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Suffolk Closeup: A Democrat goes negative — and loses

John Avlon decisively defeated Nancy Goroff last week in the Democratic primary to be the party’s nominee to challenge Republican incumbent Nick LaLota in the lst Congressional District. Goroff’s campaign was highly negative.

“Today we proved that the positive defeats the negative,” said Avlon in a victory address.

John Avlon, the Democratic candidate for Congress.

He received more than 70% of the vote.

The lst CD includes the five East End towns, the northern half of Brookhaven and much of Huntington and Smithtown. It has historically alternated between Republican and Democratic representatives.

As Judith Hope, long a sensible voice in the Suffolk (and State) Democratic Party, and the first woman to become a town supervisor in Suffolk history when elected supervisor of East Hampton in 1973, said during the contest: “I am deeply disappointed in Nancy Goroff’s decision to ‘go negative’ in her Democratic primary race with John Avlon. The district mailings and TV ads with sinister photos of John and misleading or totally false ‘information’ about John are truly disturbing. She says it’s imperative for Democrats to take back the House of Representatives, but this ugly campaigning is no way to do that, and she knows it. I am changing my vote in the primary. I will now be voting for John Avlon. Shame on you, Nancy.”

New York State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs said: “John Avlon has built a campaign that draws on real local support and enthusiasm — in contrast to Nancy Goroff who loaned herself $1.2 million to just run negative attacks against John … When Democrats in a primary resort to attacking other Democrats solely in the hope of winning that primary but with no care to the consequences if they do not, they lay bare the selfishness that motivates them — which is unbecoming to public service. I urge all Democrats in primary contests to focus on policy differences …”

East Hampton Democratic Chair Anna Skrenta said: “I’ve heard from many Democrats in the Town of East Hampton who have been bombarded with mailings and TV ads with sinister photos and misleading or totally false ‘information’ about congressional candidate John Avlon. The negative messaging has come from both Nancy Goroff’s campaign and the 314 Super PAC that supports her. Most of the folks I’ve heard from are angry and disappointed in Goroff for running a dark and divisive smear campaign.”

Skrenta continued saying Avlon “is a very public figure. He’s not hiding anything. There are no Republican or MAGA skeletons in his closet. Far from it. Please Google him. You will literally find hundreds of videos, articles, interviews, and podcasts where he very clearly articulates his positions on any number of issues. He is a moderate Democrat who has warned against the dangers of extremism and hyper-partisanship to our democracy and our country for decades. This has been a consistent theme and the ideological foundation of his entire career as an author, editor, print and TV journalist, and presidential historian. I urge everyone to do this research. Sadly, our politics have devolved into fear and anger-fueled debates where truth, facts, and history no longer matter. But John is an antidote and a breath of fresh air in today’s toxic climate.”

There were more such reactions to Goroff’s attacks on Avlon that were largely based on his being a speechwriter three decades ago for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his second term when the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center happened and Giuliani was widely heralded as “America’s mayor.”

Avlon commenting on CNN last year about a documentary it was airing titled “Giuliani: What Happened to America’s Mayor?” said: “I think that he got caught in a right-wing echo chamber ecosystem where he was totally invested in an alternate reality that was fundamentally hyper-partisan.” He said his earlier view “of the man I knew and was proud to work for is fundamentally off.”

A book Avlon wrote published in 2010 was titled “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.”

Goroff, a former chemistry professor at Stony Brook University, in a torrent of mail pieces and TV ads blasted Avlon. One typical Goroff flier declared: “Avlon Is Trying To Hide His GOP Ties … John Avlon doesn’t want you to look behind the curtain. That’s where he’s hiding a big secret he doesn’t want you to know. He’s a Republican insider!”

Nancy Goroff (Courtesy photo)

I’ve written how attack ads and negative campaigning have become, unfortunately, commonplace in U.S. politics. They served as a centerpiece of the Goroff campaign.

There’s nothing wrong with primary contests. They enable vigorous debates between potential nominees. But as Hope said, “ugly campaigning is no way to do that,” and as Jacobs said, they should “focus on policy differences.”

Avlon of Sag Harbor will face LaLota of Amityville in the November election.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor said in an Avlon flier: “John Avlon is the best candidate on Long Island I have ever seen, which is why I know he can win in November.” Goroff of Stony Brook lost to LaLota’s predecessor, Republican Lee Zeldin of Shirley, by 10% of the vote in 2020. 

Avalon’s definition of a “wingnut” is “someone on the far-right wing or far-left wing of the political spectrum — the professional partisans, the unhinged activists and the paranoid conspiracy theorists. They’re the people who always try to divide rather than unite us.”