The two candidates in the Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District are well-versed on the record of incumbent Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), criticizing him sharply and attempting to tie him to President Donald Trump as they walk the district buttonholing voters.
“He was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was,” Liuba Grechen Shirley, 37, a Democratic activist from Amityville with experience in nonprofits, said in an interview at her campaign headquarters in Massapequa earlier this month.
Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), 49, presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, told a Wheatley Heights voter on the doorstep of his home last week that King was acting like a “Siamese twin” of the president.
The candidates in Tuesday’s primary largely agree on many key issues. Both support Medicare for All and criticize the cost of student loan debt and health care.
But they differ sharply on which of them has the best chance to unseat King, a 13-term incumbent, in the general election in November.
Grechen Shirley says Gregory missed his chance to defeat King in 2016, when he was the Democratic candidate in the 2nd District. King beat Gregory, 62 percent to 38 percent.
“DuWayne Gregory likes to talk about his legislative record, but he also has an electoral record,” Grechen Shirley said. “You have to give people something to be inspired to vote for. You can’t just run against Peter King, to inspire people.”
Gregory cites his decade of experience in the Suffolk Legislature, where he worked on legislation such as public financing of campaigns and a 5-cent fee on plastic shopping bags in a county with a strong Republican presence.
“I think it’s important that we not just send any candidate against Peter King, and ultimately go on to Washington,” Gregory said. “I have the record to do it. If you’re in need of surgery, you go to the person who has experience with surgery, and not just someone who’s contemplating going to med school or read about it in a textbook.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, a newsletter that analyzes elections, considers the 2nd District a “Solid Republican” seat.
However, active registered Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans — 159,400 to 155,996 — according to the State Board of Elections. Nearly 115,000 voters are unaffiliated with a political party, with the remainder aligned with minor parties.
The 2nd District extends from central and western Nassau County to eastern Suffolk County and includes Fire Island’s communities.
The district includes solidly Republican communities such as Levittown, Seaford, and Massapequa. But it also encompasses neighborhoods that may favor Democrats, such as Brentwood and Central Islip in Suffolk County, home to a growing Latino population, and Wyandanch, which has a large black population.
Gregory also has the Independence Party line and is expected to appear on the ballot in the general election even if he loses the Democratic primary.
Gregory, who has represented much of the Suffolk portion of the 2nd District as a county legislator since 2008, is an Army veteran who became the first person of color to serve as presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature when he was elected to the post in 2014.
Grechen Shirley, who was raised in Amityville, moved back to the district in 2015 from Manhattan. She has worked for nonprofits during a career that has focused on issues including economic development and alleviation of poverty. She also founded the grass roots group New York’s 2nd District Democrats.
Grechen Shirley has outraised Gregory by a margin of more than 3-1, according to Federal Election Commission filings through June 6, the end of the most recent filing period.
Her campaign has raised $462,128.33 and has $142,639 in cash on hand. Gregory’s campaign has raised $132,128.80 and has $12,357.68 in cash on hand.
Grechen Shirley, who gained national attention in the spring when the FEC approved her request to pay child care costs with campaign funds, has received campaign donations and endorsements from actors including Alec Baldwin, Natalie Portman and Rosie O’Donnell.
“To go up against Peter King with $3 million in a war chest, you need to be able to raise the funds,” said Grechen Shirley. “We have a lot of support locally, but it’s also, it’s great to have the national endorsements and people supporting from outside the district, because we’re going to need the support of Democrats and progressive people from around the country to unseat a 25-year Republican incumbent.”
Gregory has been critical of Grechen Shirley’s outside support.
“Her money, and her grass roots support, a lot of it is coming from the city,” Gregory said. “And I think it turns off people. People don’t want their representatives to be determined by outside forces.”
Democrat Christine Pellegrino, a state assemblywoman from West Islip who has endorsed Grechen Shirley’s campaign, said Grechen Shirley supported her successful Assembly bid last year in which she defeated Thomas Gargiulo, a Conservative.
Pellegrino, who replaced Republican Assemb. Joseph Saladino, now the Oyster Bay supervisor, was among the first of a group of Democrats across the nation to win historically Republican legislative seats in the first year of Trump’s presidency. Progressive activists cited Pellegrino’s victory as a sign of a “blue wave.”
“I think when you have the unique marriage of a great candidate with good organizing, and the message that resonates, what you find is the energy that gets people out to volunteer and ultimately to vote, and that’s what we’re going to need,” Pellegrino said.
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk County Democratic Party chairman, who is backing Gregory in the 2nd District primary, expressed doubt about a blue wave as a factor in the race.
“People are counting on this big, blue wave, or this big blue tsunami, and I’m out at public events and I’m not hearing the makings of a big blue tsunami,” or that voters are “going to turn out every last Republican that’s connected with Trump,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer said Gregory has “the progressive credentials of a Democrat, and he’s got the established credentials of an elected official who’s cut across party lines.”
King, 74, said in an interview, “To me, they can fight each other and whoever wins, I’ll see them in November.”
King also said he doubted progressive activism nationwide would propel Gregory or Grechen Shirley to victory in the fall, noting national polls showing the spread of a blue wave have diminished since last year.
“Just because you have two people rather than one, doesn’t mean there’s a lot of energy,” King said. “This basically is a Trump district.”
LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY
Education/career: Grechen Shirley earned a bachelor’s degree from New York University in politics and Russian. She has an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, where she specialized in management, economics and social innovation. She has worked for nonprofits on issues including economic development and alleviation of poverty.
Family: Married with two children.
Education/career: Gregory, who grew up in Central Islip, earned a bachelor’s degree in justice and public policy from North Carolina Wesleyan College. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of first lieutenant. He serves as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature. Gregory first was elected to the legislature in 2008 to represent the 15th District, and also served as majority leader.
Family: Married with four children