Suffolk 9-12’s pick to beat Tim Bishop

04/15/2010 12:00 AM |

Ex-CIA officer Gary Berntsen, now the area ‘Tea Party candidate’ visited Polish Hall in Riverhead in February to launch his campaign to run on the GOP line for Congress.

A decorated ex-CIA officer, author and frequent FOX News and CNN contributor is the Suffolk 9-12 Project’s chosen candidate to run against Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) in November.

Suffolk 9-12 is a Riverhead-based political action group — perhaps better known as a Tea Party group — and not a political party. It counts some 800 members from across the East End.

Gary Berntsen of Port Jefferson, 53, was the overwhelming pick, netting some 82.1 percent of the votes in a field of six would-be Republican candidates who screened with Suffolk 9-12, said group member Richard Burns, who directs its operations in Riverhead Town and now answers phones for the campaign. About 650 group members were allowed to cast ballots in the week-long online vote.

“With the endorsement comes the full weight of Suffolk 9-12 Project,” Mr. Burns said. “That means hundreds and hundreds of volunteers for the ground campaign.”

Mr. Burns made the announcement Friday on 1390 WRIV’s Radio Factory, hosted by John Galla, a Riverhead Republican Committee member.

One of the 9-12 group’s co-founders, Bob Meyer of Baiting Hollow, said many members were impressed with Mr. Berntsen’s conservative values and his knowledge of the Constitution and economic and national security issues.

“He’s definitely a rock-solid conservative,” Mr. Meyer said. “He’s a national figure, a former CIA operative and he’s written three books. His life accomplishments are a big thing.”

Mr. Berntsen, who was raised in Smithtown and worked abroad for much of his life, moved back to Long Island about four months ago after most recently living in Afghanistan, where he was an adviser to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. According to Mr. Berntsen’s Web site, he is a recipient of the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal and Intelligence Star. He is married and the father of three. His son is an Airborne Army officer serving in Afghanistan. His oldest daughter served as a naval intelligence officer in the Pacific and the Persian Gulf. His youngest daughter lives with him and his wife in Port Jefferson.

Mr. Berntsen said he was “humbled” by the Tea Party group’s endorsement, which provides his campaign with instant volunteer support.

“I am campaigning against several candidates, one in particular that has unlimited financial resources,” he said, referring to Republican businessman Randy Altschuler. “However, I have a large following of people on the ground here, so it allows me to counter his financial resources.”

The author of “Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and al Qaeda also vowed to run a primary should he not get the Republican endorsement.

“I came here looking for a primary and we’re going to have one,” he said. “I believe that none of my Republican competitors could touch me. Just look at what happened in the 9-12 vote.”

When asked about his very recent return to Suffolk County, Mr. Berntsen said, “If Al Qaeda and the Taliban would have been here, I would have been here chasing them. I was serving my country abroad.”

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