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Suffolk Closeup:
Keys to a successful congressional campaign according to this district’s longest-serving congressman

Illustration: Fotolia

“He was an original,” said Joe Quinn last week about Otis G. Pike, the longtime congressman from Suffolk County. Quinn, a school administrator, was a top lieutenant to Pike.

Democrat Pike represented the First Congressional District of Suffolk in the House of Representatives for 18 years — the longest tenure, by far, of any member of Congress from the First CD since William Floyd of Mastic Beach, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, became the first person elected to the seat in 1789.

The First CD when Pike represented it, and still now, is made up of the five East End towns, Brookhaven, Smithtown and part of Islip.

2014 0507 Pike Otis
Otis Pike

Recently, I came across an old New Yorker article I’d kept, published exactly 50 years ago, about Pike and his winning ways — for which the magazine devoted 53 pages, an enormous length for a New Yorker piece. (Many of the pages had ads, still a 53-page story in The New Yorker is extraordinary.) In the piece by New Yorker writer Richard Harris, Pike and his top aides Quinn and attorney Aaron Donner detailed how Pike was able to win … and win …and win.

There are many lessons in the article for politics today.

Persistence: He first ran for the House of Representatives in 1958 against two-term incumbent Stuyvesant Wainwright of Wainscott. He lost. Wainwright was a formidable opponent. He was from a family of wealth — financer Jay Gould, a railroad magnate considered one of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age, was his great-grandfather — and he had solid Republican Party backing.

Pike, of Riverhead, dealt with the defeat by high activity in the next two years moving around the First CD and speaking at every venue that would have him.

“Otis put together one very funny, very good speech, and went out and spoke every place he could,” Donner noted in the New Yorker piece. “He got to be very much in demand, and by the next election a lot more people had heard of him — and he was a lot more expert as a campaigner.”

Hitting Hard: As Pike told the New Yorker: “My basic approach is that you should go on the offensive and stay there, and that you should have no more than three issues. The public will stop listening if you rain issues on their heads.”

The key issue in his second campaign against Wainwright was the incumbent’s attendance record. “We studied it and found that he been absent during about a third of roll-call votes,” said Donner. So “every place Otis went,” he would ask audience members “wouldn’t you go to work” if they were getting the pay of a member of Congress. “That put Wainwright on the defensive” and Pike kept pressing on this “for the rest of that campaign,” Donner said.

Spending Little Money: “Another unique thing about our campaign is how inexpensive they are,” said Donner. “We don’t believe that money wins elections. One reason we feel that way is that we have to, Pike being the most frugal man on Long Island. I once told him he was the only person I’d ever known who drove into a gas station in a Volkswagen and got only the emergency tank filled.”

The entire Pike campaign budget for the second and successful campaign against Wainwright in 1960 was $12,000, Quinn said last week.

Donner told The New Yorker that “we put on the original shoestring campaign — by selling red-and-white shoestrings for a dollar a pair.”

Quinn laughed last week about the campaign selling these shoe laces for $1 each. And he spoke about having dinner with Pike a few years before he died in 2014 and Pike expressing outrage about the multi-million dollar budgets of contemporary Congressional campaigns. “He said, ‘It is a disgrace,’ and that he “would never participate in this.”

Donner, of Bay Shore, has also passed on but Quinn, 83, of Smithtown, is fortunately still with us.

Don’t Hire PR People: Public relations people are involved in all Congressional races and in other political campaigns these days. But never in a Pike campaign.

“We found very early that we could save a great deal of money and avoid a great many headaches by staying away from public-relations men,” Donner told the New Yorker. “They cost like hell, and they are likely to ruin when they rule. P.R. men have a very tenuous regard for the truth. They always want to soup things up until all resemblance to reality is lost. And in politics a lie that’s exposed can kill you.”

Integrity and Wit: “We run a unique kind of campaign,” Donner said. “It’s uniquely subtle in the way Pike projects himself — as a man of integrity and wit. It’s not just that he has these qualities, it’s the way he’s able to convey an impression of them to an audience within a few minutes. Once he has spoken to a group, I doubt if anyone there forgets him.”

Pike decided to retire from Congress in 1979 and became a syndicated newspaper columnist. So popular, he could have stayed on as long as he wanted.

Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl