LI Races Could Change Balance of Power in Albany, Washington

Capitol Control

For a couple of hours last Sunday afternoon, the First Baptist Church of Riverhead became the epicenter of one of the most hotly contested Congressional races in the country as Rep. Tim Bishop, the embattled Democratic incumbent, confronted his well-financed Republican challenger, millionaire entrepreneur Randy Altschuler, in the first official debate of this closely watched campaign that could determine which party controls the House of Representatives next year.

Less than 20 miles away, the fate of the New York State Senate could be up for grabs in Islip as Assemb. Phil Boyle (R-Brightwaters) and Legis. Rick Montano (D-Central Islip) battle to replace Sen. Owen Johnson, who’s retiring after 40 years of public service. These two men have appeared together at social functions along with their wives, but their friendship is going to be sorely tested in the weeks remaining before Nov. 6, because the stakes are high. Right now, Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) leads the majority in the State Senate by a slim 33-29 vote margin. Democrats think they can shake him loose if they pick up this open seat.

Ramping up the friction this election cycle is the presidential race, of course.

Though the last Republican to get New York’s electoral votes was Ronald Reagan, no political pundit can predict how well President Barack Obama will do this time around in the Empire State. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 154,000 to 129,000 in the First Congressional District, which includes most of Suffolk County, but in the small Fourth Senate District on the South Shore registered Democrats have a 2,000-vote margin over Republicans, 62,000 to 60,000. Turnout for the top of the ticket will be key to the downballot races. Which party wins those contests could change the balance of power in both Washington, D.C., and Albany. The impact could be significant.

“They are sort of bellwether races in that sense,” says E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and its Albany-based Empire Center for New York State Policy. “If you have a situation where a Democrat carries the Johnson seat, then I think you do have huge repercussions because it probably means they’re also carrying other seats they’re not expected to carry… The Altschuler race is highly contentious and that’s seen as a national microcosm.”

With that in mind, Speaker of the House John Boehner is coming Oct. 10 to a private fundraiser in St. James, where Altschuler lives, because the National Republican Congressional Committee has designated him one of their Young Guns, with whom they hope to build a permanent majority on Capitol Hill. Earlier this month, Republican mastermind Karl Rove’s Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a super PAC (political action committee), spent $260,000 on a TV ad blasting Bishop as being unethical for receiving a campaign contribution from a constituent he’d helped get a fireworks permit for his son’s bar mitzvah. Another super PAC, Prosperity First, backed by Suffolk hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, recently shelled out $312,000 for direct mail on Altschuler’s behalf.

bishop altschuler
Rep. Tim Bishop, the incumbent Democrat from the East End (LEFT), is locked in a tight race with Randy Altschuler (RIGHT). their first debate took place at the First Baptist Church in Riverhead, where the tone was civil compared to the rancor of their tv ads. (Dan O’Regan/Long Island Press)

The Democrats desperately need to hold onto Bishop’s vulnerable seat—he defeated Altschuler in 2010 by only 593 votes—and regain 25 more before they can replace Boehner as Speaker. The House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, is forking out $260,000 on a new TV ad attacking Altschuler as an “outsourcer” because his former company OfficeTiger supplied U.S. corporations with back-office workers overseas. It’s a charge that the Republican entrepreneur vehemently disputes, although the description on his LinkedIn page did say OfficeTiger was in the “outsourcing/offshoring industry” and the Wall Street Journal has reported it was based in the Netherlands.

The GOP countered by attacking Bishop’s integrity, referring to an August story in Politico in which Bishop said that he’d agreed in May to help his constituent in Southampton get the fireworks permit, and that afterwards Bishop’s daughter, whom he’d hired to raise funds for his campaign, sought a contribution. Then the watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), spotted the piece, saw that he’d hired his daughter, and added the East End Democrat to their list of “Most Corrupt Congressmen,” giving the Altschuler campaign a golden opportunity to attack him with an ad saying: “Tim Bishop. Everything that’s wrong with Washington,” and calling for an ethics investigation.

On that point, CREW’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, concurs.

“I think there should be an investigation,” she tells the Press. “He admitted in print to something that’s a crime… He said to Politico that he gets money when people thank him for his work.”

She said the Congressman “wasn’t on our radar screen until he gave the interview. So Bishop only has Bishop to blame. It wasn’t very smart to hire your daughter in the first place….I can’t help it if politicians are dumb and say stupid things.”

As for Altschuler’s campaign striking pay dirt with CREW’s compilation, Sloan said her committee is non-partisan.

“He hasn’t had anything to sell,” she observes, “so he can’t use his position to benefit contributors.”

So far, at least. One of Altschuler’s proposals on his “10-point plan” to improve the economy might raise eyebrows in the future since he says he’d turn his congressional office into a vehicle “for business expansion” staffed with an “economic development coordinator” and a “capital coordinator,” along with a promise that he’d meet personally with potential business owners in and outside of Long Island to promote Suffolk. In the meantime, his new CloudBlue company, which has won praise from the Government Service Administration for its innovative electronics recycling program, remains based in Norcross, Ga.

Still, the ethics charge against Bishop is incendiary enough to force the Congressman to cut his own TV ad in which he tells the camera directly that “now, my opponent Randy Altschuler says I’m a criminal… You know me.

And you know for Randy Altschuler to say that is just despicable.” It’s a risky step because it involves rehashing the charge against him.

In his defense, Bishop’s campaign spokesman Robert Pierce told The Hill: “We responded to the outrageous, over-the-top attack ad put on the air by Randy Altschuler because people know Rep. Bishop, they know that he has conducted his entire adult life with integrity, and they know that outsourcer Randy Altschuler will stoop to any low to try to give his extreme Tea Party views another voice in Congress.”

Heated words to be sure. But they were nowhere to be heard at last Sunday’s debate in Riverhead.