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Talking past each other at a town hall

Rep. Lee Zeldin attended a town hall meeting

Rep. Lee Zeldin attended a town hall meeting at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead on Sunday. Credit: James Carbone

Here’s a thought for elected officials conducting town halls this year: Suit up, show up and, mostly, shut up. Voters don’t want to hear your guff, but neither are they willing to let you avoid doing the events.

The idea that in 2017 a member of Congress would host events during which he or she goes before hundreds of constituents to explain what’s going on in Washington and to detail his or her political views could be considered endearingly old-fashioned.

But the crowds Rep. Lee Zeldin dealt with Sunday in three meetings across his district weren’t charmed. In Riverhead, Zeldin’s first stop of the day, “infuriated” better described the majority reaction. Although, to be fair, most were Zeldin’s opponents and came primed to be enraged. They would have found it extremely disappointing not to leave extremely disappointed in him.

More than 200 people crowded into an auditorium for the forum, moderated by Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy, and it felt like 10 percent or 20 percent were on Zeldin’s side. Kennedy, clutching questions for Zeldin, introduced the Republican congressman, which went fine. Everything after that, starting with Zeldin’s opening remarks, was pretty much a meltdown of hooting, hissing and hullabaloo.

That’s been the pattern across the nation this year, particularly for GOP representatives. Town halls are blowing up like canned beers left on vibrating hotel beds, and the explosions aren’t surprising. The politicians, including Zeldin, do these events wrong.

Few voters come to such forums to hear what their representatives are fighting for in Washington, or how a bill becomes a law. If they wanted to know that, they’d Google it from the comfort of their homes or the touch screens of their phones. Every belief Zeldin holds or is horrified by can be found in a news release or on a website. So can the bills he supports and detests. This is not 1954. This is not “Mr. Zeldin Goes to Washington.”

Attendees, who were asked to be able to prove 1st District residency, mostly didn’t come to hear Zeldin. They came to be heard by him. And if he wants to cut down on the keening and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the future, he needs to take the cotton out of his ears and put it in his mouth.

“At this point, he’s got to listen to us, unfiltered and unmoderated,” said Amy Turner, a Wainscott resident who came to Riverhead. “Even when he’s present, he’s absent. He’s there, but he’s not listening to us, we’re not allowed to speak.”

As Zeldin tried to stick to answering a series of dry questions in the most parched manner imaginable, audience members interrupted, or tried to get him to commit to bringing the help they want on addiction treatment, mental health, gun control, health care and a dozen other issues. Pressed by a woman who said her son is battling opioid addiction, he got flustered, she and many other audience members got angry, and no one got any satisfaction.

When I asked him Tuesday whether in the future he could let voters unload as he mostly listens, Zeldin argued it wouldn’t work because, “The overwhelming majority of people requesting a town hall want it just for the purpose of disrupting it.”

But it’s also likely that supporters and detractors wouldn’t be as disruptive toward each other as they are with him. If Zeldin and other officials let their audiences talk more, their audiences might let each other talk.

Then these politicians might hear something worthwhile, rather than the sound of their voices explaining things everyone knows or no one believes, interrupted by the catcalls of voters who feel they’ve been rendered voiceless.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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