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Suffolk Closeup: Squeakers and runaways in First District races

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Democrat Perry Gershon, running a second time against incumbent U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), will take a similar approach to that of Otis Pike decades ago.

Democrat Pike initially lost to a lst Congressional District Republican incumbent. He then spent two years moving around the district meeting with voters person-to-person.

Two years later, in 1960, Mr. Pike of Riverhead defeated three-term Representative Stuyvesant Wainwright of Wainscott. Ultimately, Mr. Pike was elected to nine two-year terms — holding office until 1978 — the longest tenure ever for any lst C.D. representative.

Joseph Quinn of Smithtown worked should-to-shoulder with Mr. Pike. Mr. Quinn, a teacher, was a key Pike campaign aide and a staff assistant to him through his Congressional years. Mr. Quinn also would become, for 23 years, the Democratic leader of Smithtown, a town that might be critical to Mr. Gershon’s chances in November 2020.

The East Hampton resident was defeated last year by 11,000 votes, a narrow 4 percent of votes cast. He won Southampton, East Hampton, Shelter Island and Southold towns. But Mr. Zeldin won in Brookhaven, Riverhead and Smithtown, where Mr. Gershon lost by 7,000 votes.

Back in 1958, in his first race for Congress, Mr. Pike did worse. “He lost by 40,000 votes to Wainwright,” Mr. Quinn said. The strategy of Mr. Pike, a Riverhead town justice, for his re-run was to move around the district, connecting with voters, speaking at every venue possible. If there were “three people he could go and talk with, Otis would be there,” Mr. Quinn said.

The candidate used humor. “He made fun of himself,” his aide remembered. “He would tell people in 1960 that in the 1958 election” —Democrats he’d name in various states — “got elected — but Otis Pike got murdered!”

Mr. Gershon, with $5 million spent (including in a primary) in his campaign last year, would not be emulating Mr. Pike on campaign spending. Mr. Pike spent $12,000 on the 1960 campaign, extremely low even then. But Mr. Pike was famously frugal,including as a congressman. There was one piece of campaign literature in 1960, a four-page flier.

Emphasizing that this was a shoestring campaign, shoestrings were sold at Pike campaign appearances for $1 a pair.

Mr. Wainwright, meanwhile, came from money. Financier Jay Gould, a railroad magnate considered one of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age, was his grandfather.

Both men had solid World War II military records. Mr. Pike was a Marine fighter pilot in the Pacific. Mr. Wainwright was an Army officer overseas with the Office of Strategic Services.

It was helpful to Mr. Pike that John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, Mr. Quinn said.

Will Mr. Zeldin’s chances in 2020, with incumbent President Donald Trump expected to head the GOP ticket, help or hurt him? He and President Trump are politically and personally close. In Smithtown, Mr. Quinn said, since Mr. Trump’s election two years ago, activity in Democratic politics has increased greatly.

Democratic meetings that used to bring out few people now bring out many. Whether this will translate to votes remains to be seen. And Mr. Trump won in 2016 in Smithtown by 28 points, the largest margin of any Suffolk town.

A big break for Mr. Pike came in 1960 when “Wainwright was out sailing on his yacht off Nantucket and missed an important vote,” Mr. Quinn said. Mr. Zeldin, however, has actively worked the district in his three terms.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gershon’s emphasis will be traveling the district to convince voters “that I represent a better future,” he has said. It will be Pike-like maximum exposure.

Another example being cited of a Democratic challenger in the lst C.D. running twice and then winning is George Hochbrueckner, then of Coram (now of Laurel).

He ran and narrowly lost to incumbent Representative William Carney of Hauppauge in 1984. But unlike Mr. Pike, he didn’t face an incumbent the second time since Mr. Carney dropped out. With the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster happening in 1986, opposition in Suffolk to the Shoreham nuclear power plant and Mr. Carney’s zealous advocacy of it had become yet more intense.

So after four terms, Mr. Carney, who began as a Conservative with GOP endorsement, didn’t run again. Mr. Hochbrueckner faced Republican Gregory Blass of South Jamesport, presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, and won.

The Shoreham plant was stopped from going into operation.

And Mr. Carney became a lobbyist in Washington for the nuclear power industry.