surrounding Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and during the ballot recount in the 2000 presidential election, when Democrats were unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision ending the vote count and awarding the presidency to Republican George W. Bush.
He said after the recent meeting he was “pleasantly surprised.”
“These were not people who were just sounding off about issues. But they were thoughtful in their approach about how to make the change they were looking for,” he said.
Schaffer said most of the new energy is focused on 2018, when congressional seats will be up, and then the 2020 election. He said he is trying to convince them that local races on the ballot in 2017, such as for county legislature, also matter in helping to build a Democratic bench to run for future federal seats and the State Legislature, which controls congressional redistricting after each U.S. Census.
Lillian Clayman, Brookhaven Town Democratic chairwoman, said, “There has been an explosion of interest” in joining the town party and running for offices.
She said 102 new committee members joined the town’s party in January and February. “Out of every evil comes some good,” she said of Trump’s election and the subsequent mobilization against him.
Lisa Tyson, executive director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a nonprofit network of community organizations, said she sees an unprecedented number of potential candidates interested in running for local office.
Almost 150 people attended a candidate training on Saturday, triple regular attendance, she said.
“I’ve been waiting all my life for this — for people to wake up,” Tyson said.
Daniel Altschuler, director of civic engagement and research at Make the Road New York, an immigrant rights organization on Long Island, said if there’s higher voter turnout in local elections this year, it will send a strong message for congressional candidates in 2018.
“People also are playing the long game,” Altschuler said. “They’re saying ‘OK, people are engaged, how do we maintain that level of engagement?’ ”