This is the first in a series
on Long Island's June 24
congressional primaries. It may be a Republican congressional primary, but the GOP contest in the 1st District in eastern Suffolk County almost looks like a battle that might be waged in the Conservative Party.
Palm cards of GOP designee Lee M. Zeldin picture him before the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., where he was recognized as one of "10 rising stars" on the conservative scene.
Challenger George Demos sent out a recent mailing picturing him with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who describes Demos as the "true conservative" in the race. The flip side showed former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, saying, "George [Demos] is a conservative. Period."
The dueling pieces are evidence of both campaigns' rightward tilt in the tense and increasingly testy June 24 primary, which local officials expect to be extremely close. The winner gets to take on six-term incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) on Nov. 4 in a district that includes the East End, Brookhaven Town and part of Smithtown.
"I'm proud to say that I'm the only candidate in this race that Long Islanders know and trust," Zeldin 34, a New York State senator from Shirley, said in a May 23 radio debate with Demos. Zeldin, who has the Conservative Party ballot line, also vowed "to protect constitutional rights and liberties and stop [the] Common Core" curriculum.
Demos, speaking to 50 sportsmen in Cutchogue last week, said he was "not the candidate of the political bosses" and said he would fight hard for conservative causes such as gun rights.
"I get so upset with government bureaucrats and liberals trying to use every tragedy to take away our rights," said Demos, banging a chair in the front row. "This chair can be used as a weapon. It doesn't mean we should ban chairs."
Zeldin, a lawyer and Army Reserve major who served in Iraq, is a two-term incumbent who already represents part of the 1st Congressional District. He first won office by opposing the MTA payroll tax.
Backed by state and local GOP and Conservative Party leaders, Zeldin is endorsed by 60 local officials, national Republicans including former presidential contenders John McCain and Rick Santorum, and ex-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato.
According to his federal campaign filing for April 1 to June 4, Zeldin spent $392,557 since March and $584,983 overall. Chapin Fay, Zeldin's campaign manager, estimated that about $100,000 of the $149,610 in cash on hand is reserved for use in the Nov. 4 election.
Demos, 37, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer, spent $945,028 since March and $1.9 million overall, much of it on TV ads, according to his most recent Federal Election Commission report. He had $383,789 in cash.
Demos has charged repeatedly in ads that Zeldin backed the Affordable Care Act with a budget vote he cast in the State Senate, and voted to raise taxes 104 times. Zeldin said he adamantly opposes Obamacare: "He is lying about my record," Zeldin said of Demos. "He is desperate and willing to say anything, do anything . . . to buy a seat."
The vote Demos cites was to re-appropriate $3.5 million in existing Medicaid funding that had not been spent. Zeldin said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo by a 2012 executive order set up state exchanges for Obamacare on his own because "State Senate Republicans refused to put the bill on the floor."
Zeldin says Demos' tax-hike claims also are false, noting most of the votes involved routine reauthorizations of existing taxes and fees, including renewal of Suffolk's sales tax, which local officials had sought to balance their budgets.
Zeldin labeled Demos a "professional candidate" who has repeatedly run for Congress, has held no other job for the last four years and never owned a house or paid property taxes in the district, only renting a home in Stony Brook. "His only connection to Long Island is the Midtown Tunnel," Zeldin said.
Demos, in the debate, said he has paid property taxes in Brookhaven. Town records showed Demos made the second half-year payment of $11,566 June 2 on the rental home, which a Demos aide said was done by agreement with the owners. An official in the tax receiver's office said the owners paid the first half taxes.
Zeldin also has tried to tie Demos to national Democrats, saying Demos' money comes largely from his billionaire developer father-in-law Angelo Tsakopoulos and California Democrats who give to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Demos says Zeldin's attacks have nothing to do with important national issues.
"His entire campaign has been focused on personal things, what street I'm on, what taxes I've paid and personal things about my family in California. Of course, my family supports me." He also discounted Zeldin's effort to tie him to Pelosi, whom Demos said he "can't stand."
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said the push to the right by Demos and Zeldin will backfire in the general election. "It's a battle about who can get out the tea party vote, but they are going too far right for most voters in the district," Schaffer said.