Zeldin and Demos GOP Debate for First Congressional Seat Turns Personal

Zeldin and Demos Debate
State Sen. Lee Zeldin and George Demos faced off last week in their first debate before the Republican primary. The winner gets a shot at Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) in November. (Photo credit: YouTube/LI News Radio)

If you can believe their campaigns, the loser of the first—and so far only—debate between Democratic Congressman Tim Bishop’s Republican primary opponents, State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and former Securities and Exchange prosecutor George Demos, was definitely one of those two guys.

The war of words took place on a live broadcast by LI News Radio hosted by Jay Oliver on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day Weekend as supporters of the two candidates held signs outside the windows of the studio at Long Island MacArthur Airport, where backers tried to keep their enthusiasm from drowning out the show until their favorite finished speaking.

In the post-debate spin, Demos suffered “a clear loss,” according to Zeldin’s campaign spokesperson, Kara Cumoletti. But Kevin Tschirhart, Demos’ campaign manager, said, “Clearly Zeldin did very poorly…”

What was clear is that there is no love lost between these two men.

After Demos, 38, unleashed a blistering attack on the state senator’s “terrible” Albany voting record, Zeldin, 34, said petulantly, “Honestly, you just lied in so many different ways!”

“Lee, this is not the kind of guy you used to be,” Demos retorted with a hint of condescension, lambasting Zeldin for hurling “personal insults,” “hateful” statements, and “unsubstantiated charges.” At one point in the hour-long confrontation, Demos suggested that Zeldin even replace his campaign staff. “Who’s telling you to say these things?” he asked his opponent.

But they did find common ground.

Both men called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to be fired in light of recent revelations that VA officials in Arizona had falsified records about how long vets were actually waiting for their medical appointments—and they sought to blame President Obama and Bishop for the scandal, although neither mentioned the Northport VA facility, the largest in our region.

The Congressman subsequently told the Press in a statement that he’s disturbed by the inspector general’s report but so far has resisted calling for Gen. Shinseki’s resignation. Bishop defended the Northport VA, adding that in his 12 years in office, he could “count on one hand” the number of times he’s received complaints about it. [Update: Shinseki resigned Friday, hours after this post]

It remains to be seen whether the VA issue will ever have the same kind of traction in this hotly contested Congressional race it apparently has in other races, where vulnerable Democratic incumbents like Reps. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) have weighed in against Shinseki.

But, both Demos and Zeldin demanded that Obamacare has to go. Demos called it “a national disaster” and then went local, where he got it wrong, by saying that “Stony Brook University, the biggest health provider in our district, announced recently it wasn’t going to take any of the Obamacare plans.”

Not so, according to a spokesperson for the Stony Brook University Hospital, who told the Press after the debate that it had “never rejected the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare.” In fact, it signed an agreement with MagnaCare in February, which provides Health Republic insurance to Long Island patients through one of the exchanges New York set up in response to the federal program to help the uninsured get health coverage.

Both conservative candidates were in favor of the controversial Keystone oil pipeline from Canada and “hydrolic-facking in the State of New York,” which, Zeldin asserted, “can be done responsibly and safely.”

In response to a question about extending federal unemployment insurance to those who’ve been out of work for more than six months, which could affect 5 million Americans by Election Day this November given the Congressional Republicans’ staunch opposition of the program, Demos was adamantly opposed to any extension. “We need to have conservative principles and we need economic growth,” he said. “I do not believe we can have unemployment continue on and on and on.”

By comparison Zeldin, referred to the “people who are struggling” and expressed “compassion for our neighbors.” Some people, he added, “need a helping hand.” But he wouldn’t say how he would vote if he were in Congress.

He didn’t hesitate, however, to make Demos’ employment—or lack thereof—an issue.

Zeldin claimed that Demos hasn’t worked “in four years” and that he’s “actually a full-time candidate; this is your job!” Demos countered with a barbed inquiry about how many days a week Zeldin “actually” goes to his law firm job in New York City and asked what he does for the $100,000 that Demos claimed his opponent earns there. Zeldin didn’t dispute that salary amount. He is of-counsel to the firm of Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel in Manhattan.

Instead, Zeldin replied that he “hasn’t missed a vote in Albany,” and that as a major in the Army Reserves he still goes to drills. In the summer of 2006, Zeldin was deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.

When it was his turn to speak again, Zeldin launched another attack on Demos.

“You’re a resident of Manhattan,” he reminded his opponent. “Your only connection to Long Island is the Mid-town tunnel!” Addressing the radio listeners, Zeldin asked rhetorically, “What do we have to do to get George Demos to finally start paying property taxes here in Suffolk?”

Demos retorted that he paid “$11,500 in Brookhaven property taxes” and when he and his wife find a new home for their new baby, “We’ll buy it.”

Zeldin scoffed that there’s no Suffolk tax bill with Demos’ name on it, prompting a scolding from the moderator for talking out of turn. Demos exclaimed that Zeldin’s “entire campaign is throwing mud and making up things. Is this how we’re going to defeat Tim Bishop?”

That’s a question for the primary voters to answer on June 24. As Demos pointed out, the last time Zeldin ran against Bishop he was “trounced…two to one!”

Zeldin never explained why the second time might be the charm, but he did say that Demos is “on his fifth try” for Congress and called him a “career candidate.” Then, Zeldin did something that a well-seasoned political pro would do: he realized he had more time left in his closing statement and went to town, pitching the listeners directly, plugging his campaign office number, his web site, even the name of the woman for volunteers to call.

What he didn’t do is plug another debate. Zeldin’s campaign had said in a press release that the two candidates were to meet May 27 at the Southampton Full Gospel Church at 7 p.m. The Demos campaign said they’d never confirmed that date because “a debate organized, sponsored and moderated by Zeldin supporters is illegitimate.”

This officially sanctioned encounter on the airwaves didn’t make for compelling radio—at least to this subjective listener—but what interesting optics, thanks to YouTube. If, for argument’s sake, the candidates were canines, Zeldin would be a Labrador itching to get up and go out—do anything but be obedient to his master’s order to “SIT!”—because he could barely contain himself under the radio show’s rules as his opponent ridiculed his record. And Demos would be like a Fox Terrier, eyeing his owner with the cunning certainty that if he waits long enough this silly human will reveal the treat he knows is there—and he’ll snatch it between his teeth.

Let’s hope these two middle-aged men agree to hold at least one more debate for more residents of the First District to see first-hand before one of them faces the 63-year-old battle-tested incumbent in November.