Long Island Will Be A Hotbed of Politics in 2014 – The Players, The Seats, The Stakes

Kathleen Rice

Kathleen Rice

Partisan politics will put Long Island voters in the crosshairs in 2014 because one of the hottest Congressional races in America is right in our own backyard while a serious suburban threat to the Republicans’ long-held power in New York is also gathering steam.

Once again, big money will come pouring in from outside interests. It won’t put anybody back to work, necessarily, but at least it will keep the Island boiling come election time, which promises to be anything but boring.

Republicans and their conservative super-PACS, whether run by Karl Rove or somebody of his ilk, have promised to spend millions of dollars to defeat the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who’s been representing New York’s 1st Congressional District since 2003. They reportedly coughed up $4 million two years ago and lost. By the time that race was over, $10 million may have been spent by both sides. This fall’s contest might cost even more, some observers predict.

The GOP believes Bishop is more vulnerable this time thanks to Obamacare. Their most likely contender, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), has been hammering that message home repeatedly in his fundraising. But Zeldin still has to fend off a well-financed challenge from George Demos, a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission prosecutor who ran for Congress in the 2010 Republican primary before losing out to wealthy entrepreneur Randy Altschuler.

The headaches with the Affordable Care Act certainly are widely known now but local voters might be sick of hearing about them by November. House Republicans have already voted 47 times in vain to repeal Obamacare, but it’s apparently the only issue they really want to run on, even if they can do nothing but complain about it.

Rice Rolls the Dice

Thanks to the recently announced retirement of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the race in New York’s 4th Congressional District is suddenly wide-open this fall, but it may not be as heated as Bishop’s contest out east if the popular Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice is the Democratic candidate to replace her. McCarthy has been waging a long-running fight against the National Rifle Association over gun control, and on that issue Rice has pledged to follow in her footsteps.

“I’ve spent my career combating gun violence and advocating for families and communities in need,” Rice said in a statement to the Press. “I’m running because we need more independent problem solvers in Congress who share these values and who care about people, not partisan politics.”

Her spokesman, Eric Phillips, said that Rice is “someone who can work well with Democrats and Republicans.”

Of all the Democrats running in Nassau last fall, Rice was the only one to win countywide. She trounced her Republican opponent by 18 points. But her relations with her Democratic Party chairman, Jay Jacobs, have soured recently over her refusal to bring criminal charges against former Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale for ordering the politically motivated arrest of a Roosevelt man who had testified against a long-shot county executive candidate.

“We used to be very good and close friends,” Jacobs tells the Press, adding that “she should win. She stands an excellent chance.” Since Rice beat the longtime Republican incumbent, Denis Dillon, in 2005, Jacobs observed, “she has not had a competitive race.”

At this point, Rice is not the official nominee for her party—Nassau County Legislature Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams has also expressed an interest in the Congressional seat—but the Republicans haven’t made their pick, either. Topping their list was Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, who was being wooed by Nassau Republicans to enter the race but waited until early Friday evening before the Super Bowl to say she would not rise to the occasion and run for Congress.

So now the spotlight shifts to two Republican men reportedly interested in running but whom McCarthy had soundly beaten: Legis. Fran Becker Jr. of Lynbrook and attorney Frank Scaturro of New Hyde Park. In 2012, her victory margin was 30 points. Considering that Gov. Andrew Cuomo won the district with 63 percent of the vote in 2010 and that he’ll be on the ballot this fall, the Republican candidate, no matter who he or she is, looks to be facing an uphill climb despite the home-court advantage of the vaunted Nassau Republican Machine.

It’s a different dynamic in Suffolk’s East End, where Bishop has more of a balancing act appeasing his constituents—and his party.

Suffolk’s Rep. Tim Bishop hopes to hold onto his seat.
Suffolk’s Rep. Tim Bishop hopes to hold onto his seat.

Bishop to Crown

Interestingly, Bishop and three other New Yorkers in swing districts were among the 39 House Democrats who crossed party lines late last year to vote for a Republican bill allowing health insurers to resume selling low-cost policies that have been cancelled because they didn’t provide all the coverage required under the new law. That initiative grew out of President Obama’s misguided promise that “You can keep your health insurance policy if you like it.” As the conservative attack ads describe it: “They lied to you!”

Perhaps Bishop voted with the Republicans to inoculate himself from the negative campaign virus to come, but he explained it differently:

“This was not a vote against the health reform law,” Bishop told the Press in an email, “but a vote to ensure the intent of Congress when we passed it with a grandfather clause for existing plans. I, along with the President of the United States, said that people could keep their plan if they liked it, and for some people, that turned out not to be true. I voted for the bill because I stand by my statements, and this bill was a way to assist those that were losing their plans.”

Nationally, Democrats hope they can change the subject and use the economy against their opponents, by drumming up support to raise the minimum wage, extend long-term unemployment insurance (this affects at least 10,000 Long Islanders) as well as enact immigration reform (and there are countless undocumented workers in the 1st District and elsewhere on the Island).

Strange Bedfellows

Another factor to give the GOP pause this time around is that bipartisanship seems to be Cuomo’s singular achievement in Albany, if you can believe the most powerful elected Republican in New York, state Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

And Skelos clearly has his hands full trying to keep state Senate Republicans in power—especially since Zeldin is giving up his seat to run against Bishop and recently state Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) retired to take a job running a nonprofit. In 2012, President Obama carried both state Senate districts by more than 55 percent of the vote. Skelos is relying on a shaky coalition of Republicans and four members of the Independent Democratic Conference for support.

“He is the co-majority leader now only because he has some dissident Democrats [voting with him],” says Jacobs. “He does not have the senate majority!”

Right now, Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) looks poised to run for Fuschillo’s vacated seat in the 8th Senate District. Jacobs says that Denenberg “is the most popular Democrat in that area” and that he has bipartisan appeal.

But Skelos remains confident, his spokesman Scott Rief says, that his Long Island colleagues will all be Republicans, no matter whose names are on the November ballot, given that the last time Democrats ruled the Senate, they let New York City politicians shift school aid from the suburbs, impose an unpopular MTA commuter tax and take away the STAR rebate checks.

Jacobs concedes that the race to fill Zeldin’s state Senate seat will be “competitive.” His counterpart in Suffolk County, Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer, hasn’t picked a candidate but the two leading contenders are Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri and Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. On the Republican side, Brookhaven Councilman Tim Mazzei, former Assemblyman Dean Murray, Islip Town Board Member Anthony Senft and Islip Supervisor Tom Croci are being considered. A decision should be made by February’s end, according to Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven Republican chairman.

By all accounts, Zeldin will make this Congressional race more competitive than he did in 2008 when Bishop trounced him by 16 percentage points (58 percent to 42 percent). In 2010, Zeldin parlayed suburban anger over the MTA payroll tax to oust the Democratic state senator, Brookhaven’s popular former supervisor Brian Foley, and Zeldin has been staking out local positions on rolling back the Common Core Curriculum as well as repeating his opposition to the payroll tax that seem to resonate with his constituents.

But there’s something about the East End district that attracts do-overs.

The 2012 race was a repeat between Bishop and millionaire entrepreneur Randy Altschuler, who had fallen 600 votes short in 2010. But two years later Altschuler lost more ground, losing by almost five percentage points, 52.4 to 47.5.

This time around, Zeldin has the blessing of the local party officials. But George Demos is not to be denied. He reportedly has $2 million in his coffers and has gotten the support of former Gov. George Pataki. By contrast Zeldin reported recently that he had $307,315 on hand, and Bishop said he had $565,456, according to their filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Demos lost a Republican primary to Altschuler and he may not win the party’s nod this year, either. But he certainly promises to be entertaining, if one of his recent 30-second campaign spots is any indication. It linked Bishop to President Obama and Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, asking viewers if they’re “tired of politicians?” Demos claims he’s “not a politician.” Few observers would dispute that.

One issue sure to be heard more about—even though Bishop dealt with it two years ago—is that the Office of Congressional Ethics was looking into whether the Congressman had helped hedge fund magnate Eric Semler get an environmental permit to launch fireworks at his son’s bar mitzvah in exchange for a campaign donation.

“After the fact, after I got the permit, I did receive a request for a donation,” Semler told Politico in August 2012. “Tim never said anything to me about a donation. I didn’t know he was running for re-election…I would love to support a guy like that.”

How all these issues will play out in November remains to be seen.

For more of Senior Editor Spencer Rumsey’s honest take on the vagaries of L.I. and national politics, the merits of single-malt scotch and Lindsay Lohan, check out his blog “Rumsey Punch.”