Long Island Reps Plan to Phone-In Their Town Hall Meetings

Congressional Town Halls
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) visits Make the Road New York in February 2014. (Photo credit: Long Island Civic Engagement Table/Facebook)

Long Island’s Congressional representatives are planning to host town hall events in the coming days for their constituents but the two Republican incumbents are avoiding meeting the public face to face.

As the local lawmakers leave Washington D.C. for their first recess at home after the new Trump administration’s chaotic start, Reps. Peter King and Lee Zeldin have scheduled “tele” town halls that require participants to “opt-in” via a web address.

Only freshman Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) has committed to holding a traditional face-to-face town hall, which the former Nassau County executive will host Thursday night at the Mid-Island Y JCC in Plainview. A spokesman for Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) said her office is organizing a large “town hall-type” event in response to her constituents’ wishes.

At other town hall events in recent days, lawmakers across the country have been peppered with questions since they’ve returned home to their districts. They’ve encountered large crowds decrying a number of President Trump’s policies, including his desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), and the administration’s now-frozen anti-Muslim travel ban. Some Republicans have been booed and publicly admonished.

Videos from this current round of town halls recall similar scenes that played out after the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009, which was funded in part by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire oil business brothers.

In 2009, former six-term Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop encountered a large crowd at a town hall in Setauket, with people waving signs and mocking him as Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) lapdog. At that meeting, Bishop was reportedly grilled about former President Obama’s bailout of Detroit’s auto industry and his health care reform, among other hot-button issues. Afterward, he temporarily suspended hosting town hall events.

“I had felt they would be pointless,” Politico quoted Bishop for an article titled, Town Halls Gone Wild. “There is no point in meeting with my constituents and [to] listen to them and have them listen to you if what is basically an unruly mob prevents you from having an intelligent discussion.” Bishop lost his seat to Zeldin in 2014, one of the most expensive Congressional elections in the country.

Facing pressure from those adamantly opposed to Trump—whose popularity is at record lows for a newly elected president—Republicans are now using similar explanations to avoid meeting their constituents in public venues.

“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,” said Jennifer DiSiena, a spokeswoman for Zeldin, in an email to the Press. “It’s impossible to take a request like that seriously.”

DiSiena noted that Zeldin has addressed constituent concerns through telephone town halls going back to his days as a state Senator, which he typically holds quarterly.

DiSiena claimed that forums held over the phone are more efficient because they allow the Congressman to establish a dialogue with a greater number of people “interested in constructive dialogue.”

“Constituents will be asking questions to the Congressman and participating in interactive poll questions throughout the call. It’s a modern way to bring a town hall directly to the constituents’ home,” she said, adding that Zeldin also holds district-wide “mobile office hours.”

Public town hall events are the preference of Eileen Duffy, founder of Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin, a 2,000-member Facebook group dedicated to securing a forum to ensure that Zeldin and his constituents “have equal opportunities to tell their stories without disruption.”

Duffy thought that Zeldin was keeping the public at bay.

“One-on-one meetings in his offices and tele-town halls allow the Congressman to vet who can ask a question, or indeed who can participate,” Duffy told the Press. “Even the mobile office visits only allow for a few constituents at a time.”

Duffy’s group has kept up the pressure on Zeldin since Trump’s election. On Jan. 3, they rallied outside his Riverhead district office. Since then they’ve had face-to-face meetings with Zeldin’s district director, including one in the Riverhead public library that attracted upwards of 90 people. Duffy herself met with Zeldin this Wednesday morning and discussed a variety of topics, including town halls.

“The Congressman cannot say that very few people have contacted his office or even want a town hall,” Duffy said.

Visit Lee Zeldin is among a number of groups borne out of Trump’s victory in November. Further west, New York’s 2nd District Democrats are also eager to have King host a town hall.

List of upcoming opportunities to speak with Long Island Reps:

Rep. Tom Suozzi town hall Thursday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. at Mid-Island Y JCC in Plainvew.

Rep. Lee Zeldin “tele” town hall Thursday, Feb. 23 from 7-8 p.m. Constituents must opt-in here to receive a phone call from Zeldin’s office and be able to participate in the event. Zeldin’s office said it will be calling approximately 100,000 homes. The district has a total of 470,000 active voters.

So far, Rep. Peter King, Rep. Kathleen Rice and Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have yet to release any details about town halls.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) held a town hall on immigration and health care last week.