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Michael Miller

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By Michael Miller
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Otis Pike: This Congressman Went His Own Way

Not everyone was thrilled when, in the summer of 1964, Attorney General Robert Kennedy decided to establish a residence in Glen Cove and run for the U.S. Senate from New York. RFK was an international celebrity, but it took a lot of talking and maneuvering by Nassau Democratic Chairman Jack English, state coordinator of the Draft Kennedy movement, to assure Mayor Robert Wagner and others that RFK was an asset and not a threat to them. Within a few weeks, nearly the entire Democratic Party establishment was in line for Kennedy.

Congressman Otis Pike of the First Congressional District in Suffolk County went his own way. Always. Pike stuck with Schenectady Congressman Sam Stratton. At the state nominating convention, Pike and Stratton tried to block the delegates from granting the “Wilson-Pakula” authorization allowing Kennedy, not an enrolled New York Democrat, to run. Pike personally nominated Stratton, attacking any nomination of Kennedy as a blunder doomed to fail.

Kennedy whipped Stratton, 968 weighted votes to 153. Kennedy carried the Nassau delegation by 70 to zero, and Suffolk by 24 to eight.

Some people in the party never forgave Pike, whose relationship with RFK and his allies never thawed. But Pike kept winning, usually by very large margins in districts in which between seven and eight out of 10 voters were not Democrats.

Pike spent a mere $225,000 in 2013 money across his last two campaigns, averaging 65 percent of the vote in a district in which Nixon beat McGovern with 70 percent.

Pike represented Suffolk County in the House from 1961 to 1979, surviving three hostile redistrictings by Republicans. After his death last week, it went unreported that his original district included all of Suffolk County and also Oyster Bay south of Jericho Turnpike. Nassau County residents cast just over a quarter of the district’s votes in 1960. Pike actually lost the Suffolk County portion of the district that year and was put over the top by a 9,000-vote plurality in Hicksville, Plainview, Bethpage, Farmingdale and Massapequa.

Pike’s victory, coming on the heels of some near-wins by Nassau Dems in 1958 and 1959, panicked some leaders of the incredibly powerful Nassau Republican organization. They’d always feared the waves of new voters filling the unincorporated neighborhoods, and Pike’s win seemed to fulfill some dreaded ancient prophecy. Several long-time public officials, including County Executive Holly Patterson, were ejected. Mistakes were made, leading to the election of Democrat Gene Nickerson as county executive in 1961.

For years, Pike and Nickerson were continually linked together. They were two talented, appealing elected officials whose victories were seen not just as breakthroughs for Democrats on Long Island, but also in the growing suburbs all across the United States. Both appeared ticketed for statewide and even national office. However, it seemed to many that there was room for only one Long Islander on statewide tickets, and the Nickerson and Pike camps spent years ruthlessly torpedoing each other’s statewide ambitions.

In 1966, Pike played a pivotal role in derailing Nickerson’s front-running bid for the gubernatorial nomination by holding back support from Suffolk Democrats. Two years later, Pike seemed assured of the party designation for the U.S. Senate nomination. Just before dinner, Pike was the presumptive designee. Two hours later, party leaders emerged from a room and announced that their choice was Nickerson, who hadn’t even been a candidate. Pike was visibly shaken and never publicly spoke of running for higher office again.

Pike remained an ardent hawk on the Vietnam War and a skeptic regarding domestic spending, though his own haul of bacon dwarfed those of other local Representatives. He played a major role in exposing and reigning in CIA surveillance of American citizens.

Pike, possibly the most popular Democrat of his era on Long Island, walked away from Congress on his own terms.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net