Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
When tea party activist Steve Labate first tried to run for Congress two years ago, he thought he'd be able to get all the campaign funds he needed by issuing a "money bomb" -- an email appeal to like-minded activists.
He got $13,000. That was far short of the $1 million to $3 million needed to be competitive in a congressional race against Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills), and Republican Party leaders passed him over.
But Labate is back, and GOP officials say he is their choice for the nomination to challenge Israel this year.
He has impressed GOP officials by learning how to campaign from the ground up. He and supporters have involved themselves in other candidates' races -- even working in 2010 for Republican John Gomez, who ended up with the GOP nomination but lost to Israel.
"I've learned an incredible amount," said Labate, a retirement counselor and Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who did two stints in the Middle East. "Not everyone can be Teddy Roosevelt and charge up the hill all by yourself . . . In order to win the war you have to have people behind you and willing to support you financially."
Toni Tepe, Huntington GOP chairwoman, recalled that Labate "wasn't happy when we didn't choose him. But he didn't walk away. He worked in campaigns, learned a great deal and became part and parcel of what we do."
Frank Tantone, Islip GOP chairman, agreed: "He has his own following, a little army that worked in our town campaign last fall."
Labate has hired an experienced team. Jake Menges, a former operative for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is campaign manager. Professional fundraiser Christine Comer, who also is working for Republican Randy Altschuler in his race against Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), has signed on. Bohemia political consultant Michael Dawidziak is handling polling.
But Labate is still an underdog. Israel is a 12-year incumbent in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans, 161,000 to 126,000, and another 105,000 are unaffiliated. The district sprawls from Bayport through Huntington and Plainview, though new congressional lines are expected soon.
Israel has raised $1.4 million and has $587,000 cash on hand, and as head of House Democrats' campaign committee he has access to a broad range of contributors.
Labate has raised $89,685 and has $50,034 on hand, and says he must raise "seven figures" to be competitive. But he says he has three fundraisers planned in March, including one in Manhattan headlined by former GOP presidential contender Steve Forbes.
It's going to be a hard fight," Labate said. Israel is "a fighter, but I'm not a wallflower either."
Israel declined to be interviewed, but through a spokeswoman said, "We still have plenty of time before campaign season kicks into full gear, but I never take anything for granted. I'll continue to work on issues that affect Long Islanders like jobs, protecting Medicare and Social Security and providing tax cuts for the middle class. I will worry about that and let the Republicans worry about whom to run against me."
Labate said he will not be partisan, and instead will take a "common sense" approach to issues. "I don't think many Democratic voters are pleased we're bleeding jobs over the last two years, or [about] the fact we're slashing the defense budget when we still have thousands of soldiers overseas," he said.
But Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman and Babylon Town supervisor, said Labate lacks positive proposals.
"The only things I hear are negative," Schaffer said. "I have never heard any positive solution for problems facing this nation."