First District Seat in New York Pitts Freshman Against Revenge-Seekers

In the hardscrabble Long Island politics of New York’s 1st Congressional District, freshman Democrat Rep. Tim Bishop (search) knows that Republicans, bitter about their narrow loss in 2002, will be seeking revenge this November.

But the former provost of Southampton College and his supporters say he hasn’t spent the last two years resting on his laurels. Bishop has been consistently laboring to prove to this politically volatile district that it should return him to Washington in 2004.

“It will be a tough race, but it is a district for which I feel I worked very, very hard,” Bishop told Heading back home, Bishop emphasizes his desire to represent his Long Island constituents, who range from blue-collar working class to the elite of the Hamptons

“I want to stay in Congress because I want to make sure there will be someone who will be there in Washington to do what the working class and working families need,” he said. “This is a seat that the Democrats will work hard to protect.”

Greg Speed, press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (search) agrees, and said Bishop was in a great position to defend his incumbency.

“Tim Bishop has been doing everything right – he’s been working unbelievably hard in the district, he’s all over the newspapers and we have nothing but good things to say about him,” he added.

Registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats in the first district, which covers eastern Suffolk County from Smithtown on the North Shore down to Patchogue on the South Shore, as well as Shelter and Plum Islands, and most of the vacation-friendly Fire Island and the Hamptons.

The district has backed Republican Gov. George Pataki, and went strongly for Suffolk County native Rick Lazio, a former GOP congressman, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2000.

But as acknowledged by Bishop's 2002 victory, the GOP cannot expect slam-dunks here – the district voted 52 percent for Al Gore over George W. Bush four years ago, and for President Bill Clinton in 1996.

While the voters refuse to be politically pigeonholed, they don’t give many second-chances, or suffer political miscalculations lightly.

After Rep. Mike Forbes, a Republican who won the first district seat during the 1994 Republican revolution, switched parties in 1999, voters there handed the seat to Republican challenger Felix Grucci as a show of their distaste for such moves.

But Grucci didn’t last long either. He was riding high in the polls in 2002, but then launched an ad campaign against challenger Bishop, accusing him of being soft on rape as college provost. The campaign was met with such outcry that he lost his seat after one term by a mere 2,750 votes.

Now Republicans say that thanks to Grucci, the wrong party is representing Suffolk County in Washington, D.C., and they are bent on getting it back in 2004. But so far, only one challenger has stepped forward, former Bush Department of Transportation official Bill Manger (search).

Manger, who served on the Southampton local board of trustees in 1997, worked on the Lazio campaign and the Bush transition team in 2000. He told that he has already raised about $270,000 after declaring on Dec. 2.

“My motivation is that since the November 2002 elections, the first district in New York has had a void in leadership and the mere fact that a Republican district is being represented by a minority party by a freshman congressman who has not been able to deliver anything,” Manger said.

Manger reported that while Bishop has expressed strong support for working families in Long Island, he voted against the Bush tax cut and the recent Medicare (search) prescription drug proposal.

“I do think that the tax cuts passed by the Republicans have had an impact – it helped to stimulate jobs in the economy, and as a whole, taxes are a major issue on eastern Long Island,” said Manger.

“If he really thinks we should have prolonged the recession longer, then I would like to see him answer to the constituents about that,” he added.

Bishop defends his votes, and lashed out at the Bush administration, which he said has failed his most important constituencies -- seniors, veterans and working families.

"In many ways [the Bush administration] has declared war on the environment, on working families and with very few exceptions, has put corporate interests before the public interest and that is not what the district needs," he said.

There has been speculation that Grucci might seek a rematch, and Republican Brookhaven Town Supervisor John Jay LaValle could jump in too, but neither has made their intentions public.

Anthony Manetta, president of the Roosevelt Strategy Group (search), a political consulting firm that is working with Manger, said Bishop has had a tight press operation and has been using the power of incumbency to make headlines on hot button issues important to the district.

“But he hasn’t pushed one bill though Congress yet,” he said. “Not to knock him personally, but I think he was in the right place at the right time in 2002. It was really a testament of the anti-Grucci vote and Bishop was the beneficiary of that sentiment. It was a nightmare.”

Democratic supporters wave these assertions away, and say Republicans are going to have to try harder to oust a representative they say has become a very popular legislator.

“Every election in that district is tough. But as long as you work hard they will send you back, and [Bishop] has been working very hard, I see him all over the place,” said Democratic Rep. Steve Israel (search), who represents the nearby 2nd district in Long Island.

“He has a very strong presence,” said Israel. “He is under no illusions – he knows his predecessor made some political mistakes and that he would have to work much harder to be re-elected and he’s fulfilled that challenge. He’s taking nothing for granted.”