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Lee Zeldin, Tom Suozzi town halls calmer than nationwide forums

Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) hosted a town hall meeting for more than two hours at the Mid-Island Y JCC in Plainview on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. He took 50 questions and talked about some of the anger and frustration that his constituents have expressed since Donald Trump became president. Suozzi, who represents portions of Nassau and Suffolk counties and a part of Queens, encouraged more than 300 attendees to organize, stay focused, volunteer and get involved. Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely

Two Long Island congressmen confronted questions from their constituents Thursday — one via teleconference and one at a crowded community center — in a pair of town hall events that were far less combative than the fiery forums that lawmakers in other parts of the country have faced recently.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a second-term incumbent who represents a swing district on Long Island’s East End, opted for a “telephone town hall” in lieu of the traditional in-person town hall meetings that have generated heated confrontations between anti-Trump protesters and GOP lawmakers in recent days.

The congressman told listeners on the call he has relied on teleconferences for years as a way “to productively reach the maximum amount of constituents interested in constructive dialogue.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), elected in November, took 50 questions from constituents for more than two hours at a forum held at the Mid-Island Y JCC in Plainview. He told more than 300 attendees that they had to turn their furor with Trump into efforts to influence elections at every level, down to towns and counties.

“God forbid this energy dissipates,” Suozzi said. “You have to be organized.”

In an hourlong call, Zeldin fielded 12 questions from more than 9,000 residents listening in on the line, according to his office. They asked him to specify the GOP’s plans to repeal and replace Obamacare, and to weigh in on issues from gun control to his support of President Donald Trump.

“As an American, as a Jew, how do you condone Donald Trump’s belated condemnation of the rise of anti-Semitism?” a caller named Joe asked Zeldin.

The congressman, who is Jewish, noted that he publicly criticized the White House for omitting a reference to Judaism in a statement about Holocaust Remembrance Day last month. He also added that Trump spoke out against recent acts of anti-Semitism in a White House news conference this week.

“I would strongly encourage him to do more of that,” Zeldin said about Trump’s condemnation of such hate crimes.

In recent weeks, Zeldin has come under fire from critics in his district who have protested outside his Riverhead office to demand he host a traditional town hall. A Facebook group called “Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin” has more than 1,800 followers.

Zeldin’s spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena said the congressman decided on a teleconference because it is a tool he has used since he was a state senator and that he also was having meetings with individuals and small groups that includes some protesters.

“These individual meetings take more time, but have proven to be much more productive,” DiSiena said in an email, adding that “way too many of the people at the moment requesting town halls across the country are doing so with the purpose of disrupting the town hall without any interest at all in decorum.”

Suozzi has spent his first weeks in office touting efforts to work on issues in a bipartisan fashion. But Thursday, he repeatedly highlighted his strongest objections to Trump and Republicans, including the planned repeal of Obamacare, Trump’s ties to Russia, his potential conflicts of interest and refusal to release his taxes.

The town hall featured almost no confrontation. Suozzi polled the crowd as to their affiliations, and most appeared to be with progressive groups such as MoveOn and Indivisible.

Some Republicans complained this week that Suozzi organized and promoted the event through his campaign, not his government office, to attract the largely favorable crowd. Suozzi, whose office said he was on Facebook Live with about 6,700 people, said the crowd was the byproduct of progressives reacting with fear to proposals of the first all-Republican leadership in more than a decade.

“The blessing,” Suozzi said, “is that so many people are active and engaged.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Facebook group of Zeldin critics.

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