When Chris DeLuca, Assemb. Phil Boyle’s 35-year-old campaign manager, checked their headquarters in Babylon Village after Hurricane Sandy had subsided on the Tuesday before Halloween, he stepped into the office and found water almost up to his knees.
Guppies were swimming by his legs. “Yes, there were guppies!” recalls DeLuca, still in amazement.
Surprisingly, despite the flooding, the office never lost power, just Internet service, phones and cable. What the storm would mean for the closely watched New York State Senate race hung in the air. Long Island was still reeling, and the answers seemed far away.
But a week later, on Election Day, the Boyle office was bone dry, volunteers were working the phones, a flat-screen TV on the wall was tuned to Fox News for the latest updates and the only evidence of the storm’s wake was a stack of rusted lawn signs propped up against the wall.
This was DeLuca’s first campaign for Boyle, a long-time Assemblyman who was making a bid for the seat held for 40 years by State Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon), a veteran who had decided to retire. Facing them was Suffolk Legis. Rick Montano (D-Central Islip), a fiery former federal prosecutor, whose own home lay just outside the redrawn 4th Senate District.
In fact, Montano’s legislative base was almost entirely excluded by the new lines. Not so for Boyle, who got the benefit of having the Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) wielding the pen that made the borders final. Skelos was counting on keeping this seat in the Republican column in order to retain his slim majority in Albany. Little did Skelos know that his hold would soon be in doubt—but not from the South Shore.
Here in Babylon, with the polls still hours from closing at 9 o’clock and plenty of daylight still left in the campaign, DeLuca exuded confidence. His candidate was out, knocking on doors, helping with the neighborhood relief effort, keeping the heat on. He was waiting for volunteers to get off work and come in for their last assignments.
Like so much of Long Island, this district had been hit hard. In SD4 alone, an estimated 25,000 people living south of Montauk Highway (known as Main Street in Babylon village) had been ordered to evacuate. The tidal surge had wreaked havoc, and pockets of neighborhoods were still without power.
But people everywhere were coming out to vote.
“The polls in Lindenhurst, which got hit the hardest, are just being rocked,” DeLuca says, with his unspoken hope that the turnout was going Boyle’s way. “Long Islanders don’t let too many things get in their way,” he says.
All across the Island voters were exercising their right, despite power outages, long lines at the gas pumps and, in too many cases, ruined homes and devastated lives. Of course, the big draw was the race at the top of the ticket for the White House. Democrats in Nassau and Suffolk were counting on President Barack Obama’s supporters to pull their “down ballot” candidates to victory. Republicans hoped to lessen that effect although they knew that the prospect of Gov. Mitt Romney carrying New York was unlikely, given the Democrats’ superior numbers in the city. Romney needed to dominate the suburbs decisively but fell short.
The unofficial final tally as of Wednesday afternoon had Obama winning Nassau County with 243,649 votes, compared to Romney’s 212,882 votes; and carrying Suffolk County with 274,830 votes, compared to Romney’s 259,348 votes—a little more than 46,000 vote difference.
But the president’s pull on the local races was not so clear cut. In Brookhaven, Legis. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) took over town hall from the Democrats as the new supervisor following Mark Lesko’s early retirement to become head of Accelerate Long Island, a non-profit advocacy group touting high-tech projects. In the Assembly, status quo was the norm essentially, with newcomer Michaelle Solages, a Democrat, picking up the 22nd A.D in Nassau, and Andrew Garbarino, a Republican, winning the 7th AD in Suffolk.
At the ballroom of the Islandia Marriott after the polls closed, the crowd of anxious Democrats roared their approval when the TV networks projected Obama the winner of his contest. The pandemonium was deafening, and for many seconds, drowned out any chance of conversing about the less stellar fates of the local candidates who had not fared as well as the president.
One of those candidates was Montano. He wound up losing 44 percent to Boyle’s 56 percent of the vote, although the count isn’t final. Earlier in the evening after the polls had just closed, the spirit was ebullient in Montano’s suite upstairs at the Marriott. People were laughing, joking, drinking wine and enjoying empanadas. An hour later, the empanadas were cold, and the results were colder.
In the end, all that was left over from the Montano-Boyle race was bitterness on Montano’s side, and relief on Boyle’s. As for Skelos, his 33-29 hold on the State Senate was shaken by races in the redrawn districts upstate and the courts may have the last word on which party won the chamber. On LI, Skelos’ home turf, all nine Republican candidates for the State Senate defeated their Democratic challengers, although it cost plenty.
According to campaign disclosure reports, the state Republican committee gave Boyle some $225,000, giving him almost $610,000 compared to Montano, who had about $282,000 on hand.
“I think they spent probably about half a million dollars more on the other side,” says Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer. That difference would be hard to offset, but Democrats are used to being outspent by their richer Republican adversaries. Here, two other factors hurt Montano’s chances of picking up the senate seat, he believes. The hurricane was No. 1.
“I think the electorate froze,” Schaffer says. “The race stopped a week ago.”
Another factor was the lasting popularity of Johnson. “He had the seat for 40 years,” Schaffer observes, and there were countless people in the district who remembered how he’d helped them. Johnson’s endorsement of Boyle was a stamp of approval, and Montano, who was counting on changing demographics, was a relative newcomer in this part of town.
Of course, it also didn’t help his cause that slickly crafted mailings went out to targeted voters in Wyandanch that said ominously “Ricardo Montano claims to be a Democrat, but…Rick Montano turned his back on the Democratic Party. Montano endorsed and gave money to the Republican candidate against our Democratic Legislator DuWayne Gregory.”
Montano got wind of the flier, which distorted his support for a Democrat who was once an opponent of Gregory’s, and was infuriated but it was too late in the election cycle to counter it. Gregory’s aide’s mother in Wyandanch had got one, too, but not in time for him to go public with his support of Montano’s senate bid.
“I’ve never seen anything like that happen in Suffolk County before,” Gregory told the Press on election night. “I had nothing to do with it.”
Some say Gregory and other Democrats in the Suffolk Legislature would have loved the independent-minded Montano to change his political venue from Hauppauge to Albany, but that move will have to wait.
In the end, Montano, who’d run a spirited campaign blasting Boyle for supposedly making his official residence in Albany with his wife and her children, had a margin of almost 8 percentage points that he couldn’t bridge. But he wouldn’t formally concede, he tells the Press, until every “ballot and affidavit is counted.”
Two years ago, that counting process was very much in evidence in the tight contest between Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and his millionaire Republican challenger Randy Altschuler, who lost his bid to unseat the incumbent from the First Congressional District, which encompasses the East End and most of Brookhaven Town. Altschuler lost by only 593 votes when the final ballot was counted, weeks after the election.
In his campaign headquarters in Middle Island, wedged between a tae-kwon-do school and a nail salon, Altschuler looked cool, calm and collected this Election Day, as about two dozen supporters made calls to voters. Asked if he wished he could have had one more debate with Bishop, his campaign manager, Diana Weir—who’d watched the candidates go at each other 18 times—roared with laughter.
“Yes,” joked Altschuler. “Nineteen would make it a perfect number.”
The debates, he admitted, were “very substantive.” And, he believes, the voters were well served. On the airwaves, however, it’s questionable who was served when some $3 million was spent just on Altschuler’s behalf by Karl Rove’s SuperPAC, Crossroads GPS.
An observer inundated by the negative advertising would not believe that these two men could stand side by side on a stage like gentlemen when such horrible things were being said about each other on television and the radio.
“In the beginning, when I ran the first time,” Altschuler says, “I really couldn’t reconcile it, and I thought it was bizarre. But after a while…it’s the reality of politics.” And, he added, “it’s disgusting.”
The trouble, of course, is that campaigns, especially at the Congressional level, don’t come cheap.
“I think you spend a ridiculous amount of time raising money, and it’s totally inefficient,” says Altschuler, an innovative entrepreneur who co-founded Cloud Blue, a company based in Georgia that recycles computer equipment. “You’ve only got a two-year term, and you’re spending 50 percent of your time raising money—you’re not doing your job!”
But Altschuler didn’t run on a promise to reform campaign spending, and Bishop, who railed about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which basically opened the floodgate to SuperPAC funds, worried about the corrosive effect of big money on our democracy, but had no answer for it.
Bishop won the rematch by more than 11,000 votes. As he told the enthusiastic throng at the Islandia Marriott, he felt great facing them knowing that “I’ve got a four-figure margin instead of a three-figure margin!”
Schaffer surmised that Altschuler lost the race because he was “a damaged candidate,” in particular because of Democratic opponents claims that he’d made his fortune as an “outsourcer” at PaperTiger, his previous company, always stuck in the minds of the Suffolk voters. And despite Bishop being outspent by the SuperPACs, the issue boiled down to trust.
“Who did they trust? Clearly they trusted Tim Bishop,” Schaffer says.
Altschuler finally conceded the election around midnight—an hour before Romney conceded. When Bishop spoke to the crowd at the ballroom, he said, “My opponent may have had the guys with the big checks, but I had the guys with the big hearts—and big hearts win every time.”
The audience roared their approval.
Then he took another swipe at the opposition, “a lot of people and a lot of institutions who bet against me—they know who they are—but they didn’t really bet against me,” Bishop said. “They bet against all of you.”
What’s more, he said, his opponents bet against the “essential sense of goodness and fairness of this district…and the ability to separate truth from the lies.”
And basically, when all is said and done, that is the voters’ job.