LI TOPIC: What Can Al Gore Do to Help Long Island Democrats Win?

More appearances, but no one expects he’ll come around much.


August 19, 2000

by Mark J. Grossman

Republicans here on Long Island are chomping at the bit about Rick Lazio’s candidacy, and for good reason. With two Democratic U.S. senators ruling New York for the last year and half, Lazio offers the hope of a recaptured GOP voice in Washington to replace Al D’Amato and a top-of-the-ticket vote-getter to help the Republican line.

But if you look at the election of 1998, along with enrollment trends since 1996, you’ll see that it’s way too soon for the GOP to pop the champagne cork.

Long Island Democrats will win — with or without Al Gore.

Take 1998, for example. Long Island’s favorite son, Al D’Amato, was running against “liberal,” “out-of-touch” Chuck Schumer. National and state Republicans thought of Long Island as safe political territory, and it was conventional GOP wisdom that any poor showing in urban areas could be made up by big wins in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Well, as the numbers poured in on election eve ’98, Democrats knew victory was at hand when it was clear that Schumer was running a near dead heat on Republican-reliable Long Island, losing by just 10,000 votes Islandwide, along head-to-head Democrat vs. Republican lines.

The reason? The party’s base vote operation worked . . . and worked well. Leaders realized that by mobilizing core voting groups that traditionally vote Democratic — even in suburban “Republican” counties such as Nassau and Suffolk — it could beat back even the strongest GOP challenge.

It’s a strategy that was born out of the often-discussed urban voting pattern problem that has plagued Democrats nationally for the past decade — the problem of declining turnout among New York City’s traditional Democratic base. It’s the problem that many say cost former Gov. Mario Cuomo the election in 1994.

But all that seems to be changing. Democrats are coming out to vote — and enrolling to vote — in record numbers. Not only has the statewide Democratic enrollment edge grown from 1.7 million to 1.9 million since 1996, but also Democratic enrollment here on Long Island has soared 10.4 percent. That’s more than twice that of the Republican Party during the same period. And Long Island’s strong showing for national and statewide Democrats since that year indicate that they’re not only registering to vote, but coming out to the polls as well.

So what does this mean for 2000? It means that Nassau and Suffolk are, as they say in the political business, “in play.” It means that the Republican National Committee and the state GOP can’t take Long Island for granted in 2000. It also means that Rick Lazio can’t be assured a big Long Island win just because he happens to be from here.

Based on Long Island voters’ wide support of the politically moderate Clinton-Gore tickets of ’92 and ’96, the equally moderate Gore-Lieberman ticket will, very likely, win big here in the bi-county region once again. And Hillary Clinton, along with Democratic candidates for Congress and the state Legislature, will benefit immensely by these trends.

Democrats also see real opportunity to take near total control of the Long Island congressional delegation. While Rep. Mike Forbes has yet to find clear political footing as a Democrat, the reality is that his primary election opposition hasn’t shown much teeth. Besides, polls show that party-switchers are viewed as courageous by their electorate. And history shows that party switchers, both locally and nationally who have a record of past winning, continue to win.

The 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary battle is, so far, turning out to be a rather civil affair, much to the GOP’s dismay. They hoped a contentious primary between Huntington Town councilman Steve Israel and Suffolk Legis. David Bishop would cripple the ultimate victor in the race against Republican Joan Johnson, the Islip town clerk. The winner of that primary — who may ultimately profit by the added name recognition afforded by a primary — will benefit from an opponent with no legislative record or experience in a district that elected a Democrat to Congress for the two pre-Lazio decades.

In addition, Gore’s vice presidential choice of Sen. Joe Lieberman, from border state Connecticut, will certainly help galvanize the Jewish-American vote — an important base vote constituency which has too often defected in recent years to a Republican Party that has pandered to them on issues regarding Israel. It will not only help the winner of the Israel-Bishop contest, but will certainly help Hillary Clinton as well.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose too-close-for-comfort margin of victory last time out served as a wake-up call for her political operation, will benefit from a reenergized and winning Democratic Party under the leadership of state Assemb. Tom DiNapoli, also Nassau County Democratic leader, and an electorate still very skeptical of the Nassau GOP’s ability to govern. That skepticism may add momentum to last year’s historic wins in Hempstead Town — the Nassau GOP power base — and install a Democratic majority as a result of the court- ordered council district elections on November’s ballot.

Interestingly, Long Island Democrats will do all this without the benefit of presidential campaign visits and the political shots-in-the-arm they provide. It’s an electoral college reality that candidates need to be in states where opportunity exists. By all accounts, New York is clearly a Gore-Lieberman state. It’s a big-picture reality that New York Democrats have come to expect, and understand.

But while Al Gore and the national Democratic leadership are stumping in other states, you can be sure that they will be watching — and supporting — several key races here.

Retaining the Forbes and McCarthy seats, and retaking the 2nd Congressional seat, are keys to winning back a House majority. And retaining Pat Moynihan’s U.S. Senate seat is critical to Democrats retaking an upper house majority. That’s why Hillary Clinton has, and will continue to, spend so much time and political effort in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Opportunity exists here.

Mark J. Grossman is president of a Holtsville public relations firm whose clients include the New York State Democratic Party. The opinions expressed are his own.

Mark Grossman, LI TOPIC / What Can Al Gore Do to Help Long Island Democrats Win? More appearances, but no one expects he’ll come around much. Newsday, 08-19-2000, pp B07.