Spencer Rumsey

Spencer Rumsey, the Long Island Press’ senior editor, has worked on dailies, weeklies and monthlies, including New York Newsday and the New York Post, the East Village Eye and the supermarket tabloid Star Magazine. Starting at the Press in 2010, he’s written award-winning stories on planning, politics and policy, to name a few topics, and he’s taken on a wide range of targets in his Press blog, Rumsey Punch.

‘The Congressman’: Ex-Long Island Rep. Robert Mrazek’s Film Career Finally Takes Off

In Robert Mrazek's "The Congressman" Treat Williams, left, has the starring role as a jaded politician trying to right himself and Ryan Merriman is his uptight chief of staff, as they head to an island off the coast of Maine. (Photo courtesy: The Congressman)

This Memorial Day weekend, The Congressman, the earnest new film by Huntington native and former Democratic Rep. Robert Mrazek, opens in Yellow Springs, Ohio; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Hartford, Connecticut and Kansas City, Missouri.

Starring Treat Williams in the title role, it’s a heartfelt, gently humorous and strongly patriotic look at an elected public official whose idealism has almost run dry—like the sour mash whiskey in his silver flask.

Mrazek, now 70, first entered office as a Suffolk County legislator, and then went on to serve five terms in Congress. He retired in 1993 to write military-themed novels and nonfiction—and he’s since published eight books.

And so it was like a homecoming for him, his friends and his loyal supporters who’d worked on his campaigns, when his debut movie premiered April 29 at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.

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After he left the Navy, he’d gone to the London Film School but he returned to the States in 1968 after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, saying recently that having a movie career at the time felt “kind of trivial.” He got a job working with Indiana Sen. Vance Hartke, one of the leading anti-Vietnam War Democrats in the U.S. Senate, before heading back to Long Island and beginning his own political pursuits. Decades later Mrazek’s film career is finally taking off, thanks to the intervention of Fred Roos, who produced Francis Ford Coppola’s films and liked his script so much he wanted Mrazek to co-direct the movie.

At the pre-screening reception, Mrazek reportedly brought down the house when he jokingly told the Cinema Arts Centre’s co-director Charlotte Sky that he was running for Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-Dix Hills) open seat and needed the audience’s full support plus “about $10 million bucks, which is five times the size of the budget for the film you’re going to see tonight,” according to the Northport Observer.

Interestingly, Mrazek is not the only Huntington-based politician with a creative streak. Israel recently published his debut satirical novel, The Global War on Morris, which the Washington Post’s Book World editor, Ron Charles, called “spirited and funny.”

In Mrazek’s movie, Treat Williams, who played Sen. Ted Kennedy in HBO’s recent movie about Judge Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, is Rep. Charlie Winship, a jaded nine-term Congressman from Maine whose life is a mess. His marriage is on the rocks, he’s drinking like a fish, and his idealism is shot. A former Vietnam veteran who saw combat as a Marine at Khe Sanh, Winship once vowed to make each day count after he held off an assault by the Vietcong.

As you sit through the film, you can’t help but wonder how much of what you see actually happened to Mrazek and how much he invented for narrative effect.

But when we first see Winship, he’s on the House floor with his feet propped on his desk while his colleagues all stand up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Tellingly, the scene is shot through the lens of someone’s camera—and we soon learn that the paparazzi photographer had an ulterior motive: to paint Winship as an unpatriotic slime ball.

Robert Mrazek
Former Rep. Robert Mrazek has made the jump to film. (Photo credit: robertjmrazek.com)

After the opening credits, a quick collage of 1960s’ images including JFK, LBJ and anti-war protests culminating in a demonstrator holding up a sign that says, “Fuck the Draft,” we see Winship on his way back to his office being stopped by a lobbyist who tells the Congressman that he’s just gotten him a twenty-grand campaign donation. Distracted (or more likely thirsty), Winship brushes past the man without expressing his gratitude, prompting the lobbyist to utter: “Then fuck you, buddy!”

What follows is a news cycle blasting Winship for not standing up for the Pledge. The smear turns out to be a hatchet job perpetrated by another oleaginous operative played to perfection by George Hamilton, who could have stolen the movie if he’d wanted to. In this case, he’s Laird Devereaux, a smiling cobra fronting for a huge mega-giant corporate seafood monster that wants to scarf up all the lobster off the Maine coast. To make that acquisition happen, he’s trying to undermine Winship’s own chief of staff, an uptight young man named Jared Barnes (Ryan Merriman), promising to introduce him to “exceptional friends” and boasting that the “people I work for, or with, are going to run the country someday.”

From Washington the film shifts to Maine, where for decades Mrazek himself has lived on Monhegan Island, 12 nautical miles from Boothbay. In the movie it’s called Catatonk. But before Winship and Martin board the Sea Hag to meet the hard-pressed locals trying to preserve their way of life from commercial exploitation, there are several poignant scenes on the mainland that show what Mrazek was aiming for.

In one, Winship stops at his soon-to-be former residence, where his ex-wife is packing up their things because they’re selling the house. Right outside the door on the front lawn he’s stopped by an eccentric constituent who barges out of the bushes to beg the Congressman to give him a patronage post because its current occupant is in intensive care. Says Winship with shock and awe, “You’re asking me about getting a job while the man is still alive!” Once inside, surrounded by the debris of his failed marriage, he tells his wife that he never stopped loving her—he just stopped loving her well. It’s a touching vignette, because it comes after a hint that he’s been unfaithful. Then he admits he’s afraid of becoming “irrelevant” in Congress.

As you sit through the film, you can’t help but wonder how much of what you see actually happened to Mrazek and how much he invented for narrative effect. Certainly, once the movie leaves the coast behind, you can feel Mrazek’s love for Down East way of life. At Huntington, he told the audience that “The Congressman” is “a heartfelt meditation…particularly upon what it means to be an American.” Williams, who co-produced the film, called it “a little movie with a big heart.” That’s a very apt description.

But its creative formula won’t work for every cineaste. There are no space aliens or zombies, no evil terrorists, no sinister suspense, no ticking time bombs. And compared to the denizens of a typical indie art movie, these characters are much too normal with a few humorous exceptions.

Sometimes you can see the plot twists coming a mile away, like when Winship meets Rae Blanchard, his multi-tasking tour guide, a 43-year-old divorcee who is the island’s constable, chief garbage collector and ombudswoman, played with a mix of tenderness and toughness by Obie-award winner Elizabeth Marvel. Congressman Winship has a bad back and, wouldn’t you know, among her many talents Blanchard also gives great massages.

To some hardcore political junkies, “The Congressman” probably won’t have enough cynicism to satisfy them, but this is a movie about a disillusioned politician rediscovering his idealism so maybe it’s not meant for them anyway. Certainly, given Mrazek’s long career in public service, it’s a worthy achievement. And in the genre of movies about American politics, I certainly enjoyed it much more than the sickly saccharine “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra’s 1939 take on corruption in Congress, which recently aired on PBS.

Starring James Stewart, Jefferson Smith is a “perfect man, never been in politics,” who’s being recruited by Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) , a crooked powerbroker in cahoots with Sen. Joe Paine (Claude Rains), a pol on his payroll, to replace a deceased Senator so a rigged land deal can go through.

This movie had its premiere on Oct. 17, 1939 at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., at a screening sponsored by the National Press Club. More than 4,000 guests, including 45 Senators, were invited. The press and the politicians reportedly attacked the film as “anti-American” and “pro-Communist” because it dared to portray corruption in our government. Imagine that! A film so sentimental and sappy today that it’s hard to sit through without grimacing, especially when Gov. Hubert “Happy” Hopper’s children champion Smith at the dinner table because he runs the Boy Rangers (supposedly the Boy Scouts of America wouldn’t allow its name to be used), who put out a little newspaper when they’re not having good clean fun. The movie cemented Stewart’s Hollywood status as a star, as he epitomized the bumbling but earnest patriotic bumpkin thrust into the Senate by a vile political machine.

But some scenes, such as the powerbroker’s brutal efforts to squash dissent and eliminate sympathetic coverage of Sen. Smith’s filibuster, did have an unmistakable edge, and I was not surprised to learn that it had been banned in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and Stalin’s USSR. When this movie came out, the allies were on the run in Europe. Capra made his classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946, after the war against fascism was over.

In “The Congressman,” Winship refers to that Capra movie about what happened in Bedford Falls, not the film about Capitol Hill, telling his female companion as they gaze on the rolling Atlantic that he’s afraid Congress has entered “a moral and political Ice Age.” This movie may not melt too many hearts but it’s easy to see why Treat Williams jumped at the chance to act in it. As the lead, he gets to deliver a fiery speech in a high school back on the mainland to an angry crowd pumped up by a right-wing media propaganda campaign.

Winship recounts his combat experience in Vietnam, defending American values on the frontlines, and says that patriotism is more than a bumper sticker or a soundbite. Needless to say, this movie has a happy ending. Some people won’t like that, but so it goes. I’m glad Mrazek got his chance to see his vision on the silver screen. Bravo, Congressman!

As Altice’s Cablevision Purchase Heads To Finish Line, Newsday’s Future Uncertain

Cablevision-Altice Sale

European-based media conglomerate Altice N.V.’s $17.7 billion bid to buy Bethpage-based Cablevision Systems Corp., which owns Newsday and News 12, cleared an important regulatory hurdle this week, fueling mounting speculation that the telecommunications giant may look to unload Long Island’s lone daily newspaper.

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The Federal Communications Commission ruled Tuesday that the pending acquisition “serves the public interest,” citing the “benefits of increased broadband speeds and more affordable options for low income customers.” But it still faces additional regulatory approvals.

“Altice is pleased with the FCC issuance of the approval order,” said Jimmy Asci, a spokesman for Altice, a multination cable and telecommunications company headquartered in the Netherlands. The ruling means that the FCC “recognizes the benefits that the proposed merger will bring to consumers in the U.S. We continue to make good progress toward a transaction closing in the second quarter of this year.”

The Cablevision purchase will be on the agenda at the Monday meeting of the New York City Franchise Concession Review Committee (FCRC) in Manhattan and at the May 20 meeting of the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) in Albany. If Altice can close the deal by the end of June, as is becoming increasingly likely, it would gain 3.1 million cable customers in the tri-state area, making it the fourth-largest provider in the United States, behind Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications.

Founded by billionaire telecom tycoon Patrick Drahi in 2002, Altice has some 55,000 employees serving millions of customers in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal, Switzerland, Israel, the Indian Ocean regions, the French Caribbean and the Dominican Republic. Last year, it expanded into the United States, when it bought the St. Louis-based Suddenlink Communications, which has 1.5 million customers, for $9 billion.

When Drahi publicly discussed his offer to purchase Cablevision with investors last September, he said that he’d achieve $900 million in cost savings between Suddenlink and Cablevision. He noted that some 300 employees at Cablevision earn more than $300,000 a year.

“I don’t like to pay salaries,” Drahi reportedly said. “I pay as little as I can.”

What the change in ownership means for Newsday and News 12 is unclear. Since 2013, Newsday’s combined operating losses totaled $135.5 million—$71.1 million in 2013, $37.7 million in 2014 and $27.2 million in 2015—as reported in Cablevision’s financial filings. Should telecommunications goliath Altice look to shutter or sell the daily newspaper and/or its sister broadcasting channel, it would drastically alter the local media landscape across Long Island—where Newsday, founded in 1940, has remained the primary print source of news for its nearly 3 million residents. Its main competitor, the daily Long Island Press, ceased publication in 1977.

“That result is a lot worse than is typical,” Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said of the newspaper’s hefty fiscal hemorrhaging. Still, he doubted that the new owner would close Newsday. “I would think that a new owner might well choose to sell it. There are several companies that are buying papers. Whether they would or not, I don’t know.”

Edmonds specifically referred to Gannett, which is making an offer to buy Tribune, Newsday’s owner until 2008 when Cablevision bought it for $650 million, and New Media Investment Group, a company based in upstate New York, formerly known as GateHouse Media, which has bought “a number of small papers in recent years,” he explained. “They say in their earnings column that they want to acquire more.”

Fueling speculation is the debt load that will burden Altice if the purchase goes through. The New York City Public Advocate’s office reportedly pegged the actual amount at $15.3 billion. Cablevision’s financial filings peg its own total outstanding debt at $9.6 billion.

“It’s clear the company has a cost-cutting focus as key to its future intent,” said Jaci Clement, executive director of the Fair Media Council, a media watchdog group based on Long Island. “Altice’s high debt load makes it unfathomable that they’ll be able to invest in the infrastructure… Killing the printed version would certainly save big money, wouldn’t it?” She said she had concerns that the new owners would not uphold Cablevision and the Dolan family’s “legacy of outstanding commitment to the community.”

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At Newsday, 800 employees—almost half the workforce—belong to the Graphic Communications Conference/International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 406. Their contracts run through Dec. 31, 2017, said Mike LaSpina, Local 406 president. Although he has not been contacted by Altice directly, he believes the new owners would not close the paper.

“Right now, my understanding is that they want X amount of money out of Cablevision corporate,” he told the Press. “They’re not looking to do anything at Newsday.”

Altice’s pending debt load does worry him, but he is optimistic because he pointed out that Drahi had always wanted the paper and News 12 when he originally approached the Dolans about buying Cablevision last July, since the properties fit into his strategy to package content. LaSpina said that Drahi had “walked away” from negotiations when James Dolan had tried to hold onto those two properties. Neither Cablevision nor Altice would comment.

LaSpina did not buy into the argument that Newsday’s operating losses were a potential threat to its future.

“Look, they might be losing revenue, but I think they’re still making money,” he said. “Believe me, if it were a losing proposition, Altice wouldn’t have wanted it.” He insisted that Newsday’s revenue stream has value to Altice, especially now.

“For a company that has so much debt, why would they close a paper that’s bringing in a couple of dollars?” LaSpina asked rhetorically. “Whatever the couple of dollars are, it’s still making money.”

But the union leader did not hold out as much hope for management at Cablevision or Newsday. “I know there are a lot of them walking on eggshells,” LaSpina said.

If Altice’s recent actions regarding the content packaging of other European subsidiary media holdings are any indication, retaining Newsday and News 12 may be a strategic component of its corporate plan.

On April 27, Altice made headlines for consolidating its media assets in France, drawing comparison to what it planned to do in the United States. The Wall Street Journal reported that “French cable tycoon Patrick Drahi is bringing a bit of New York to France,” saying that his plans for Altice’s SFR French subsidiary to offer new cable TV channels in France, including six sports channels and a news channel covering Paris, were “inspired by Cablevision System Corp.’s News 12 Networks that focus on the New York City metropolitan area.”

SFR, which is owned by Altice’s holding company, announced that it was acquiring Altice Media Group France, which publishes more than 20 major national titles, including the leftist daily Libération and the weekly L’Express, and runs an international news channel, i24 News. According to SFR’s April 27 press release, it has positioned itself to be “the second largest operator in the French digital press sector.” The same day, SFR announced that it had gotten Altice N.V.’s 49 percent minority stake in NextRadioTV, first acquired in December 2015, which it called “a benchmark operator in the French information ecosystem, focused on mainstream news, sports, business, high-tech and discovery.”

The moves were hailed by the conglomerate as a sign of “global convergence” embracing telecoms, media and advertising with a potential customer base of more than 18 million people, plus France’s leading fiber network and the country’s fastest-growing 4G network. “This exceptional commercial striking force,” proclaimed SFR, “will transform the world of media by enabling everyone to have a true newsstand at home and by creating a sustainable business model for the press.”

But the news was very different in March, when the Financial Times ran a story questioning the magnate’s business plan.

“Altice’s king of cost-cutting faces SFR challenge,” the publication reported, adding that the performance of the French mobile operator “raises doubts about Patrick Drahi’s playbook.” Apparently, in 2015, after Drahi’s Numericable, his French cable company, had acquired SVR, France’s second-largest mobile operator, it issued an “ultimatum” to its suppliers: “halve your prices or else.” Then SFR suspended payments. According to the French Association of Telecom Users (Afutt), complaints at SFR per million internet subscribers rose 54 percent between 2014 and 2015 and SFR lost 795,000 mobile customers during the first nine months of 2015.

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As detailed by the Financial Times, Drahi’s “playbook for deals…involves buying companies with poor cash flow and slashing costs to ramp up operating profit.” To fund Altice’s rapid growth, its net debt has mushroomed from $1.94 billion in 2012 to $8.5 billion by the close of 2016, once it completes the Cablevision deal, reportedly raising investors’ concerns that “the group was growing too fast.” Altice’s shares were trading around $13 on May 5, compared to $35.80 a year ago. According to news reports, Altice would pay $34.90 for each share of Cablevision stock, financing the purchase with $14.5 billion of new and existing debt at Cablevision, cash on hand at Cablevision and $3.3 billion of cash from Altice.

Before the recent SFR announcements, Bloomberg reported on April 20 that investors had “bought up four offerings totaling $12 billion in just two weeks, including the largest single junk-bond deal ever, which the company plans to use to refinance older obligations.” Tellingly, the headline read: “Billionaire Drahi’s Surprise Junk-Debt Binge Caps Chaotic Months.”

The FCC may have ruled that Altice’s pending purchase is in the public interest, but that’s not how Dennis Trainor, vice president of Communications Workers of America District 1 views it. CWA, which has 300 workers at Cablevision in Brooklyn, has lobbied both the state PSC and the city FCRC to oppose the acquisition.

“Altice takes on too much debt, outsources as much work as possible and then downsizes its workforce,” said Trainor in a statement last December. “Customers get worse service and employees lose their job.”

Back in January, union reps and Cablevision customers reportedly packed a PSC hearing in the Bronx to criticize the sale. No doubt they’ll be back at the upcoming meetings to have their say.

“The deal as it is currently structured is bad for cable consumers and bad for cable workers and should be rejected,” Robert Master, a CWA District 1 spokesman, recently told the Press. “It’s a pretty serious situation.”

Come July, judging by what’s happened so far, it may be a done deal. What that means for Cablevision’s media holdings, and consequently, how Long Islanders, specifically, get their local news, remains to be seen.

’60s Generation Holds Key To New York Primary

National Popular Vote Movement
National Popular Vote Movement

Seeing Susan Sarandon exhorting Bernie Sanders supporters in New York City the other day reminded me of the time Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden were the unexpected opening act at a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, Calif., back in 1979. Fonda told the restless crowd to take home the pamphlet folded on their seat and “not read it” then, but examine it at their leisure. Naturally, I can’t remember what the issue was about, and I doubt that the crowd of Deadheads had much inclination to study it further whatever it was.

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But it was very cool to see the then-most hated woman in America (“Hanoi Jane,” the conservatives dubbed her because she’d gone to North Vietnam, but nobody could ever dis her great acting ability) smiling earnestly up there on stage with her shaggy husband, Tom Hayden, who had been one of the founders of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the lead author of its celebrated left-wing manifesto, The Port Huron Statement. Their celebrity appearance for a worthy cause gave the concert a level of gravitas that it might not otherwise have had. But did it change minds? Certainly not more than the music could.

These days the most hated woman in America is Hillary Clinton. She makes appearances with Katy Perry… Enough said.

Pop culture is not a heavy leg to stand on, as we’ve learned. Most young people these days probably don’t know who Abbie Hoffman was, but the Yippie leader took to the stage while The Who were performing at Woodstock in 1969 to rail against the unfair jailing of White Panther Party’s chairman John Sinclair. Pete Townshend didn’t appreciate the Chicago Eight defendant’s presence and whacked him with his guitar. Hundreds of thousands of people were at the concert, but it’s unlikely that more than a cadre knew what the issue was all about. Most of those watching were just enjoying the show and waiting for the next song.

I’m thinking about all this as New York is about to hold its most significant presidential primary in decades. Just the other day almost 30,000 people filled Washington Square Park for a campaign rally on behalf of the most progressive, left-wing candidate the Democratic Party has fielded since U.S. Sen. George McGovern (D-SD)—and this guy isn’t even a Democrat! It amazes me that we find a 74-year-old Brooklyn native, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), crushing his 68-year-old rival, Hillary Clinton, our former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, by double digits in polls of likely Democratic voters who were born after 1968.

The demographics of this contest are mind-blowing because it seems that the ’60s Generation, at least in New York, may hold the key to who wins the race.

Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg reported on Feb. 8 that “while Democrats under 35 are evenly divided, those 55 and older favor Clinton by 31 points.” But in a new survey released on April 13, Greenberg says, “Sanders has widened his lead among voters under 35 to a whopping 52 points, up from 17 points, while Clinton leads among voters over 55 by 22 points, although that’s down from a 39-point lead with older voters. The younger voters are feeling the ‘Bern’ but the question is will they come out and vote in large numbers, as older voters historically do?”

For the record, Susan Sarandon is a very attractive 69-year-old left-wing movie star. But I digress.

Quinnipiac University Poll’s Assistant Director Maurice Carroll says that Hillary Clinton “leads Sen. Bernie Sanders in many New York demographic groups except the young folks and very liberal voters, but it’s a huge lead among black voters that gives her a comfortable double-digit margin.” Among likely Democratic voters 18 to 44 years old, Sanders has a 55-36 percent advantage over Clinton, his April 12 survey finds, while older voters back Clinton with almost reverse numbers: 62-33 percent for 45 to 64 year olds, and 62-30 percent for those 65 and older.

The ’60s is my g-g-generation. I remember how hippies got “clean for Gene”—U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), that is—they cut their long hair and traded blue denim for sweaters and khakis. They quite literally furled their freak flag. They were never as hip as the Yippies and the other radicals who took to the streets outside the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, when Mayor Richard Daley unleashed his riot squads on the demonstrators as they chanted that “the whole world is watching” the American violence unfold on television.

The Republicans ate it up, as the Democrats came out of Illinois weak and divided, handcuffing liberal U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey and handing the White House to Richard Nixon, who profited mightily from the spectacle by marshaling the “silent majority”—those who comprise the conservative base today—to his side. Voting for the Hump was very uncool. But only those over 21 could even vote at that time—the law didn’t change until March 1971, when Nixon was starting to run for his second term against the “acid, amnesty and abortion” candidate—his supporters’ words for Senator McGovern.

I contemplate that history as I prepare to vote next Tuesday. A colleague in his 20s recently asked me if I would have supported Bernie if I were young as him. It was a hard question to answer without feeling old! Or at least, thinking: Have I gotten this square in my dotage?

“Purity will only get you so far in this world. And politics ain’t beanbag. Nobody knows that better than Hillary Clinton.”

Reportedly, Jack Weinberg, a Free Speech Movement activist in Berkeley, was the first American to say “We don’t trust anybody over 30.” By the time the slogan reached Yippie leader Jerry Rubin in New York it was: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” In 1968 came the countercultural cult film, Wild in the Streets, featuring Christopher Jones, Hal Holbrook and, yes, Shelley Winters, which turned the expression on its head.

Jones played a rock star and revolutionary wannabe named Max Frost (his estranged mom is Shelley Winters), who sings at a rally for a Kennedy-like candidate named Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook). His campaign platform is to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. But before Frost is done performing, he’s taken liberties with the agenda and improvised a new song, “Fourteen Or Fight!”

The rest of the movie is about the chaos that ensues as teenagers take it to the streets across the nation. The “old guard” is anybody over 40; 30 becomes the new mandatory retirement age, and those over 35 are sent to “re-education camps” where they’re dosed with LSD. But things actually turn out pretty groovy around the globe, as the youth revolution spreads. As Frost puts it, after he’s withdrawn the U.S. military from other countries and shipped surplus grain to starving countries for free, he’s become the leader of “the most truly hedonistic society the world has ever known.” But, dum da dum dum, there’s a backlash: At the end of the movie, Frost is confronted by kids 10 and under who want to overthrow all the old farts like him.

Once, in San Francisco, I attended a film screening to benefit striking coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky. To get inside the door you had to thread between two competing groups of protesters, about eight or so Trotskyites and the same number of Maoists, who were wearing white shirts and ties, as I recall. They were actually protesting against each other’s ideological take on how to foment working-class revolution.

They were not that keen on supporting trade unions, it turned out. I think about them now as I recall how the “Bernie Bros” regard the “Hillary Hoes.” With righteous scorn. Admittedly, she is one heck of a flawed candidate—and why she lets those Goldman Sachs speeches hang around her neck like a $675,000 albatross is beyond me.

But I do know who I will support: someone I believe will be the most effective president for the tough times ahead. And I take comfort knowing that I’m not alone, that I’m not forsaking all my “New York values,” from others who’ve gone down this road before me.

Take former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the great liberal champion of the Democratic Party, who backs Clinton but says of her opponent in Politico: “Decades ago, Sanders made a principled choice to play a valuable part in our politics—the outsider within the system.” But the former Massachusetts Congressman observed in an interview in Slate: “Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it in terms of his accomplishments and that’s because of the role he stakes out.”

Boy, did Sanders’ “Bros” not appreciate Frank’s words. Here’s the Barney Frank rule, as he spelled it out in his recent memoir: “If you care deeply about an issue, and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.”

Purity will only get you so far in this world. And politics ain’t beanbag. Nobody knows that better than Hillary Clinton.

Hey! Ho! Ramones Rock On in Queens Exhibit

The Queens Museum looked like CBGB’s as thousands of people in leather and denim packed the main floor on Sunday to celebrate the Ramones, the legendary punk band from Forest Hills whose original, hard-hitting music remains as vibrant today as it was 40 years ago when their legendary first album was released on April 10, 1976.

The occasion was the opening of “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk,” an exhibit of signed guitars, battered Marshall amps, original albums, rare photos and an array of memorabilia lovingly organized by the Queens Museum and the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles, in collaboration with Ramones Productions, Inc., JAM Inc. and Silent Partner Management, with production support by Pace Gallery. It’s co-curated by Queens Museum guest curator Marc H. Miller and Bob Santelli, executive director of the GRAMMY Museum.

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The project has been years in the making, explained Miller, whose last show at the museum was dedicated to Louis Armstrong, who also resided in Queens.

“In the end it all came together,” Miller told the Press as he gazed at the crowd waiting to get into the special galleries, culminating in a 60-minute film of the band’s ’77 London concert. “I got the opportunity to do the show I wanted here.”

He selected the objects and picked their spots.

“Curating is about rejecting stuff as much as it is about what you’re putting in,” Miller said. “With the Ramones, there were a gazillion photographers, and everybody has their favorite photograph so the trick is not to get seduced by a photograph that only stands by itself. I always like having little stories within the exhibition.”

This exhibit runs at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens until July 31, when everything is packed up and moved to L.A., where it will be on display from Sept. 16, 2016 through March 2017. Visitors to the Queens show can take away a great map of the Ramones’ New York City, drawn by John Holstrom, that shows their roots as well as important landmarks in their life. On the flip side is an illustrated account of their career and lasting influence.

Over the years the band’s mantra “Hey Ho, Let’s Go!” could be heard blaring over the sound system in nearby Shea Stadium and later at Citi Field when the Mets—or their fans—needed a lift. But the refrain wouldn’t last long, depending on the action on the field. Here at the Queens Museum, the cultural contribution of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy get their full due with a tribute that honors them for their legacy and influence. Talk about New York values, what other band embodies it better than the Ramones?

Their self-titled debut album, recorded at Plaza Sound Studios on the 7th floor of Radio City Music Hall, introduced the world to the uncompromising music known as punk. Recorded in three days for a total cost of $6,400, the first album raced through 14 songs in 29 minutes. Despite its seminal influence, it actually took years until it went gold, in part because at the time of its release rock radio stations did not know how to handle its ground-breaking, genre-defying style.

But the Ramones found a receptive audience—and they never looked back.

As the exhibit’s brochure relates, the Ramones’ “minimalist tunes, slapstick lyrics, buzzsaw guitars, and blitzkrieg tempo became the wellspring for a new music and culture.” Their music “lifted listeners out of the bleak world described in its lyrics, providing anthems for a worldwide fellowship of the disaffected.”

It was the time of New York City’s bankruptcy, high crime and graffiti-covered subway cars, when tenement buildings were crumbling and people were scrambling in the shadows just to get by.

None of the original band survives: Joey died from lymphoma in 2001, Dee Dee overdosed in 2002, Johnny succumbed to prostate cancer in 2004 and Tommy fell to bile duct cancer in 2014. But their presence was on full display Sunday in Queens. How they’d react to all the attention is hard to say. No doubt they’d smirk.

“I don’t even know who the Ramones are!” admitted a woman who was standing near the stage where a live band was performing “The KKK Took My Baby Away” in the main hall. She’d come to the museum because WNYC had said on its broadcast that “it was the top thing to do in Queens!”

On hand for the opening was Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who was very pleased with the turnout. Outside the museum the parking lots were full and more cars were parked over the curb and on the grass. Asked what her favorite Ramones song was, Katz thought for a moment and picked two: “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Pinhead,” which is memorable for its refrain, “Gabba gabba hey!”

Nearby in the lobby entrance stood Monte A. Melnick, the band’s tour manager, who also helped compile the show’s collection. He was pumped up by the size of the crowd, which vindicated all the time and effort the organizers had devoted to making the show possible.

As Tommy Ramone, the drummer, put it in the band’s first press release, “The Ramones all originate from Forest Hills, and kids who grew up there either became musicians, degenerates or dentists. The Ramones are a little of each.”

“Hey! Ho! Lets’ Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk” runs until July 31 at the Queens Museum, at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park [exit 9P heading west off the Grand Central], 718-592-9700.

Queens Museum guest-curator Marc Miller holds the Ramones map at the opening of the exhibit on the legendary punk band.

Batteries Plus Bulbs: The Coolest Company Most Long Islanders Have Never Heard Of


magine one store that carries batteries of all kinds, from cell phones to cars, plus a gazillion light bulbs and an assortment of chargers, and you begin to understand what one of the nation’s fastest-growing franchises, Batteries Plus Bulbs, is all about. But wait, there’s more: It also repairs cracked iPhone, iPad and iPod screens. All under one roof.

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From a single storefront in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Batteries Plus Bulbs has expanded into 670 locations since 1988.

But there’s only one outlet on Long Island, and since 2012, it’s been run by Scott Palmer, a 42-year-old who was born and raised in East Northport, where he went to John Glenn High School. Palmer’s enthusiasm for the franchise is almost electrifying.

“I really, really, really enjoy what I do,” said Palmer, a large affable guy with an ebullient personality. “I love the store! I love the products that I sell! I love being able to give people something that they don’t necessarily know they even need!”

How Palmer got to run his own Batteries Plus is a “quite long and ridiculous” story, the proud owner explained recently. It started at a golf course in Florida where Palmer’s father-in-law was complaining that he couldn’t watch TV in the comfort of his home since his rechargeable remote’s battery had just died after he’d spent about four grand on his state-of-the-art entertainment system. First, he had gone back to Best Buy, where the expensive equipment had come from, but the sales clerks told him he was out of luck; they didn’t sell the battery or the remote. Then Palmer’s father-in-law called the manufacturer, who informed him that he had to buy a brand new one for $180 because they didn’t sell just the battery. His frustration is not hard to imagine.

“He went out of his mind,” Palmer recalled. “So he’s out playing golf with one of his buddies, who says, ‘Why don’t you just go over to Batteries Plus?’”

Talk about a fateful question. Palmer’s father-in-law had owned a chemical company in Long Island City and had recently retired to Florida. Meanwhile, Scott Palmer had been laid off from a cosmetics manufacturer in New Jersey, and he and his wife had begun looking into franchises so they could remain in the New York area. In Florida, Batteries Plus has more than 50 outlets, but few in the Northeast.

“Being from New York, he’s never heard of this before,” said Palmer. “So he goes over to Batteries Plus, and $17.99 later, he comes out with a new battery for his remote. So, he said to me, ‘This is the way to go. We’ve got to figure this out.’ That’s how I got into it.”

Batteries Plus Bulbs
Scott Palmer, proud proprietor of Batteries Plus Bulbs in Commack. (Spencer Rumsey/Long Island Press)

Palmer can’t claim credit for being the original local franchise owner on Long Island.

“I’m not the first, but I am the only,” he said. In 2009 another man had opened a Batteries Plus in a stand-alone store on Rt. 110 in Huntington across from the Walt Whitman Mall, but by 2010 he was gone because, Palmer explained, he couldn’t generate enough sales to support his family and pay his landlord.

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So these days, Palmer operates Long Island’s sole Batteries Plus. The nearest one in New York is in Tarrytown, although the store in Paramus, N.J., is closer as the crow flies. Palmer’s outlet is in the middle of a Commack strip mall along the north side of Jericho Turnpike between Larkfield and Town Line roads. Palmer doesn’t get much foot traffic there but the rent is “too good” for him to consider relocating. He’s open seven days a week, and he’s got three employees.

“My competition is spread out among 12, 13 different stores, which makes me unique,” said Palmer, who lists Radio Shack, P.C. Richard & Sons, Best Buy, Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s and local hardware stores among his competitors.

“I compete with cell phone stores because I have cell phone batteries, and they pretty much don’t,” he said. “They want to get you in there so they can sell you a new phone.”

That kind of bait and switch drives Palmer nuts.

“If people need a battery for their car, they can go to Pep Boys and sit in their waiting room watching the Jerry Springer show for three and a half hours while someone puts a battery in their car and then tries to sell them on a transmission service,” said Palmer. “Or they can just come to me, and I’ll walk out into the parking lot and I’ll put the battery in, and 10 minutes later they’re gone.”

Now that may sound like an obvious solution but what happens when the battery in your key fob is about to wear out and soon you won’t be able to unlock your car?

“People start freaking out,” Palmer said. “They call the BMW dealer, or worse, they call their Audi dealer and the dealer goes, ‘Ninety-seven dollars and we’ll change the battery.’ I do it for seven-ninety-nine. The customers walk in, I fix it, and they leave. It takes all of seven minutes—if that.”

Palmer says he loves to be stumped by customers but so far the only problem he hasn’t been able to solve easily is brand recognition. The franchise requires him to spend 4 percent of his gross on promotion but the Long Island market is problematic, given Newsday’s expensive monopoly on advertising. His budget is limited and it’s hard to make an impact.

But things have been looking up. Once you google Batteries Plus Bulbs, it won’t leave your computer screen alone. Recently, its spots showed up during the ESPN broadcast of the New York Mets’ season opener in Kansas City against the Royals. Last year Forbes’ named it one of the best franchises to own in America, and that’s good publicity.

“Our business is all about making complex things simple,” said Russ Reynolds, CEO of Batteries Plus Bulbs in a press release last year. “As the retail industry evolves, so will our business so that we maintain our relevance in this competitive and constantly changing environment.”

Scott Palmer is glad he’s along for the ride.

“You go to Home Depot to look for a light bulb and you could stand there for 15 minutes looking through things,” said Palmer. “God forbid you ask somebody in an orange smock and they go, ‘Oh, I don’t work in this department.’ Nobody ever comes into this store without being taken care of.”

Batteries Plus Bulbs is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 6231 Jericho Turnpike in Commack; the store can be reached at 631-486-6697.

John Kasich Draws Thousands to Huntington to Hear Him Defend His Uphill Campaign

About 3,000 people braved the cold rain to pack the Paramount Theater in Huntington Monday evening to hear Ohio Gov. John Kasich say that he was determined to prevent Republican frontrunner Donald Trump from becoming the party’s presidential nominee.

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Hundreds more people were turned away after spending hours online—and on the road—to be see the longshot candidate who’s trailing in the polls behind Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). At one point the line had stretched around the block, police said.

“We’ve been here for an hour and a half,” said Gail Carey, 63, who’d come from Lindenhurst, and made it to the front door in the lobby before she was told that there was no more room inside. “There were like 200 people behind us.” She was still hoping for a chance to see her favorite GOP candidate.

“I think he’s amazing,” she told the Press. Asked if she would ever vote for Trump, she called that “a laughable question.”

Carey was grateful for another woman lingering by the front door, Waed Ramadan, a 22-year-old from Farmingville, who’d shared her umbrella as the two women had waited in line outside. Ramadan said that although she was a registered Democrat, she was still undecided.

“I just wanted to see what was up,” she said. “I like that he seems normal, in terms of the Republican Party.” In a November face-off between Trump and Hillary Clinton, she’d support the latter.

Owen Marsh, 18, had driven from Scarsdale to see Kasich and struck out.

“This is the first election I get to vote in, and this is the candidate I wanted to see,” he said. “He’s a very common-sense candidate. He has a proven record and more experience than anyone else running for president.”

Marsh said he liked Kasich because the Ohio governor wouldn’t continue the partisanship that has divided Congress.

“He’s definitely someone who can compromise and get his ideas done as well as work both sides of the aisle,” said Marsh, adding that he would not support Trump if the billionaire were to get the nomination.

So far, Kasich has only won the Buckeye State, where he calls the governor’s mansion home. He is far behind in the number of delegates he’ll need to head the top of the ticket at the GOP’s convention in Cleveland later this summer. In Huntington, he insisted that he has the best shot to defeat Hillary Clinton in November, assuming that the twice-elected former U.S. Senator from New York and former Secretary of State, holds back a strong challenge from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to clinch the Democratic nomination.

Before the tallies from the April 5 Wisconsin primary are counted, Trump has 736 delegates, Cruz follows with 463, and Kasich trails far behind with 143. The winning total is 1,237 and Trump, a native New Yorker, is more than halfway there. By all accounts, Kasich needs a strong showing at the April 19 primary in New York, but a recent Quinnipiac Poll had him at 19 percent, Cruz at 20 percent and Trump at 56 percent, with only 4 percent undecided.

Earlier in the day, Kasich had appeared at Hofstra University’s David S. Mack Student Center and visited Sagamore Hill, home of Theodore Roosevelt. At the town hall he told the audience he drew strength from TR’s example of “perseverance” in the face of opposition. He also recounted that when he was a teenager he’d wrangled a chance to ask President Richard Nixon a question at a public event, but he never got around to telling the Paramount crowd what he had said.

Timing was tight because Kasich was going live at 7 p.m. with Greta Van Susteren, host of Fox News’ On the Record. At 8 p.m. it would be Bill O’Reilly’s turn for his top-rated cable news program, The Factor. Then he’d yield the screen for Megyn Kelly, who was in Wisconsin for a one-on-one with Cruz, who’s leading in the Wisconsin polls and reportedly angry that Kasich won’t bow out of the race so he could have a better shot at taking down Trump, who was set to spend an hour with Sean Hannity starting at 10 p.m.

On stage at the Paramount, Kasich sat on a stool facing Van Susteren as New Yorkers looked on. He had a long career at Fox News, which Media Matters said helped him secure the Ohio governorship in 2009 after he’d left Congress in 2001. He’s the fourth Republican presidential hopeful, after former candidates Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, with ties to Fox News, which is headed by Roger Aisles, the longtime chairman who once worked for both the Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush administrations. Kasich was a frequent guest host for The O’Reilly Factor. According to Media Matters, Kasich was paid $265,000 in 2008 for his work at Fox.

To reporters covering the Kasich campaign on Long Island, the Ohio governor said Cruz was “a smear artist.” Cruz has claimed that he’s the only viable Republican alternative to Trump. On the other hand, Trump has said that Kasich is cutting into his support.

“I’m not dropping out,” Kasich said in Huntington, because “nobody is going to have enough delegates to go to the convention and win on the first ballot.”

He still has a very uphill road to climb, and he’s counting on New Yorkers to get him one step closer. On Monday, he may have lost 17-year-old Katie Reilly from Huntington, who said her birthday is in August so she would be able to vote in November.

“I’m really upset that I didn’t get to see John Kasich tonight,” Reilly told the Press. “I don’t even get to see him after waiting an hour and a half in my home town! He should have done another show so he could have gotten more votes, because he really needs them.”

Nobody, not even the Ohio governor, would dispute that.

(Photo credit: The Paramount/Facebook)

Oyster Bay Brewery Brings New Nightlife to a Sleepy Downtown

Oyster Bay Brewing Company


he hamlet of Oyster Bay used to be a place where the sidewalks seemed to roll up at night. The rap was that it was the kind of downtown where cool things go to die—if they ever came alive in the first place.

But you can kiss that reputation goodbye because when the Oyster Bay Brewing Company opened the doors to its giant new digs over a month ago, there was something new in the air—and it wasn’t just the aroma of fresh hops. Now the village is literally hopping at night, and the weekends have never been the same.

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“The craft beer business is so hot that breweries are a destination in themselves,” Gabe Haim, one of the co-owners, told the Press. “So we are bringing in people who don’t normally come to Oyster Bay.”

These days they can’t keep the crowds away at the brewery, and Haim, 33, and his partner Ryan Schlotter, 34, like it that way. They opened the original brewery in 2012 but it was a tight squeeze.

In February, the company moved around the corner to a new home on Audrey Avenue that is five times the size of its cramped quarters on South Street. Instead of cramming a tasting area and brewery equipment into 1,400 square feet, the company now has 6,000 square feet to play with. The old bar was maybe eight-feet long but the new one runs 30 feet, with 24 tap lines. Instead of brewing batches of 100 gallons—the limit at their old venue—they can now make beer in thousand-gallon batches. For those keeping track, a barrel has 31 gallons. The plan this year is to make more than 2,000 barrels. When the brewery began, the most they made annually was about 500 barrels. More variety is also on tap.

“We have some new lagers that are coming out. We have some specialty beers, some double IPAs,” said Haim. “At this point, we’ve got plenty of space so the sky’s the limit.”

He and his partner, who hold down day jobs at Rallye BMW in Westbury, are very happy to see Oyster Bay’s downtown spring to life. They do their brewery work at night and on the weekends. The brew masters start practicing their craft in the morning, although the tasting room doesn’t open until 1 p.m. It closes at 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursday, but stays open an hour later on Fridays and Saturdays, while shutting down at 8 p.m. on Sundays.

“We never had this type of crowd before,” added Katie Mattner, the tasting room manager and events planner. “Now we’re getting local people who come here to hang out. People have walked in and said, ‘Whoah! Is there a party here tonight?’”

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In the past, Mattner said, “People would come in for a tasting and maybe a couple of pints and then leave. Nobody would stay more than an hour or so. But now people are here all night! So many customers have been coming to us and saying, ‘Thank God, you opened because this town really needed something.’”

By all accounts, many more people are indeed coming to Oyster Bay. They’re shopping, touring Teddy Roosevelt’s recently restored Sagamore Hill homestead nearby, and then visiting the tasting room, grabbing lunch or dinner at the restaurant next door or bringing in pizza from down the block. The brewery doesn’t offer food itself but it certainly encourages customers to BYOF, so to speak.

“For a town that I would say has been relatively sleepy for the last however many years, there’s three new restaurants opening in town,” said Haim. “I think we’ve given people some confidence in the ability of a business to survive, and part of it is with the people we bring into town.”

“The craft beer business is so hot that breweries are a destination in themselves”

Just a few doors from the brewery is the address of Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, who has nothing but praise for his new neighbor.

“The newly opened location of the Oyster Bay Brewing Company is a perfect example of the entrepreneurial spirit that has kept, and will continue to keep, businesses flourishing in the Town of Oyster Bay,” said Venditto in a statement. “Since 2012, the company has become renowned for their dedication to producing the highest quality product around, while remaining true to their Gold Coast roots and staying thoroughly New York at heart. It has been a valuable addition to the Town of Oyster Bay.”

So far, the supervisor has reportedly not been seen in the new tasting room but they have a stool ready for him, just in case. On the other hand a few members of the Islanders hockey team have shown up. Haim and Schlotter are “huge” Islanders fans, and named their ale, Barn Rocker, after the Nassau Coliseum, because “rock the barn” used to be the rallying cry there. These days you can get this ale at Barclays Center in Brooklyn—and at Citi Field, too.

Having an expanded base in Oyster Bay makes it all possible.

“It’s great for us and it’s great for everybody around us, including residents and not just businesses,” said Haim. “It’s great to live in a town where your downtown is bustling.”

President Obama Picks ‘Centrist’ Judge To Fill Vacant Supreme Court Seat

Obama Merrick Garland
President Barack Obama announced his nomination of federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat left vacant when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died at a Texas resort in February.

On a sunny day in the Rose Garden Wednesday, President Barack Obama exercised his Constitutional duty, telling those assembled at the White House he’d nominated federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat left vacant when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died at a Texas resort in February.

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The 63-year-old fellow Chicagoan—as both he and the president pointed out—is currently the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which Obama said is often regarded as “The Second-Highest Court In The Land.” Legal observers have called Garland a “centrist” and a “moderate” jurist.

“I’ve selected a nominee who is widely recognized not only as one of America’s sharpest legal minds but someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness and excellence,” said President Obama, noting that Garland has “earned the respect and admiration of leaders from both sides of the aisle,” and just as tellingly, that “he is uniquely prepared to serve immediately.”

Obama noted that the Senate is about to take a two-week recess for the Easter break, but he will go to Capitol Hill on Thursday to ask Republicans there to give Garland a fair hearing and then schedule an up or down vote—something that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have so far refused to do.

“When they return, I hope that they’ll act in a bipartisan fashion,” said Obama. “I hope they’re fair. That’s all. I hope they are fair.”

When it was Judge Garland’s turn to speak at the podium, he was visibly moved by the occasion.

“This is the greatest honor of my life, other than Lynn agreeing to marry me 28 years ago!” Garland began, pausing to hold back his emotions as he was flanked by a beaming Vice President Joe Biden and a more somber President Obama. “It’s also the greatest gift I’ve received except—and there’s another caveat—the birth of our daughters, Jessie and Becky.” He mentioned that his oldest daughter was hiking in the mountains and out of cell service range when the president called about the nomination, provoking some light laughter rippling through the audience.

“To me there could be no higher public service than serving as a member of the United States Supreme Court,” said Garland. He credited his family for getting him to this point, citing his father “who ran the smallest of small businesses from a room in his basement,” always impressing upon him “the importance of hard work and fair dealing,” and his mother, who instilled in him and his siblings “the understanding that service to the community is a responsibility above all others.”

“I know my mother is watching this on television and crying her eyes out, so are my sisters, who have supported me in every step I have ever taken,” he continued, almost doing the same. “I only wish my father were here to see this today.”

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During Garland’s confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Obama pointed out, “he earned overwhelming bipartisan praise from Senators and legal experts alike. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, supported his nomination. Back then, he said, ‘In all honesty, I would like to see one person come to this floor and say one reason why Merrick Garland does not deserve this position.’ He actually accused fellow Senate Republicans trying to obstruct Merrick’s confirmation of ‘playing politics with judges.’ And he has since said that Judge Garland would be a consensus nominee for the Supreme Court, who would be very well supported by all sides and there would be no question Merrick would be confirmed with bipartisan support.”

The president noted that in 1995 a majority of Democrats and Republicans had voted to confirm Garland to appeals court, where he has now served more than 18 years. The tally was 76-23, and it’s been reported that Grassley was on the nay side.

In a brief biographical summary, Obama recounted that Garland, who was born and raised in Chicago, had gone to Harvard, graduating summa cum laude, and then onto Harvard Law School, where Garland paid his way “by working as a tutor, by stocking shoes in a shoe store, and, in what is always a painful moment for any young man, by selling his comic book collection.”

Standing beside the president, Judge Garland nodded and put his hand to his chest, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Been there!” added the president, as he continued recounting Garland’s record.

After law school, Garland clerked for two of President Eisenhower’s judicial appointees, including Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. Then Garland joined a law firm and earned a partnership within four years.

In 1989, the president said at the Rose Garden, Merrick “made a highly unusual career decision. He walked away from a comfortable and lucrative law practice to return to public service. Merrick accepted a low-level job as a federal prosecutor in President George H. W. Bush’s administration. Took a 50 percent pay cut. Traded in his elegant partner’s office for a windowless closet that smelled of stale cigarette smoke.”

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Garland’s sterling record as a federal prosecutor, where “he quickly made a name for himself going after corrupt politicians and violent criminals,” explained Obama, took him to the Justice Department, where he oversaw “every aspect of the federal response to the Oklahoma City bombing in the aftermath of that act of terror.” The 1995 attack on the Aflred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people, including many children who were in a daycare facility there.

“He led the investigation and supervised the prosecution that brought Timothy McVeigh to justice,” said Obama, praising Garland for “the pains he took to do everything by the book,” because Garland didn’t want to take any chances that “someone who murdered innocent Americans might go free on a technicality.”

Recounting his experience handling the bombing investigation, Garland told the Rose Garden audience, “I saw up close the devastation that can happen when someone abandons the justice system as a way of resolving grievances and instead takes matters into his own hands.”

Reaffirming the American people’s faith in the justice system seemed to be the unofficial theme of the day.

“Of the many powers and responsibilities that the Constitution invests in the presidency, few are more consequential than appointing a Supreme Court justice—particularly one to succeed Justice Scalia, one of the most influential jurists of our time,” said Obama, who added that the members of the Supreme Court are “the final arbiters of American law. They safeguard our rights; they ensure that our system is one of laws and not men.”

Obama said that the decision whom to nominate to the Court required him to set aside “short-term expediency and narrow politics,” and he urged the Senate Republicans to do the same.

“I know it is tempting to make this nomination simply an extension of our divided politics, the squabbling that’s going on in the news every day,” the president said. “But to go down that path would be wrong. It would be a betrayal of our best traditions and a betrayal of the vision of our founding documents.”

The immediate reaction to the nomination seemed to fall along party lines.

“If Merrick Garland can’t get bipartisan support, no one can,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, New York’s senior Democrat, in a statement. “He is a thoughtful jurist with impeccable credentials who has already garnered overwhelming bipartisan support for a job that requires nearly the exact same criteria as a Supreme Court justice. He gets the impact of the Court’s decisions on hardworking Americans in the real world. We hope the saner heads in the Republican Party will prevail on Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell to do their job and hold hearings so America can make its own judgment as to whether Merrick Garland belongs on the court.”

“President Obama has done the right thing by taking the first step toward filling the vacancy on the bench and nominating someone he believes is extremely qualified for the job,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the state’s junior Democrat, in a statement. “Now it is time for the Senate to do its job, hold hearings, assess his qualifications and vote on his nomination in a timely manner. The cases before the Supreme Court are too important to go months without a justice and we owe it to the American people to hold hearings and vote on the nomination.”

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But Wendy Long, the nominee of the Republican, Conservative and Reform parties to challenge Sen. Schumer in the November election, insisted that the Senate should not act on the president’s nomination.

“Judge Merrick Garland seems like a good man,” said Long in a statement. “That does not mean he should be elevated to the Supreme Court, especially for the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia, when Americans’ rights such as the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment and the expansive use of executive power to alter immigration and other laws is at stake, and especially in the midst of a contentious presidential and Senate election.

“There is no way that Obama and Chuck Schumer would allow anyone to ascend to the Supreme Court whom they were not confident would be a vote for their liberal activist agenda that has already done so much damage to our country and our Constitution,” Long continued. “It is much more decent to Judge Garland not to put him through the wringer of a confirmation process that is ultimately going nowhere.”

But New York’s top prosecutor, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat, vehemently disagreed.

“Failure to fill the vacancy would undermine the rule of law and ultimately impair the functioning of state governments within our federal system,” said Schneiderman in a statement praising the president for picking Garland. “The Senate should move forward, do its job, and hold a hearing and a vote without unnecessary delay.”

“A delay in filling the ninth seat on the nation’s highest court will impact the Court’s ability to resolve disputes when the justices are split four-four,” said David P. Miranda, president of the New York State Bar Association, which has 74,000 members, making it the largest bar association in the country.

“The late Justice Antonin Scalia made that point in declining to recuse himself in Cheney v. US. District Court for the District of Columbia,” said Miranda in a statement about the Garland nomination. “[Scalia] explained what would have happened if he recused himself while sitting on the Court of Appeals: ‘There, my place would be taken by another judge, and the case would proceed normally,’ Scalia noted. ‘On the Supreme Court, however, the consequence is different: The Court proceeds with eight Justices, raising the possibility that, by reason of a tie vote, it will find itself unable to resolve the significant legal issue presented by the case.’

“Scalia was writing about how a single case might be affected by a temporary vacancy,” explained Miranda. “The argument to fill the vacancy created by his death is even more compelling, because it impacts an entire term of cases, not just one case. Justice Scalia’s words live on after his passing. The process should move forward expeditiously.”

“This is precisely the time when we should play it straight and treat the process of appointing a Supreme Court justice with the seriousness and care it deserves because our Supreme Court really is unique,” said President Obama at the Rose Garden announcement. “It’s supposed to be above politics. It has to be—and it should stay that way.”

Then he paused.

“To suggest that someone as qualified and respected as Merrick Garland doesn’t even deserve a hearing, let alone an up or down vote, to join an institution as important as our Supreme Court, when two-thirds of Americans believe otherwise? That would be unprecedented,” Obama said. “To suggest that someone who has served his country with honor and dignity, with a distinguished track record of delivering justice for the American people, might be treated as one Republican leader stated, as a political piñata? That can’t be right!”

Whether the Senate will take up the nomination remains to be seen. The president said he hopes that Judge Garland can take his seat on the Court by the fall.

For The Whitmore Group’s James Metzger, It All Started With A Brooks Brothers Suit

James Metzger The Whitmore Group
James Metzger, chairman and CEO of Garden City-based The Whitmore Group, Ltd.

Two years after he’d graduated from Hofstra University as a history major in 1983, All-American athlete James Metzger—the future chairman, CEO and founder of The Whitmore Group, Ltd., in Garden City—was still tending bar in Bethpage when his determination to dress for success finally paid off. His friends had thought he was nuts when he spent the money he’d saved from serving drinks to buy thousand-dollar Brooks Brothers suits, but the last laugh was on them.

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That Metzger would later launch one of Long Island’s leading insurance brokerage firms was the farthest thought from his mind the day he stood on line at Brooks Brothers. He had already landed a sales job in the insurance industry but was making more money tending bar one night a week, so he was reluctant to give it up. In that same line of customers he saw one of his largest potential clients, whom he’d already pitched, and here they had something in common.

“We were both buying the same tuxedo,” Metzger recalls, with a laugh.

Within two weeks, he’d landed the account.

But it was what happened next that ultimately changed his life. It was a typical, busy Friday night, and Metzger was working behind the bar, when he spotted the same client come walking in. Thinking fast to create a favorable impression, Metzger vaulted over the side to greet him.

“Jim,” said the surprised client. “What are you doing here?”

Metzger explained that he was part owner of the bar and checking out some inventory. Still improvising to keep the ruse going, Metzger quietly asked the other bartender if he wanted to work alone that night; he readily agreed, since he’d clear $500.

From a payphone near the bar, Metzger then called his boss and said he had to see him tomorrow. For the finishing touch, he bought his new insurance client a drink, still posing as a part-owner of the establishment. When he met his boss the next day, Metzger told him why he had to quit:

“I said, ‘I’m making a lot more money tending bar, but I got a job in the insurance business, and one of my largest clients came in.’ That was the last night I ever tended bar.”

He says he’s still friends with his former boss, he still buys suits off the rack at Brooks Brothers—and he claims he’s still the same size, 42 Regular.

“I was fortunate that I found a profession for which I was well-suited, literally and figuratively,” he tells the Press.

When Metzger launched The Whitmore Group in Roslyn Heights in 1989, he had three employees. Now his office is in Garden City, employing almost 90 employees, handling $140 million in premiums annually, and insuring $3 billion worth of fine art in private collections, to highlight a few noteworthy benchmarks.

“My business is 30 times the size it was when I started,” Metzger says, adding that his company is now licensed in 48 states. When he began, the funeral industry was 95 percent of his firm’s commercial property and casualty insurance offerings, but today it’s about 15 percent.

“We have a very large niche in personal insurance, health insurance, life insurance and estate planning,” he explains.

The Whitmore Group has also expanded into real estate, construction, and the hospitality industry. Metzger chose the name for his company when he stopped one day at a pharmacy in Westchester during a business trip upstate, and happened to pick up a list of the 400 richest men in America.

“I liked three names: Cambridge, Hamilton, and a guy named Jerome Whitemore III,” he recalls.

The first two were already taken by corporations, so he selected the third and changed the spelling to Whitmore. He added “Ltd.” to the company, he says, “so it sounded British!”

To anyone who asked about its origins, Metzger would explain that Whitmore was “the name of a gentleman on the board of a Fortune 500 company who was from Liverpool, England, and that he was my financial backer!” Metzger laughs. “That’s the story I tell people.”

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Metzger grew up in Melville and first made his mark in sports as a star athlete at Half Hollow Hills High School in Dix Hills, where he was the school’s all-time leading scorer and rusher as a running back on the varsity football team. He also started for the varsity basketball team when they were in the county playoffs. In 1977, the year he graduated high school, he won the Lt. Ray Enners Award as Suffolk County’s outstanding lacrosse player. In further recognition of his prowess, he was the only high school athlete picked to play in both the North-South All-Star Football game and the North-South All-Star Lacrosse game. As a sophomore at Hofstra University, Metzger was named to the 1980 Division 1 All-American lacrosse team.

He claims that he weighs today what he weighed when he played lacrosse at Hofstra.

“I think if I put my uniform on today I would look the same, but I wouldn’t have the same results!” he says, admitting that he’s cut back on working out and is focused more on maintaining a healthy diet, although he insists his knees are still “perfect.”

As for the business outlook on Long Island, he’s bullish.

“We’re in challenging times, but there are a lot of opportunities on Long Island,” says Metzger. “But you better be up for the game, because it’s ultra-competitive. You’re in the major leagues here.”

Metzger says that The Whitmore Group is one of the last privately held firms of its size, and for now, he’d like to keep it that way.

“One of the keys to the relative success I’ve had is that I hire people smarter than me…who have expertise in areas in which I don’t,” he says. “I rely on them and I get out of their way. I respect them and I appreciate them, and I’m willing to suffer the consequences if I’ve misjudged them. I trust my instincts, and my instincts have been good to me.”

Metzger says he’s made many mistakes in his career, but he’s benefitted from them, too.

“You learn more from your mistakes and your losses than from your victories,” he says. “I truly believe that!”

And James Metzger has the winning record to prove it.

Long Island Municipalities That Get It Right: What Do They Know That Others Don’t?

Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman

Across the Island some municipalities are clearly ahead of the pack. These communities possess the good fortune to have visionary leaders, courageous council members and the right combination of assets, infrastructure and drive to make a difference in people’s lives.

When you look for local role models, a few stellar examples quickly come to mind: Jack Schnirman, Long Beach city manager; Paul Pontieri, mayor of Patchogue; Francis X. Murray, mayor of Rockville Centre; and state Sen. Jack Martins, the former mayor of Mineola. They didn’t all face the same problems, but these guys knew how to get it right.

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For Long Beach, Jack Schnirman faced a daunting challenge. As city manager, he wasn’t an elected leader but he was responsible for getting all the parties on board so he could right the city’s precarious finances. He inherited a $14.7 million deficit and he turned it around so now the city has a $7 million fund balance. Long Beach just got its eighth consecutive positive credit action from Moody’s. Not only did they upgrade the city’s bond rating, they gave the city a positive outlook going forward.

By comparison, Nassau County is under the control of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) because of its chronic failure to balance the books. The Town of Hempstead’s credit rating has been downgraded many times, and Moody’s just withdrew its rating for the Town of Oyster Bay due to irregular filings—town officials say a computer broke down—and Standard & Poor’s is contemplating doing the same. In the town’s defense, a withdrawal is not the same as a downgrade, but it’s not an encouraging sign. Both ratings agencies have given the Town of Oyster Bay until the end of March to get its financial filings in order before they issue their ratings.

“We are proud to be one of the municipalities moving in the right direction,” said Schnirman.

On his watch, Long Beach declared a fiscal crisis, working with the city’s employees to achieve some contract concessions and downsize the workforce. Then came Superstorm Sandy. Still, by all accounts, Long Beach has managed to rebound—and been rewarded by consecutive good bond ratings. Schnirman praises the city council for “fiercely advocating for the resources to rebuild our city the right way with stronger infrastructure to protect ourselves from future storms.”

To Schnirman’s credit, he navigated the city through the aftermath while staying within Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tax cap of either a 2-percent limit or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. In Long Beach, the allowable tax increase is .47 percent because inflation is so low.

“The challenge is that it caps revenue but it doesn’t cap expenses,” he explained. “Many of the fixed costs go up every year far greater than the size of the cap, so it necessitates constantly making cuts and difficult choices and being creative in order to live within it.”

But Schnirman has been able to make it work.

Handout: Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman
Handout: Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman

“Jack has brought exceptional professionalism to the management of the city’s finances, and the repair and development of its infrastructure,” said Lawrence C. Levy, executive dean at Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “He was one of the heroes of Sandy.”

Looking around the Island, Levy singles out Rockville Centre Mayor Francis X. Murray for what he’s done for his community.

“Fran Murray is one of those mayors who has come to realize that the future of the village lies in making even better use of a strong downtown,” explained Levy. “He has understood that a lot of people want to move to Rockville Centre, but not everybody wants to live in a traditional, single-family house. They want rental apartments. They want to be able to walk to restaurants, to the movie theater.”

Murray’s solution was to go vertical to solve the parking problem as well as add more apartments. Critics said Murray’s plan calling for more density was untenable, making the dire prediction that “Queensification” was about to transform their village, but it did not come to pass, as Levy observed.

“Rockville Centre could be a model for downtown development rocketing a whole village!” said Levy. And he should know, because he now calls the village home.

State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) first made waves in municipal circles when he helped transform Mineola as mayor by focusing on its downtown.

“He used to have political leaders and other supporters whispering in his ear that if he goes ahead with his proposed high rises [downtown], his promising career would come to an end,” Levy said. “He just didn’t listen. He decided this was best for the village. People would see it and the payoff would be huge.”

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They did and it was. Martins won his mayoral re-election by “an enormous margin,” Levy observed, then he won his state Senate race by defeating an incumbent Democrat and now he’s running for Congress to fill the empty seat vacated by Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills). In some sense, things started looking up for Martins when he embraced high rises.

Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri faced a different problem.

“I think Paul Pontieri had the hardest row to hoe,” said Levy. “He started with a village that was deeply down on its heels and almost hopeless.”

Among his initiatives in Patchogue, Pontieri brought in a cultural arts center, encouraged developers to offer relatively affordable residential options, and created a vibrant, younger feel to the downtown.

Patchogue Village Mayor Paul Pontieri
Handout: Patchogue Village Mayor Paul Pontieri

“But he had to go to war with the political and business and civic establishment,” Levy said. “He was willing to put his career and his mayoralty on the line, and he has been validated and vindicated over and over again. People often refer to him as the poster child for the new suburbia of Long Island.”

Pontieri himself puts it more humbly.

“I lived in Patchogue my whole life so I knew we had the bones and the strength to get something done,” he said. “What I saw were blighted properties that could be turned into opportunities.”

He got upgrades for the village’s sewage treatment plant to accommodate higher density. Or, as Levy put it, “He not only saw above ground—he saw below ground!”

Pontieri knew he had to revitalize the village’s downtown. “Nothing comes into a town that is empty. You need to put feet on the street,” he said. And there was another stark reality, which may sound ironic today. “We had a parking problem—there were empty spaces.” In fact, about 2,000 of them, he said.

But a decade ago in came Copper Beech Village, developed by Pulti Homes of New York, on a 5-acre site with 80 units of affordable housing—16 per acre. Suffolk County chipped in $3.3 million to help Patchogue acquire the land from the previous homeowners. Then other high-density developments started sprouting up.

“Once Pulti invested the first $5 million, it said that we’re worth investing in,” said Pontieri. “We cleaned up five acres of blighted property and put in 80 families with an average age of 38 years old.”

Young families are vital to the future, Pontieri says.

“The communities that fight this, they’re going to be the ones without the Little Leagues, because young families won’t have a place to start or invest in,” the mayor said, pointing out that his vision comes with some self-interest as well. “Someday I’m going to want to sell my house, and I’m hoping that one of these kids who’s invested in this village will look at my home and want to buy it!”

Villagers started to get with the program he laid out once they could see the caliber of the development, the attention to design and details.

“Let the developers make the money they need to make and they’ll stay with the project and give you quality,” Pontieri said. “Squeeze them too much and you end up with what you deserve.”

Can other villages do what Pontieri did with Patchogue?

“They can duplicate it,” the mayor insisted. “Don’t just listen to the gray-haired guys in the audience saying, ‘No!’ Understand that there’s a majority of the population out there that’s looking for change.”

What these leaders have in common, Levy said, is “They’ve dared to be different.”

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hofstra transfer day today