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Lee Zeldin, House Freshman, Is a Foreign-Affairs Firebrand

October 16, 2015
In The News


MEDFORD, N.Y. — Lee M. Zeldin, the freshman congressman from Long Island, has never been one to wait his turn.

Just months after taking office, Representative Zeldin, 35, has seized a space as one of the Republican Party’s most energetic — and caustic — spokesmen on foreign affairs. He has become a Fox News staple, often reeling off one-liner barbs on President Obama’s handling of the Islamic State, or the Iraqi army’s performance in battle.

And as the only Jewish Republican in Congress, Mr. Zeldin has been a ferocious critic of the Obama administration’s uneven relationship with Israel. His profile as an Obama antagonist is likely to keep growing, as the White House’s nuclear talks with Iran remain in the spotlight this summer.

But on a recent Friday in his district in Suffolk County, Mr. Zeldin cut a less provocative figure as he stood, hands clasped across his waist and swaying almost imperceptibly, as a group of elderly people sang “God Bless America” at a country club. Sandy-haired and soft-faced, he shook hands around the room before departing for his next stop: a local troop of Girl Scouts.

Mr. Zeldin, more than most Republicans in the House of Representatives, has straddled two roles since joining it this year. He has rubbed shoulders with the billionaire conservative donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and accompanied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on a visit to Capitol Hill.

An Iraq war veteran, Mr. Zeldin has denounced Mr. Obama, saying the president is seeking to govern “as a monarch,” and questioned whether the president is “playing for the same team” when it comes to national security.

Yet Mr. Zeldin must also grapple with an unusually demanding political situation at home. Unlike many of his colleagues, whose congressional districts are drawn in a way that minimizes political competition, his is an evenly divided tract covering eastern Long Island, stretching from suburban Stony Brook and Medford out to the Hamptons. Mr. Obama won there in both his campaigns, and Mr. Zeldin lost a race for the congressional seat in 2008.

The congressman’s 2016 re-election bid will be a test of his brand of strident hawkishness, and of whether a conservative up-and-comer can have any future in Democratic-leaning New York.

Mr. Zeldin, who was a state senator before going to Washington, said his national profile could only help him, politically. The weighty military matters he grapples with now, he said, have a different urgency than local issues he previously dealt with — removing fees on certain fishing licenses, for instance.

“Fighting for that issue on behalf of tens of thousands of Long Islanders who had to get these licenses, that evokes passion,” Mr. Zeldin said, alluding to a debate early in his Senate term. “Then you go down to Washington and you’re having a conversation of, ‘How do you kill ISIS?’ It’s like a whole other level of passion.”

National Republicans have long viewed Mr. Zeldin as a star in the making. A few days after losing re-election in a Republican primary last year, Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader and the most senior Jewish Republican official in Washington, visited Long Island to raise money for Mr. Zeldin’s successful bid against Representative Tim Bishop, the Democratic incumbent.

Mr. Zeldin continues to receive muscular support from the top of his party: Speaker John A. Boehner is scheduled to appear at a fund-raising event for Mr. Zeldin this month. The freshman lawmaker has won fund-raising assistance, too, from the Republican Jewish Coalition, a national group tied to the Adelsons; he has spoken at coalition events in California, Florida and Illinois so far this year.

Representative Peter T. King, who represents an adjacent district on Long Island, said Mr. Zeldin’s elevated position would show constituents that their congressman was “listened to on national issues.” Mr. King, a moderate Republican frequently critical of the party’s leadership, noted that Mr. Zeldin had taken a more orthodox conservative path in Washington.

“We’re not close, but we talk generally on issues that affect Long Island,” Mr. King said. “We’ve gone some different ways on a few votes.” The senior lawmaker added of Mr. Zeldin’s district: “I think it’s always going to be a tough seat for anyone to hold — either party.”

Stephen M. Louro, a Suffolk County political donor, said Mr. Zeldin had been candid from the start about his desire to be at the vanguard of conservative politics. He recalled Mr. Zeldin’s telling him flatly: “I want to step up to the plate, and I want to lead.”

Mr. Louro, who is hosting Mr. Boehner’s fund-raising event at his house next month, said he helped broker a portentous introduction between Mr. Zeldin and Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming at Fox News, during a moment of tension between the White House and Israel.

“Bill just really, really liked him,” Mr. Louro said. “The big issue for Bill was the way Obama was treating Netanyahu.” (Mr. Shine did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

To Democrats, Mr. Zeldin’s zeal for the national stage looks like political opportunity in the making. Party strategists were delighted when, only a few days into his term, Mr. Zeldin hosted Senator Ted Cruz of Texas at a swearing-in celebration. (“On behalf of 26 million Texans, I want to thank New York for sending us reinforcements,” Mr. Cruz said at the event, according to a video posted on YouTube.)

And Mr. Zeldin has taken votes that may prove challenging to defend in his moderate district, recently voting for a spending bill that cut spending for mass transit, and at one point opposing a measure to finance the Department of Homeland Security, because it did not block Mr. Obama’s latest round of executive orders on illegal immigration.

Multiple Democrats have already entered the race against him. David Calone, a venture capitalist who announced his bid in May, faulted Mr. Zeldin for “following the hard-right, Ted Cruz line.” He also raised a speculative eyebrow about Mr. Zeldin’s time in Albany, where several top lawmakers, including State Senator Dean G. Skelos of Long Island, have been indicted on a charge of alleged financial crimes.

“Obviously there are a lot of questionable things going on in Albany and time will tell whether Congressman Zeldin was involved in those or not,” Mr. Calone said.

Mr. Zeldin has not been linked to any improper activities. He has disclosed receiving over $180,000 in outside income from a law firm that specializes in real estate, Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler,

Nahins & Goidel, while serving in the Senate. Senators are allowed to earn income on top of their $79,500 annual salaries, as long as they follow certain disclosure rules, and avoid conflicts of interest with their government work.

Mr. Zeldin said that he had done that, for his own part, but that he was not shocked by corruption among lawmakers whom he described as underpaid.

“You can’t live in the Bronx and survive on just $80,000 or so of income, if you’re married and you have three kids at home,” Mr. Zeldin said, emphasizing that his law-firm job had not been a sinecure. “I was so careful to ensure that I was finding all the time possible to actually practice the law.”

The congressman played down his interactions with Mr. Cruz (“I’ve met him a few times”) and predicted voters would judge him as an independent candidate.

“I don’t consider myself to be a Pete King Republican or a Ted Cruz Republican or a John Boehner Republican, or a Tea Party Republican,” Mr. Zeldin said. “I am my own man.”

If Democrats are eager to cast Mr. Zeldin as Suffolk’s answer to Mr. Cruz, it remains to be seen if the label will stick to a man who comes across, in person, less as a cable-news firebrand than as a politely opinionated neighbor.

Ed Romaine, the Brookhaven town supervisor and an influential local Republican leader, said Mr. Zeldin’s fate would turn on his political legwork on Long Island. “It’s doing things that matter here in the district, not what matters in Washington,” he said.

Mr. Romaine, who has advised Mr. Zeldin since his failed House race in 2008, said Mr. Zeldin had been determined to make it to Washington, even after his first, losing campaign. “His heart,” he said, “was so set on this.”