Against Bishop, It’s GOP’s Move

Favored Candidate May Not Decide on 1st District Bid Until 2004

Posted August 15, 2003 at 4:38pm

Republicans see a golden opportunity to retake a Long Island Congressional district that has ousted incumbents in each of the past two elections, but they’ll have a while to wait before learning whether their top potential candidate will even run.

Freshman Rep. Tim Bishop (D) narrowly won New York’s 1st district race in 2002 under somewhat unusual circumstances, defeating then-freshman Rep. Felix Grucci (R) — who won the seat in 2000 following even odder events.

As Bishop readies his re-election drive, signs point to Grucci forgoing another run, while the GOP’s strongest potential challenger, Brookhaven city Supervisor John LaValle, won’t announce whether he’ll enter the race until late this year, following his re-election campaign for supervisor.

“I’m really not certain” about running for Congress, LaValle said. “I’m not that far along on the process.” A decision about running “will not enter my head until after the [town] election” in November, which could put him behind in fundraising and complicate GOP efforts to recapture the seat.

While the delay could provide an opening for another Republican, none are biting, at least so far.

Grucci told Roll Call in late June that “it’s too early to say [if I will run again]. I’m still looking at all of the options.” He was less equivocal this month, simply saying that “I have no plans to be running for the Congressional seat.”

Thomas Neppell Jr., chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee, said he does not expect Grucci to run. LaValle concurred, noting, “He may want to run, but I don’t believe he’s on the short list.”

Grucci did, however, file a statement of organization Feb. 3 and a statement of candidacy Feb. 8, according to www.fec.gov, but raised no funds during 2003’s second quarter. He has about $24,000 on hand and disbursed $13,000 in the second quarter. Grucci said he filed in February to “help to reduce our debt.”

Additionally, a $6 million defamation lawsuit filed by Long Island University against the Grucci for Congress organization is still pending. LIU filed the action after 2002 campaign radio ads alleged that Bishop, formerly the university provost, had mishandled rape cases at the school. The ads badly backfired, and after they aired Bishop rebounded in polls and eventually prevailed by 2,421 votes. In 2000, Grucci defeated then-71-year-old Democratic librarian Regina Seltzer, who in a year of unusual election events had upset Republican-turned-Democratic Rep. Michael Forbes by 35 votes in the primary.

All this indicates that it may be next year before Republicans have a good feel for their chances in the 1st. “There are people here in the 1st district who would have an excellent chance of defeating Bishop,” Neppell said. “Once they declare, then we’ll know [where we stand]. Right now it’s up in the air.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee will leave it to 1st district Republicans to pick their horse, according to spokesman Carl Forti. “We’re looking for the party up there to come up with a candidate,” he said, but added that “it’s a district we’ll take a long, hard look at,” particularly since it has changed hands frequently and Bishop won it narrowly.

The GOP will take an even longer and harder look at the race should LaValle take the plunge. Now 35, he is the youngest-ever Brookhaven supervisor, and was elected with a record-setting 71 percent of the vote in 2001. The town board originally had appointed him to the office in December 2000 after then-Supervisor Grucci resigned to join Congress.

Many had thought LaValle would run for Suffolk County executive, but in March he said he would instead seek re-election as supervisor. “Everyone had written me off as running for county executive,” he said, “and they were shocked” when he announced otherwise.

Of course, LaValle’s choice increased speculation that he was preparing to run against Bishop once his re-election as Brookhaven supervisor was in the can. LaValle downplayed that idea. “I am very happy with [my] current job,” he said. “The possibility of a Congressional run played very little in my decision.

“I haven’t gotten any pressure locally or nationally to jump in this time or at any time,” he said. “The fact is, I’m not in a position to even ponder the thought until later this year.” This is partially because the all-Republican Brookhaven Town Council will be elected by district this year, as opposed to entirely at-large, as in the past, and this change requires extra work. Additionally, a local Republican official was recently indicted on charges of grand larceny, while another pleaded guilty to bribery. “We don’t have a lot of time to be spinning pencils, talking about the future.” LaValle also recently became engaged.

LaValle sees Bishop as especially vulnerable because he is a first-term incumbent, and cites “frustration in this community. … Some of our needs are not being addressed.” His only concern is that should he decide not to run, he wants to make sure the GOP candidate “hits the ground running, [so] I’ll make a decision in a reasonable period of time.” He would not specify a date, however.

Tom Oberle, who will challenge LaValle for supervisor, said his opponent’s flirtation with Congress could become an issue in their race. “Everyone out here in Brookhaven knows he’s virtually obsessed” with running for Bishop’s seat, he said. “He’s not being truthful to the people.” Oberle also argued that Republican scandals have not abated under LaValle’s watch.

Jon Schneider, spokesman for Bishop, said the Congressman is too busy meeting with “thousands of” constituents to think much about whom his 2004 opponent might be.

He declined to say whether the Congressman would rather face LaValle, Grucci or someone else, but realized the GOP may target Bishop. “We trust [Republicans] will have someone on the ballot [who is] well- financed,” Schneider said, and House Majority Leader “Tom DeLay and his cronies will be going in” dropping cash on the race.

Schneider dismissed worries about his boss’ narrow win last year, noting he bucked a trend. “2002 was historic,” he said, as Bishop “was one of few Democrats to unseat an incumbent Republican. And we think we’ll be in a stronger position [next year] than in 2002.”

Bishop raised just over $350,000 in the first half of 2003 and finished June with about $203,000 in cash on hand.