When I began reporting on Suffolk County politics back in February 2006, the Democratic party here was on the rise.
In Brookhaven Town, where I was assigned at the time, Democrats were one month into their first majority in more than 25 years. The party controlled the Legislature, the 1st District Assemblyman was a Democrat and so was our local congressman. Suffolk also had just as many Democratic town supervisors as Republicans in office and the county executive was a Democrat.
Nearly nine years later, many of those seats have turned Republican. Never was this change more obvious than last Tuesday, when Congressman Tim Bishop suffered a double-digit defeat to Republican challenger Lee Zeldin — and even Rob Astorino, who lost handily to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, won this county.
The golden age for Suffolk Democrats, if you can even call it that, really was short-lived.
The decline began with the 2007 election, when the Brookhaven Democrats lost their majority. Then, in 2008, Supervisor Brian Foley left for greener pastures in the state Senate and sold his soul to New York City leadership with one of the deciding votes to pass the MTA payroll tax. (He’s now in the little-known New York State Witness Protection Program, I believe.) Within two years, Sean Walter ousted Democrat Phil Cardinale for Riverhead Town supervisor and Dan Losquadro edged out Democrat Marc Alessi for state Assembly.
And while Democrats have been slowly falling back to planet Earth these past six years, the thud wasn’t heard or felt until Congressman Bishop’s loss last week.
First elected in 2002, Mr. Bishop was one of the lasting faces of the county’s Democratic surge in the last decade, and so much of the new energy felt in the party grew from his first campaign.
While it remains to be seen if the party can ever get that swagger back, it’s hard to imagine it happening anytime soon. Things look particularly bleak for Democrats in the towns our newspaper company covers, as Democrats hold two elected seats each in Shelter Island and Riverhead, and just one in Southold. Neighboring Brookhaven also has just one elected Dem.
Departing the Southold Town Democratic Committee event at Touch of Venice in Cutchogue last Tuesday night felt like leaving a funeral. Trustee candidate Abigail Field pointed out to me that she’d been drinking a light beer at the start of the evening, but her glass got darker as the night wore on.
The next two years will say a lot about the health of the Democratic party in Suffolk, even if the local towns continue to have little success. The party has fared very well in recent county races, but it must fight off a 2014 hangover next November if it is to maintain a six-seat majority in the Legislature.
The 2016 Congressional election could be the Dems’ last chance for a while at a true revival in Suffolk County — if they can find a way to turn Mr. Zeldin into a one-termer. History has shown that if a representative wins re-election once in the 1st District, he often goes on to win at least twice more, as have five of the past seven people to hold the office.
While the 1st Congressional District has traditionally been flipped in mid-term election years, the current political climate makes it difficult to predict whether it could turn Democrat again without the boost in voter turnout typically seen in a presidential election year, when the party benefits from increased participation by minority and female voters.
Since the 1952 election, the 1st District seat has flipped just three times in a presidential year, but each time it turned over in favor of the party that won the presidency. So it’s likely a Democrat would need to remain in the White House in order to win back the Congressional seat.
While Democrats have not fared well in recent years at the town level in Riverhead, Southold and Brookhaven, they still have a decent crop of potential candidates to choose from.
Sources within the Democratic party have told me they believe that right now, two years away from the election, it’s actually an Independent, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk, who has the best chance of winning the nomination to run against Mr. Zeldin in 2016. A former Republican, Mr. Schneiderman has a record of working with elected officials on both sides of the aisle, and he comes from the same South Fork base as Mr. Bishop. He’s also about to hit his term limit as a legislator and will likely want to remain in public office. Throw in the fact that he’s publicly mused about the seat in the past and has a history of landslide victories, and he’s definitely an early favorite.
Another county Legislator, Kara Hahn of Setauket, is also a name being thrown out there. She’s relatively raw, having been in office only since 2011, but could benefit from having a woman at the top of the Democratic ticket — if Hillary Clinton seeks and receives the presidential nomination. That phenomenon could also benefit current Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, also an Independent from Mr. Bishop’s hometown. The 1st District has never been represented by a woman, which, with Ms. Clinton on the ballot, would create some interesting opportunities. Even if another candidate wins the party’s presidential nomination, Democrats may still look to women’s rights as a key issue for 2016, something that could also help a female candidate earn the local nod.
Coming from the Three Village communities, one of Brookhaven’s few Democratic strongholds, also benefits Ms. Hahn.
Even closer to home, Legislator Al Krupski, a Democrat from Cutchogue, would make a heck of a candidate — especially given his appeal with Republican voters. As apolitical as he is, though, I have a hard time seeing him really want to take root in Washington, D.C., where partisanship often trumps all.
With things in the nation’s capital as contentious as they’ve been over the past decade, who knows if any of these potential candidates would really want to pursue the 1st District seat. But if the party hopes to make any sort of comeback in the next decade, local Democrats better hope they can persuade one of them to give it a shot.
Grant Parpan is the executive editors of Times/Review Newsgroup. He can be reached at [email protected].