Homophobe Lee Zeldin Faces Stiff House Challenge on Long Island

Congressmember Lee Zeldin and his spouse Diana Zeldin greeting President Donald Trump to the Hamptons in August 2019.
Reuters/ Sarah Silbiger

Will President Donald Trump bring homophobic Long Island Republican Congressmember Lee Zeldin down with him?

It’s the question facing Republicans in contested races all over the nation during an election that is widely viewed as a referendum on the president. Zeldin, who represents New York’s First Congressional District, has aligned himself with Trump for more than four years.

The 40-year-old lawmaker has watched his polling lead evaporate right before his very eyes, leaving him locked in a dead heat in his re-election bid against Stony Brook University scientist Nancy Goroff, an organic chemist who entered the race with no experience in political office and won her Democratic primary competition by just over 600 votes.

Stony Brook scientist with no political experience hopes to topple a GOP Trump loyalist in Congress

Zeldin endorsed Trump in the spring of 2016, but by then the eastern Long Island congressmember had already made a name for himself as a reliably anti-LGBTQ politician. Zeldin voted against same-sex marriage during his stint in the State Senate and he was among the Republicans who scrambled in a panic after the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling established marriage equality nationwide.

Following Obergefell, Zeldin, who assumed his seat on Capitol Hill in January 2015, swiftly signed on to the First Amendment Defense Act, a piece of legislation that has thus far unsuccessfully sought to ban the federal government from taking “discriminatory action” against an individual on the basis that a person believes that marriage should “should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman” or “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” The measure is one of numerous approaches that the far right has taken to provide special exemptions from nondiscrimination laws to individuals claiming a First Amendment religious or free speech justification.

Marriage, however, has not been the only queer issue on Zeldin’s anti-LGBTQ Republican agenda. That same year, Zeldin also voted in favor of the Defund Planned Parenthood Act — a piece of legislation impacting not only reproductive rights for women, transgender men, and non-binary folks, but also sexual health services for queer individuals in general. The group is a critial healthcare resource for transgender women across the nation.

By the following year, Zeldin had hopped aboard the Trump train and he’s never looked back. He immediately stood with the president as he carried out attacks on transgender folks during his first year in the White House, praising Trump in 2017 for ending President Barack Obama’s guidance that directed schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity.

“I opposed President Obama’s transgender bathroom directive and I support President Trump’s decision to change this policy,” Zeldin wrote in a Facebook post, before noting that he preferred to leave the issue up to the states and individual school districts. Zeldin then repeated a typical unsubstantiated Republican talking point about bathrooms.

“I’m greatly concerned about the challenge of prosecuting a man, for example, who isn’t confused at all about his ‘internal sense of gender,’ but uses it as an excuse to access a girls/ women’s bathroom or locker room,” Zeldin added. “It’s a VERY difficult element to prosecute that man for and we must also protect that young girl/ woman who rightfully doesn’t want a man to take advantage of this policy while she is going to the bathroom or showering in a bathroom/locker room. Sensitive issue, but I believe President Trump is correct to make this decision.”

That same nonsensical argument has been made by Nicole Malliotakis, the Republican state assemblymember from Staten Island vying to unseat Democratic Congressmember Max Rose. More than two years ago, Gay City News asked Malliotakis, then running for mayor, during an in-person interview for a single example of such a criminal abuse of simple access to a bathroom — and she has never provided an answer.

Lee Zeldin, who earned his GOP bona fides voting against marriage equality in his first year in the State Senate in 2011, won big in his US House races in 2014 and 2016 but his momentum petered out in the 2018 midterms.Reuters/ Erin Scott

There have been rare occasions when Zeldin has tried to appear to have some level of respect for LGBTQ people, such as in January of this year when he joined Congressmember Eric Swalwell of California, out gay Congressmember David Cicilline of Rhode Island, and dozens of other lawmakers in urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to condemn anti-LGBTQ violence in the Russian region of Chechnya.

Zeldin gained praise for that letter from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a nationwide LGBTQ rights group. HRC, which has endorsed Goroff, has nevertheless curiously gone easy on Zeldin despite the fact that his congressional scorecard rating has plummeted over his three terms in the House — he earned a mediocre 48 out of 100 in the 2015-2106 session, but his score now sits at a nearly rock-bottom 7.

Still, in May 2016, the same month Zeldin endorsed Trump, HRC thanked him in a tweet “for working to protect LGBT Americans from discrimination.” That tweet included a link to an HRC web page that has since been taken down, making it unclear what exactly HRC was referring to — though it was clearly not in regard to the Equality Act, a proposed comprehensive LGBTQ civil rights measure that Zeldin has never supported, voting against it last year when the new Democratic majority was first able to bring it up for a vote.

In contrast, Goroff praised the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Bostock case this past June, which clarified that LGBTQ workers are protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Calling it an “historic day for LGBTQ rights,” Goroff said it was “a major victory and a step closer to equality for all.”

Zeldin’s positions are very much aligned with the GOP party platform of 2020 — which is the same as in 2016 — that explicitly rejects same-sex marriage rights and calls for the passage of Zeldin’s cherished First Amendment Defense Act.

The Long Island Republican’s loyalty to his party and his president appears to have paid off financially. Mike Pence’s wife, Karen, who last year accepted a teaching job at an anti-LGBTQ Christian school that bans queer employees, students, and parents, was among the special guests at Zeldin’s Zoom fundraiser on October 13, and Donald Trump, Jr., joined a fundraising event with Zeldin last year.

At this late stage in the campaign, Zeldin has $1.9 million on hand compared to $423,000 for Goroff, though both candidates have each spent more than $5 million so far.

Financial advantage or not, Zeldin still has to confront the electoral realities of his proximity to a president facing serious danger of losing on November 3. While Zeldin rose to the House of Representatives in the 2014 midterms with an impressive victory over incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop and stormed on to an even bigger win in 2016, he subsequently started losing momentum.

Zeldin managed to hold on by just four points in his re-election bid in 2018, and his prospects are dimming yet again in 2020: After holding a seven-point lead over Goroff in a July Public Policy Policy poll, a pair of polls in August pointed to potential trouble for Zeldin. Global Strategy Group’s poll, carried out between August 3 and August 5, had him up by five points, but Tulchin Research’s poll between August 5 and August 10 showed Goroff with a two-point lead.

Earlier this month, GQR Research conducted a poll showing Zeldin clinging to a razor-thin one-point lead, easily within the margin of error.

Still, one week before election day, Zeldin confidently said in a tweet that he is “well-positioned to win this race.”

Perhaps Zeldin is indeed well-positioned to win the race, after all. Or maybe his buddy in the White House will bring him down with him.

Zeldin did not return a voicemail seeking comment for this story.

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