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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Down to the wire in a Long Island race

The midterm elections come to a close, and it was a heated end in a NY swing district.

The midterm elections come to a close, and

The midterm elections come to a close, and it was a heated end in a NY swing district. Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman

It has been a tense end to the midterm campaign season. Look no further than New York’s 1st Congressional District on Long Island, where GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin and Democratic challenger Perry Gershon have sparred down to the wire over debates and misleading mailers.

Then there’s the outside rhetoric. Some of Gershon’s campaign lawn signs were stenciled over with the words “Gay Lover” and “Baby Killer,” presumably because Gershon supports LGBTQ and reproductive rights. Over the weekend another of his signs was found defaced with a swastika. Both candidates are Jewish. So it goes.

In July, a Nesconset man was arrested after Suffolk police said he threatened to kill supporters of Zeldin and President Donald Trump. He went to Zeldin’s campaign headquarters and came close to hitting a campaign worker as he drove off, according to cops. The man pleaded not guilty.

It’s the state of the race in this district just miles to the east of New York City, but close enough that the candidates have gone back and forth for fundraisers. NYC has often been a talking point in the race because Gershon lived on the Upper East Side between Park and Lexington before changing his voter registration to East Hampton last year and starting his campaign. His opponent started calling him “Park Avenue Perry.”

That’s basically the level of discourse we’ve gotten in a race where Gershon has been painted as a lefty out-of-towner, while Zeldin fights the perception that he has been a foot soldier for Trump.

But there’s plenty more going on in this multifaceted district, which includes the pleasure palaces of the Hamptons plus stretches of working farms manned in some cases by immigrant labor.

That’s the Long Island that Sister Mary Beth Moore knows. She’s a nun working with underserved immigrants in Hampton Bays and we spoke to her on the latest episode of “The Bellwether,” Newsday and amNewYork’s elections podcast.

The nun says that what she and her colleagues do is untangle knots, and that they try to make things a little easier for immigrants — those who might be working in wineries or cutting hedges, making beds in seaside hotels. Helping them navigate doctors’ appointments without the help of a car, perhaps, or just generally adjust to life in New York.

That’s always been tough, but she says things are getting even more difficult in the Trump era. Especially given that when Trump talks about Long Island and immigration, he talks about the gang MS-13. Many of her clients “certainly feel very threatened and scared and unwelcome,” she says.

Yet the immigration rhetoric this election cycle has stretched only from build-the-wall to stop-the-caravan. When there’s any consideration of the local impact of immigration, it’s to discuss the MS-13 gang and its murderous ways. Sister Mary Beth notes that MS-13 is a huge issue affecting Hispanic immigrants on Long Island. But it’s also an easy way to demonize entire groups of people for the actions of a few.

The nun recalled an immigration roundtable that Zeldin held at Suffolk County Community College in September. Sister Mary Beth had tried to attend, but says she was refused entrance when she got there. A Zeldin spokeswoman said that disrupters were kept out of the event. In the end, the politicians and law enforcement officials talked mostly law enforcement issues inside. Pro-immigration activists gathered outside. A boundary between them. A pretty fitting depiction of the state of the country.

To catch up on these two key NY races, you can check out the full podcast online or on iTunes.

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