Democratic congressional candidate Perry Gershon shakes hands with a student on Stony Brook campus on Wednesday, Oct 3. Gershon is running against incumbent Lee Zeldin for NY-1. NICO PENNISI/THE STATESMAN

Oct. 10, 2018 9:47 a.m.: This story has been updated with comments from Lee Zeldin’s office.

Democratic congressional candidate, Perry Gershon, visited Stony Brook University on Wednesday, Oct. 3 in an effort to reach more student voters as he campaigns against incumbent Lee Zeldin for NY-1.

A Yale graduate and Long Island-based lender to commercial real estate, Gershon has focused his campaign on environmental and economic issues.  

As part of his economic push, Gershon said that Suffolk County’s infrastructure — highways, transportation like the MTA and communication systems like cell towers —  desperately needs rebuilding to allow the region to be more competitive.

“We need to grow Suffolk County into the 21st century,” he said. “I think we’re backward in terms of our structure. We’re in dire need. That’s the only way to level the playing field economically so that regions like this can compete.”

He also pointed out that the country needs to take more action against climate change.

“I think we need to take care of the environment, which means fighting climate change, lowering our carbon usage, moving away from fossil fuels and onto renewable fuels,” Gershon said. “We should be promoting wind technology and solar technology, and not promoting coal and natural gas.”

Gershon said that he is in favor of increased funding for education and research at universities; he wants to address the student debt crisis with tuition-free education at public colleges and universities for middle-class families, push for fully funded federal tuition assistance programs and reduce interest rates on student loans.

“We need to attack the student debt crisis,” he said. “I’m for finding bipartisan solutions, but whatever we do is going to involve reduction of interest rates on loans. The government shouldn’t be profiting on student loans.”

Gershon emphasized the value of education, calling it society’s “grand equalizer.”

“An American ideal is for people’s children to do as well or better than their parents, and the thing that brings people’s levels up is education,” he said. “If education is limited, then it’s hard to improve your life. Especially in today’s economy, you need education to get better jobs. You need good jobs to be available to have them, but people who have an education have a better opportunity to get those jobs. And also, just free creative thought wires education. Education is just part of being American. It’s how we learn to compete.”

Gershon also wants to help find a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

“We should codify what Obama has put forward and give Dreamers a concrete path to citizenship,” he said. “Dreamers are people who are here in this country, they were brought here at a young age through no fault of their own, have not committed any crime, are working and productive members of society and many of them are in the military. It’s to everyone’s advantage to give them a path to citizenship.”

Gershon said his disappointment in Donald Trump’s election is what motivated him to run. He said he thinks Trump’s victory was the result of the American public’s frustration with out of touch politicians that maintain the status quo in Washington.

“The sentiment was right, that we need leaders who are not career politicians and I thought if I felt that strongly about it, I should run myself and challenge Lee Zeldin,” Gerson said. “I think he’s become a puppet of corporate America.”

Gershon said his community outreach efforts, including public forums, help distinguish him from his opponent.

“[Public forums are] the only way to stay in touch with what constituents are looking for,” Gershon said. “If you can’t listen to bad news, that’s not good. You should be able to hear good and bad.”

Gershon said that he has spent the past 18 months traveling the district to hear different points of view. He pointed out that Lee Zeldin does not hold town halls, and has limited interactions with his constituents.

Many NY-1 constituents were angered in February 2017 when Zeldin and Peter King, another Long Island congressman, announced that they would hold town hall meetings via telephone rather than in a traditional public forum. A petition for Zeldin to hold an “open and accessible town hall” that accumulated over 1,000 signatures was put online after he canceled a public town hall scheduled for that April, citing harassment and violence at an event in East Patchogue as the reasoning for the cancellation.

A Facebook page called “Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin,” created after the 2016 presidential election, changed its name to “Let’s Veto Lee Zeldin” in June. The page’s description reads, “Our mission is to be in Lee Zeldin’s grill until he’s gone.”

An official from Zeldin’s office said the April 2017 event was originally planned as a meeting with senior citizens but it was cancelled after liberal groups co-opted, rebranded and renamed it in order to attack the Congressman.

When asked why Stony Brook students should support the congressman, Zeldin’s office pointed to several grants he has helped secure for the university, including a $169,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and almost a million dollars from the National Science Foundation in 2017, and over a million dollars from the National Science Foundation last month.

“Congressman Zeldin and his team, both governmentally and politically, have remained very active with Stony Brook University, including many visits from the Congressman personally through the years,” his office wrote in a statement sent via email. “He was actually just on campus with faculty and students at ‘CommUniversity Day.’ The Zeldin campaign was also at Stony Brook’s recent internship fair. Our campaign team has many college interns and even more volunteers who have been instrumental to our success thus far. Governmentally, Congressman Zeldin, who is also alumni of the SUNY system, has helped secure millions of dollars for Stony Brook University and has frequently partnered with the school on a wide variety of policy priorities that the University has requested support on.”

Politiccal Science Department Chair, Matthew Lebo, said that Zeldin is also expected to speak to political science classes next week.

Gershon spoke to a political science class taught by Lebo last Wednesday. He also attended a Q&A with the Graduate Student Employees Union at their general body meeting in the afternoon.

The Young Democratic Socialists of America at Stony Brook released a statement responding to the Q&A.

“Today, Perry Gershon reaffirmed his support for maintaining the merciless United States empire, repeating the centuries old colonialist rhetoric that it is the world’s ‘peace maker,’” the group wrote in an email. “On the contrary, the United States is presently and historically the largest perpetrator of terror in the world, consistently supporting regime changes and genocides of those not as fortunate to be born in the US. With this in mind, YDSA cannot in good faith support Perry Gershon for [C]ongress as he will not vote in the interests of the global working class. Indeed, he will join the bipartisan efforts of establishment politicians to increase military spending, increase funding for the apartheid state of Israel, and supporting future regime changes.”

Roughly 20 Stony Brook students surveyed by The Statesman on the Academic Mall said they did not recognize Gershon’s name.

Brandon Spiciarich, a sophomore environmental studies major, remembered seeing one of Gershon’s commercials, although he admitted that he did not know most of Gershon’s running points. Despite this, Spiciarch said he took issue with the fact that Gershon was running on an anti-Trump platform.

“Even if he did not agree with the president on everything, I think it is a congressman’s job, a representative’s job, to be able to represent the people well — not run on opposing the president,” Spiciarich said. He went on to say that hopefully, a representative would try to work with Trump “across the aisle,” and change his points of view rather than focusing on getting the president out of office.

David Mayer, one of Gershon’s political advisors and a political science major, said that he submitted a flyer last fall to political science majors and minors to advertise internship opportunities with the campaign. He said that watching the politician genuinely interact with his fellow students was a major reason he joined Gershon’s campaign.

“Perry is passionate about listening,” Mayer said. “If he doesn’t know something he takes the time to understand something before commenting.”

Gershon will be attending a town hall hosted by the Stony Brook College Democrats on Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. in the Center for Global Studies and Human Development in room 202-208, featuring State Senate candidate Kathleen Cleary and sitting congresswoman Grace Meng.

He walked with members of the group during Campus Life Time last Wednesday, encouraging students to register to vote. The president of the College Democrats and junior political science and English double major, Cecelia Masselli, who also works under Gershon’s campaign, said that Gershon listened to students discuss the issues that mattered most to them.

“It’s great to have a candidate who is willing to take time out of his day to speak to students individually,” Masselli wrote in an email.