It’s hard to imagine a congressional district where party affiliation has as little value as New York’s 1st CD in Suffolk County.
The current congressman, Tim Bishop, is a Democrat. His predecessor, Felix Grucci, was a Republican. Grucci’s predecessor, Michael Forbes, was a Republican who became a Democrat, and the seat holder before that, George Hochbruekner, was a Democrat who succeeded William Carney. Carney was a member of the Conservative Party who was elected on the Republican ballot.
“It’s a very volatile seat,” said Michael Dawidciak, a Republican political consultant who lives and works in eastern Long Island. “It defies definition by the national [party] committees because it is both conservative and liberal. People have very strong opinions about certain issues.”
The district, which is 89 percent white, with slightly more Republicans than Democrats, includes the tony Hamptons as well as working-class towns like Riverhead and Patchogue and some farming communities.
The district’s political schizophrenia extends to national races, too. Barack Obama won 51 percent of the vote in 2008, while the vote was almost evenly split between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won 52 percent of the district.
It is because of the district’s penchant for swing voting that this year’s race between Bishop and Republican challenger Randy Altschuler has become one of the most closely watched in the state in a year that could see as many as five New York seats switch to the Republican side of the aisle.
If elected, Altschuler, a 39-year-old entrepreneur, would single-handedly double the number of Jewish Republicans in Congress, a fact that has been noted by the only current member, Virginia’s Eric Cantor.
“I’m looking for some company in Randy Altschuler,” Cantor told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. “Randy’s looking good in his race, so we are hoping to double the Jewish Republican caucus.”
Cantor campaigned for Altschuler in July, which was noteworthy since one of Altschuler’s primary rivals was Chris Cox, the son of New York’s state Republican chair, Ed Cox. The younger Cox’s embrace of the Tea Party movement made Altschuler the moderate.
But in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Farmingville, Altschuler was careful not to alienate that movement.
“I think the Tea Party is great,” he told The Jewish Week, while eating some chili from a plastic cup. “It’s everyone from your dentist to your mailman. It’s Americans.
“The Tea Party is everyday Americans who weren’t involved in politics before, who are now standing up and saying they are tired and concerned about the direction of the country. They’re tired of the men and women running Congress today and tired of the partisan bickering and bloated government bureaucracy and they want change and so they’re getting involved.”
Asked if the movement and its extremist faction was harmful to the Republican Party, Altschuler said, “Like any other movement or any other group, there are people who have different beliefs on all kinds of spectrum, so some will be more consistent with the Republican Party and some will be less. There are also Democrats who are Tea Party members.”
His impression of former Alaska Gov. and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin: “A remarkable woman, a self-made woman … I have great admiration for her.” And of New York’s Tea Party-embracing, often stumbling Republican candidate for governor, he said Carl Paladino “is offering a stark contrast to [Democrat] Andrew Cuomo and has proven business skills.”
Elected in 2002, Bishop, 60, who is a graduate of Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass, and has a masters in public administration from Long Island University, was the provost of Southampton College for 29 years before running for Congress. His family has been in Southampton for 12 generations. He serves on the House committees on Transportation and Infrastructure; Education and Labor; and Budget, as well as several subcommittees.
Bishop’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview with the congressman on Tuesday.
Bishop’s signs and website obscure the fact that he is an incumbent. He has attacked Altschuler for outsourcing jobs to India and elsewhere as an employer, while Altschuler has painted Bishop as a rubberstamp of Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Foreign policy hasn’t been much of an issue between them.
Altschuler supports extending the Bush-era tax cuts and opposes the health care reform package passed by Congress.
An Oct. 13 Siena College poll gave the Democrat a comfortable 12-point lead, 51-39 among likely voters, with Altschuler unknown to 23 percent of voters and garnering a 44 percent unfavorable rating.
Altschuler, who reportedly has lent his own campaign more than $800,000, has raised more cash than Bishop as of the Sept. 30 filing, $3,177, 584 to $2,179,141. But Bishop had more cash on hand, $1,027,343 to $639,515.
According to the Daily News, the Republican National Congressional Committee has poured an unusual amount of money into four races in majority Democrat New York, investing $85,000 in ads supporting Altschuler, Michael Grimm of the 13th District on Staten Island, Chris Gibson in the Capitol Region’s 20th District and Matt Doheny in the 23rd District, which includes Plattsburgh and Oswego.
In a sign that the White House is also watching the race, former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel attended an April fundraiser for Bishop before Emanuel stepped down to run for mayor of Chicago.
Altschuler markets himself as a beneficiary of the American dream; raised by a single mother Sheila Brody, who was a vice president of an investment firm, he went to Princeton and Harvard’s business school and studied as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Vienna. He founded OfficeTiger, a successful firm that provides support services for businesses. He sold that company and later founded CloudBlue, an electronics recycling company.
He said he decided to go into politics when he and his wife, Cheryl, had a son, Noah, three years ago. “This experience really changed my life and my outlook as I became a family man,” he said in the interview. “I’m focused on his future, the environment he’s growing up in. I’m concerned about where Noah is going to go and the opportunity he’s going to have.”
Altshuler was a member of the Green Party until the party lost its place on the state ballot for garnering insufficient votes. That affiliation cost him the support of Suffolk Republican chair John Jay Lavalle in the primary. He was registered independent when he became a Republican in 2006, Altschuler said.
Among the district’s top concerns, he says, are opposition to Obama’s care bill and to Cap and Trade legislation that provides economic incentives for reducing emissions of pollutants, something which critics, including Altschuler, say drives up the cost of energy.
“That’s not going to be helpful when we have the highest electricity costs in the nation,” he said.
The district’s Jewish population is estimated at 6 percent and dropping.
Rabbi Joel Levinson of Temple Beth El of Patchogue, a Conservative congregation, said, “Most of the Jewish communities of the South Shore have dwindled in recent years.” His shul now has about 225 families, down from as much as 400.
Their concerns, he said, are “the same as the general population, such as jobs, the economy and taxation, although terrorism is probably on our radar more than the average person because of the Jewish connection to Israel.”
Altschuler said he sensed anger in the electorate. “I think people are angry and very concerned with where the government is. I think it’s palpable when you go to Tax Day [a rally], and thousands of people show up who have never gone to a rally before because they are concerned about how long it takes every year to make enough money just to cover the taxes for the year.”
That sense of revolt was felt in the suburbs in elections that sent Nassau County executive, Democrat Tom Suozzi, packing last year as well as Westchester’s Andy Spano. In Suffolk, County Executive Steve Levy tried to switch from Democrat to Republican to run for governor, though the party soundly rejected him at its state convention.
Dawidciak notes that Democrats are in control of every level of government in the 1st District, from federal and state representation to local boards.
“The bottom line is that the ire of voters is going to be taken out on the party in power,” said the consultant. “So for the Democrats, the good news is they control everything and the bad news is they control everything.”