Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Call it "American Idol" - Suffolk GOP style.
On three successive nights last week, seven congressional contenders - including the grandson of the late President Richard Nixon, a former CIA official, a millionaire businessman and a former federal Wall Street watchdog - strutted their stuff as they auditioned before party committee members in Smithtown, Brookhaven and on the East End.
The scramble has excited local GOP activists. "I felt the energy," said Joan Hudson, a veteran GOP committee member who was among 200 at the screening at the Farmingville firehouse. "It shows we're on the way back."
Eager to take on incumbent
Local Republicans say voter fear over jobs and the Democrats' controversial health plan, along with Tea Party protests against Bishop, give them their best chance to take back the seat in a district where Republicans still hold a 25,655-voter edge.
Town Democratic leader Jon Schneider, who also is a Bishop aide, said his boss has delivered for the district and has worked on a bipartisan basis with all local officials - none of whom have ever tried to challenge him. "I think that speaks volumes," Schneider said.
New York's 1st District has swung back and forth five times since bow-tied, ukelele-playing Democrat Otis Pike served in the 1960s. One, former Rep. Mike Forbes, started as a Republican but turned Democrat, only to lose.
Democrats also brand the GOP's most serious contenders - those with the capacity to raise large sums - as carpetbaggers who moved here solely out of political ambition.
"Do any of them live here?" jibed Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman, noting that Nixon's grandson, Christopher Nixon Cox, 29, only enrolled to vote in the district on Jan. 7. Cox, the son of new state GOP chairman Edward Cox, is using the address of the family's longtime Westhampton Beach summer manse.
As on "American Idol," some wannabes - guidance counselor Richard Blumenthal, lawyer Fred Meyer and businessman James Staudenraus - are likely to go early, party sources say. John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chair, said leaders will screen finalists and make a decision by month's end.
Some party sources say LaValle is leaning toward Cox, a lawyer who said he will not run in a primary.
LaValle denies any tilt, adding that the elder Cox, the headliner at the GOP fundraiser Thursday night, has taken a "hands-off" stand on the race. Chris Cox, also a lawyer, concedes he's raised no money but helped the state party last fall raise $350,000 and sees money as no problem. He added: "Get me anyone in front of me and I'll convince them I'm the best."
$800G war chest already
New St. James resident Randy Altschuler has campaigned for eight months, raised $1 million and has $800,000 on hand - including $450,000 from his own pocket.
But Altschuler has baggage. Democrats assail him as former owner of Office Tigers, which outsourced jobs to Asia, though he told GOP activists he created 700 jobs in this country. He often has failed to vote and once was a Green Party member, making some Conservatives queasy.
George Demos, raised on Shelter Island, left his job as a Security and Exchange Commission lawyer last fall, moved to Ronkonkoma and is running full-time. He already has raised $300,000, and has $275,000 on hand. Both he and Altschuler were noncommittal at screenings about waging a primary.
A wild card is Gary Berntsen, an ex-CIA officer and frequent TV terrorism expert, who wowed committee members and told them he would run a primary if not chosen. "He's a real life Jack Bauer," said one leader, referring to the hero of the TV show "24."
LaValle wants to avoid a primary and said challengers might back down if donors disappear for fear of an intra-party fight that wastes resources and bloodies combatants.
But the unchosen - especially those with money - may not be dissuaded. "A primary is a double-edge sword," said political strategist Michael Dawidziak. "It can be nasty and bruising, but it can also give the winner tremendous name recognition and momentum."
Randy Altschuler, 39, St. James: Millionarie businessman owner of Cloud Blue electronics recycling. Former owner of Office Tigers.
Assessment: Raised $1 million, including $450,000 of his own. Has worked grassroots for eight months and already aired first TV ad. He’s been attacked for Office Tiger outsourcing jobs to Asia, though he says he created 700 jobs. Often failed to vote. Non-committal on primary.
Assessment: He-man conservative with powerful anti-terror message. He just moved back to the district, he’s a neophyte and some fear he may be a single-issue candidate. Already vowing primary if not chosen.
Christopher Nixon Cox, 29, Westhampton Beach: Lawyer who has worked in the investment field.
Assessment: Presidential pedigree. Involved in fundraising with father, the new state GOP leader. Vowed not to run a primary. But he’s just registered to vote locally and hasn’t raised any money. Does anyone remember Watergate?
George Demos 33, Ronkonkoma: Former SEC lawyer.
Assessment: Has raised $300,000, second only to Altschuler. Little known, he touts himself as part of the SEC legal team against swindler Bernie Madoff. Left job to come home and campaign full-time. Already has aired first TV ad. Non-committal on primary