WASHINGTON — New York’s First Congressional District is not very Jewish. It encompasses most of Central and Eastern Suffolk County, where roughly five to seven percent of the population are Jews. But it is currently the site of a very Jewish US House race.
On Tuesday, Democrats Nancy Goroff and Perry Gershon will face off in a primary to challenge Representative Lee Zeldin, one of only two Jewish Republicans in Congress, this November. (There are also two other candidates running in the primary, Suffolk County legislator Bridget Fleming and a perennial local candidate Greg Fischer — although both have raised far less money than the two main rivals.)
Goroff is a Stony Brook University chemistry professor hoping to become the first female scientist with a PhD elected to Capitol Hill. Gershon is a longtime Democratic volunteer and real estate executive.
Both are Jewish and closely aligned with the liberal Mideast advocacy group, J Street, which has been among the most outspoken US Jewish groups to oppose the Trump administration.
Zeldin, by contrast, is close to the far-right Zionist Organization of America and one of US President Donald Trump’s most fervent allies in Washington.
He has backed virtually all of the president’s legislative and policy initiatives, and has been a vocal defender of Trump’s approach toward everything, from Middle East policy to immigration to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zeldin traveled with the president Saturday on Air Force One to attend his highly controversial Tulsa rally this week. Public health experts warned it would lead to increased infections of the virus, calling the event a “super spreader,” as thousands of people stood close to each other and cheered.
Most of them were not wearing masks, including the president himself.
Trump has been highly appreciative of Zeldin’s loyalty. Last week, he endorsed the Long Island lawmaker in his re-election bid, calling him “A fighter for New York!” who will challenge efforts to defund and reform American police departments — a key demand of anti-racism advocates who have embarked on mass protests across the country after George Floyd’s killing in police custody.
Congressman @LeeZeldin is a fighter for New York! He serves our Country in the Army Reserve & works hard for our Vets & First Responders. He’ll stand with our Police against Radical Liberal attempts to defund them. Lee has my Complete & Total Endorsement! https://t.co/aqxWxszG4m
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2020
But while Zeldin often touts his relationship with Trump, Goroff and Gershon contend it could be a source of his electoral downfall. “He’s 100 percent more vulnerable, because he’s so tied to Donald Trump,” Gershon told The Times of Israel.
That is partly because the district itself does not lean overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican. It voted for former president Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went for Trump in 2016. Then, in 2018, both New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and Democratic US Senator Kirstin Gillibrand won there, while Zeldin clinched re-election, albeit by a narrow margin.
“This is really a purple district,” Goroff told The Times of Israel. “We have people who are willing to split their tickets.”
This year, however, Democrats think Zeldin is even more at-risk of losing his seat.
In 2016, the New York Congressman won re-election by 15 percent. Two years later, he beat Gershon by just 4%. In other words, he has become less popular in the district over the course of Trump’s presidency.
Now, Goroff and Gershon contend, Zeldin’s standing with his constituents will only deteriorate after the coronavirus has ravaged Long Island and the rest of the United States — and Zeldin has continued to be one of the president’s loudest cheerleaders.
“COVID-19 has hit this district pretty hard,” Goroff said. “Half of Suffolk County is our district. Suffolk County has had more than 40,000 positive cases, more than 1,800 people have died. It’s real here.” (Nationally, more than 115,000 Americans have fallen to the disease, more than any other country.)
Zeldin voted for the emergency stimulus package and has spoken about the dangers of the disease, but he has frequently praised Trump — who on Saturday said he urged his team to slow down testing to prevent more cases from being discovered —for his handling of the crisis.
Health experts have been widely critical of the president for disseminating misinformation about the virus and encouraging states to open up and allow for public gatherings before the data showed it to be safe.
Some have also pinned blame on the administration for not addressing the pandemic early enough and for not providing healthcare workers with the medical and protective equipment they need, such as masks and ventilators.
“The president and his team have done a phenomenal job of delivering resources to New York,” Zeldin said in April. That same month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders pushed back against Trump for telling the nation’s governors to seek medical supplies on their own and not rely on the national stockpile.
“The disconnect between reality and their rhetoric — trying to spin that the president has done a wonderful job — is going to make Zeldin more vulnerable than ever,” Goroff said.
Yet the question for Tuesday, both Goroff and Gershon acknowledge, is who among them would be best equipped to oust Zeldin in the fall.
Needless to say, Goroff and Gershon think that each respectively is the right person for the job.
Running for Congress in the time of coronavirus
While Goroff and Gershon share the same goal of wanting to kick Zeldin out of Congress, they first have to compete against each other.
They agree on most of the major issues, though, making their pitch to the party’s primary voters around who has a better chance of beating Zeldin.
A first-time candidate, Goroff spent her career in academia but decided in 2018 that she wanted to run herself when Zeldin won re-election after following Trump’s lead in spreading the conspiracy theory that a “caravan” of immigrants were trying to invade America. (He beat Gershon, who is now running for his second time.)
Goroff had been politically active throughout most of her life — a member of advocacy groups such as J Street, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Planned Parenthood — but wanted to elevate her level of engagement.
“It just got to a point where that didn’t feel like enough anymore,” Goroff said.
So, she stepped down from her position as chair of the Stony Brook Chemistry department in May 2019 and declared her candidacy that July. She was quickly endorsed by Emily’s List, a powerful advocacy organization that promotes women seeking public office.
Today, Goroff says that her background as a scientist gives her a stronger argument than her opponents that she can topple the incumbent.
“It’s been fantastic for getting our base really excited,” Goroff said. “They know that I will be able to lead on issues that they care about, like climate change and healthcare and getting out of this pandemic. I bring unique skills and expertise to that fight.”
At the same time, she added, her resume would help appeal to the district’s many politically moderate voters. “They know that a scientist is trained to come in with an open mind and look at all the facts and find real-life solutions,” Goroff said.
Gershon, for his part, says that he has greater name recognition from having run before, which would help him get more votes.
“I have the experience of having run before — and having run a very, very good election. I made inroads in a district that the Democrats had just lost by 15 points and I put us back on the map,” he said. “I’ve been interacting with voters across every part of this district now for three years. Nancy is running for the first time and is not as well known in any part of the district. She’s really where I was two years ago.”
Zeldin declined to be interviewed for this story. His campaign released a statement to The Times of Israel extolling the congressman’s record of supporting Israel, and noting his role as co-chair of the Black-Jewish Caucus and House Republican Israel Caucus.
The campaign said that, since ascending to Capitol Hill, he has “fought to combat the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses and around the world, ushered into law the Taylor Force Act, secured House passage of legislation he co-authored to combat the BDS movement, attended and celebrated the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, strongly opposed the Iran Nuclear Deal and so much more.”
Goroff and Gershon on Israel and annexation
Both Goroff and Gershon said they believed in a strong US-Israel relationship but each expressed worry about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, with US backing, starting July 1.
“I’m very concerned that the Trump administration is giving free license to Netanyahu to do this,” Goroff said, “because it is destabilizing to the area.
“The way the Trump administration has gone about their foreign policy has encouraged many Americans to think of Israel as yet another totalitarian, authoritarian government,” she added. “I am a very strong supporter of Israel. I think Israel needs to be able to defend itself, but I don’t think annexation can be justified as a self-defense move.”
Gershon also said he was a “strong advocate for a two-state solution” and that he opposed’s Netanyahu’s plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley — the roughly 30% of the territory Trump’s Mideast proposal allocated for Israel.
“I have a strong feeling that Israel shouldn’t be annexing land,” he said.
Ilya Braverman, J Street’s national political director, said that both candidates would mark a stark departure from the district’s current House member, citing his support for the president pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal (both Goroff and Gershon backed the landmark accord).
“Lee Zeldin’s far-right positions are out of step with the voters of his district and the vast majority of the American Jewish community,” Braverman said. “We’re thrilled to see these two strong, pro-Israel, pro-peace candidates running for this vulnerable seat, and we believe that both of them would make for a strong nominee in the general election.”
Zeldin did not respond to requests for comment on his views regarding annexation. In December 2019, however, he voted against a House resolution opposing the move and supporting a two-state solution.
Time for change?
Goroff and Gershon may have dramatically different views on Mideast policy than Zeldin, but domestic issues are all but certain to have a much larger role in the coming election.
The two Democrats are convinced that Zeldin’s deeply critical stance on the anti-racism protests raging across the country, including in their district, will hurt the GOP lawmaker politically.
“There have been dozens of peaceful protests in our district about Black Lives Matter, but Zeldin has been tweeting about riots and looting, with video of burning buildings in other parts of the country and no recognition of what’s actually happening here — which are actual peaceful protests by a very diverse group of people,” said Goroff.
Zeldin has frequently castigated the protesters on social media. On May 31, for instance, he tweeted that “anarchists are taking over the streets in cities throughout America. Bring in a lot more National Guard. Bring in police and shut down these riots going on tonight. Time to restore order. ENOUGH!”
Zeldin’s opponents claim that his response to the unrest reveals him to be out of touch with his constituents, which could be especially damaging in an election year when there is growing momentum around the protests and wanting to enact bold new policies that transform the country.
“He talks about the protests as if they’re violent demonstrations; there has been no violence inside of Zeldin’s own district,” Gershon said. “But there are lots of protests. I’ve been to nine of them. I can tell you that there is a lot of sentiment right now for racial justice — and for broader change.”