With the nation as divided politically as it is today, the chance that a political leader can face a serious threat constantly lurks in the shadows. On Friday, for Congressman Lee Zeldin that threat became all too real.
An irate 75-year-old Nesconset man showed up at Zeldin’s Patchogue office, threatened to kill supporters of Zeldin and President Donald Trump, and then allegedly tried to run over a Zeldin campaign worker.
Suffolk County Police said Martin Astrof went to Zeldin’s office at 182 Terry Road office at about 11:15 AM on Friday, July 6, and argued with a Zeldin volunteer later identified as Donato Panico. He threatened to kill Panico and other supporters of the Trump administration, and then backed up his car in an “aggressive manner” at Panico, who was standing by the front of the office.
Police did not release the details of the threats made.
“As someone who has personally received several death threats and have had my wife and kids targeted as well since the last presidential election, I can say with firsthand experience that what Donato experienced today really needs to end throughout our country immediately,” Zeldin said.
Last year a particularly ominous threat had Zeldin’s camp on edge.
In early 2017, The Independent learned Zeldin received “a credible death threat.” Security personnel, possibly the United States Capitol Police, suggested Zeldin curtail his activities, and placed the congressman under heightened security.
“A threat arrived to the district office [Patchogue] from a local resident,” the communications director for Zeldin, Jennifer Di Siena, told The Independent. “The person was advocating for the congressman to be shot.”
Despite the occurrence at his office and the death threat, Zeldin “kept his regular appearance schedule,” Di Siena said.
On another front, Zeldin agreed to meet with three members of the anti-Trump group Project Free Knowledge on February 20 after its co-founder, Anna Steinman, had complained about Zeldin’s staff. She said at an earlier meeting she was treated rudely, calling Zeldin’s people “hostile.”
Zeldin invited her back, along with two colleagues, for a face-to-face meeting with him at his Patchogue office, but apparently because of the threatening letter, Zeldin’s security personnel asked the names of the three group members who would be attending, presumably to run background checks on them.
According to a source close to Zeldin, the three arrived for the scheduled meeting on March 8, but a fourth man entered the room. He refused to provide identification. “He was un-vetted and unannounced,” the source said. Zeldin was in the next room while campaign workers, concerned about the man’s demeanor, called for security and stalled the meeting.
The man abruptly left the room when asked for identification and escaped without being detained by authorities.
A rally scheduled for April 18, 2017, in Southampton Village became a focus for Zeldin’s security personnel. “We had information the meeting was being co-opted by demonstrators,” Di Siena said.
Project Free Knowledge was urging its people to attend, as was Indivisible Against Hate and Timeforchange LI, two more anti-Trump groups. Zeldin reluctantly agreed to cancel his appearance there.
There is no indication that last year’s events had anything to do with the incident involving Astrof.
Astrof was arrested in front of his home a short time after he went to the Terry Road office on Friday and charged with making a terroristic threat, which is a felony, and second-degree reckless endangerment, police said.
On July 7, Astrof appeared briefly on his way to court, wearing shorts and a horizontal striped t-shirt. “Absolutely not,” he replied when asked if he tried to run over Panico. He was arraigned and released after positing bail, which was set at $15,000 cash or $25,000 bond.
“In the United States of America, political scores are settled at the ballot box, not by trying to kill your political opponents. It is unacceptable to resort to actions to kill or seriously harm political opponents or otherwise incite those violent actions by others. It must stop now,” Zeldin said.