Suffolk Closeup: Lessons from a legendary representative

COURTESY PHOTO OTIS PIKE

OTIS PIKE

“He was an original!” said Joe Quinn last week about Otis G. Pike, the longtime congressman from Suffolk County. Mr. Quinn, a school administrator, was a top lieutenant to Mr. Pike.

Democrat Pike represented Shelter Island and the rest of the lst Congressional District in the House of Representatives for 18 years, the longest tenure, by far, of any member of Congress from the lst CD since William Floyd of Mastic Beach, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

I recently came across an article I had kept from The New Yorker, published exactly 50 years ago, about Mr. Pike and his winning ways, for which the magazine devoted 53 pages, an enormous length for the magazine. In the piece by Richard Harris, Mr. Pike and his top aides, attorney Aaron Donner and Mr. Quinn, detailed how Mr. Pike was able to win … and win … and win.

There are many lessons in the article for politics today.

What were some of the secrets to Pike’s success? First was persistence. He initially ran for Congress against two-term incumbent Stuyvesant Wainwright of Wainscott. He lost. Mr. Wainwright was a formidable opponent from a family of great wealth and he had solid GOP backing. Financer Jay Gould, a railroad magnate considered one of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age, was Mr. Wainwright’s great-grandfather.

Mr. Pike, of Riverhead, dealt with the defeat by staying active over the next two years, moving around the lst CD and speaking at every venue that would have him. “Otis put together one very funny, very good speech, and went out and spoke every place he could,” noted his aide Mr. Donner, who was quoted in The New Yorker piece. “He got to be very much in demand, and by the next election a lot more people had heard of him and he was a lot more expert as a campaigner.”

Hitting hard was another strategy to win. As Mr. Pike told the magazine: “My basic approach is that you should go on the offensive and stay there, and that you should have no more than three issues. The public will stop listening if you rain issues on their heads.”

The key issue in the second campaign against Mr. Wainwright was the incumbent’s attendance record. “We studied it and found that he had been absent during about a third of roll-call votes,” Mr. Donner said. So “every place Otis went, he would” ask audience members “wouldn’t you go to work” if they were getting the pay of a member of Congress.

“That put Wainwright on the defensive” and Mr. Pike kept pressing on this “for the rest of that campaign.”

In his game plan was also spending as little money as possible. “Another unique thing about our campaigns is how inexpensive they are,” Mr. Donner said. “We don’t believe that money wins elections. One reason we feel that way is that we have to, Pike being the most frugal man on Long Island. I once told him he was the only person I’d ever known who drove into a gas station in a Volkswagen and got only the emergency tank filled.”

The entire Pike campaign budget for the second and successful campaign against Mr. Wainwright, Mr. Quinn noted last week, was $12,000. Mr. Donner told The New Yorker that “we put on the original shoestring campaign by selling red-and-white shoestrings for a dollar a pair.”

Mr. Quinn, 83, of Smithtown, spoke about having dinner with Mr. Pike a few years before he died in 2014 and Mr. Pike expressing outrage about the multi-million dollar budgets of contemporary congressional campaigns. “He said, ‘It is a disgrace,’ and that he would never participate in this.”

Public relations professionals are involved in all congressional races and in other political campaigns these days. But never in a Pike campaign.

“We found very early that we could save a great deal of money and avoid a great many headaches by staying away from public-relations men,” Mr. Donner is quoted in the magazine story. “They cost like hell, and they are likely to ruin when they rule. P.R. men have a very tenuous regard for the truth. They always want to soup things up until all resemblance to reality is lost. And in politics a lie that’s exposed can kill you.”

Two other ingredients were in the mix for a Pike campaign — integrity and wit. “We run a unique kind of campaign,” Mr. Donner said. “It’s uniquely subtle in the way Pike projects himself as a man of integrity and wit. It’s not just that he has these qualities, it’s the way he’s able to convey an impression of them to an audience within a few minutes. Once he has spoken to a group, I doubt if anyone there forgets him.”

Mr. Pike decided to retire from Congress in 1979 and became a syndicated newspaper columnist. But he was so popular, he could have stayed on as long as he wanted.

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