Fire Island Politicos
“Donkeys on the Dunes, Pachyderms on la Playa”
By Jeffrey Salzberger

We all know that Robert Moses was here—a lot. In the 1960s, he spent a great deal of time slugging it out with Interior Secretary Stuart Udall, Representative John V. Lindsay, Congressman Otis Pike and Senators Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating over the future of our beloved beach. Besides these gentlemen however, there were many politicians who visited us from time to time, and for various reasons. Some were here to save the Island, some were here to stump, and some were mixing business with pleasure.

Besides old Bob Moses, others came to Fire Island for less nefarious reasons in the 1960s. Congressman John Lindsay, a liberal Republican from New York City, came out to Seaview in late August 1964 to swim in the Atlantic Ocean with his family, soak up some sun, and alleviate the fears of some Fire Island property owners. He was quoted in The Fire Island News at the time of his visit: “I think they can relax and settle down. The Interior Department isn’t going to do anything to disrupt properties.” He would give a quote to one of our reporters and then dive into the surf for a while. His effortless charm “on island” may have helped win him the New York City Mayoral election in 1966.

Robert Kennedy also came to visit his constituents on Fire Island. He was elected Senator of New York State in 1964, defeating the aforementioned Keating, and by July of 1965, he was cruising around the walks of the barrier beach, shaking hands and charming everyone. He was a lot more buttoned up than Lindsay, opting for a suit and tie the entire time he was here.

On September 2, 1967, Reverend Martin Luther King was in Seaview and Ocean Bay Park, speaking about community, the war in Vietnam, anti-semitism and the need for a third political party. He was a guest of John Morrin, who organized the rally, and whose home Dr. King used to give his speech. A cocktail party was held after the rally in OBP, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hyman Abbot, where $4,000 was raised for the American Institute on Nonviolence. While posters were torn from dune fencing and telephone poles around the community by those opposed to Dr. King’s visit, the gathering was still attended by over 1,500 people. It elicited responses from the predominantly white audience such as, “tell them, brother, tell them.” Authors Herman Wouk and Bel Kaufman were in attendance, and both expressed enthusiasm about hearing the civil rights leader speak, but dismay regarding the poor reception from some residents. Kaufman was quoted in the New York Times on September 4, 1967 saying, “The people you would like to reach are never the ones who show up at meetings.”

The 70s added quite a bit of punch to the political circuit, and also marked the emergence of women as a force in what was previously an all-boy’s club.

In 1975, after an unsuccessful bid for mayor two years earlier, Ed Koch’s campaign manager, John LoCicero, met political operator and campaign media expert David Garth on a Fire Island beach. By 1977, with the help of these two men, Ed Koch left his seat in Congress and was elected Mayor of New York City. It was a bitterly fought contest, and Fire Island was a battleground of the utmost importance.

There were several candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for NYC Mayor in 1977, including Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo. Abzug and Koch pounded the sand, so to speak, attempting to impress a wide variety of island dwellers. Both arrived the same week to stump and both were featured on the cover of the Fire Island News for the week of August 20, 1977.

Koch, a renter in Fair Harbor and Seaview, held a fundraising dinner at Democratic Representative Stephen Solarz’s Seaview home. Koch’s Island experience began in Seaview as a grouper in a house called “the Brave Bulls” in 1956, and he was on the island in 1963 while campaigning against Tammany Hall boss, Carmine DeSapio, for the position of district leader in Greenwich Village.

Bella Abzug, formerly an Ocean Bay Park resident, stated as an aside in her speech at the Pines, “you may recall I’m running for Mayor of the City of New York.” She entertained everyone and raised a small fortune that Saturday night, both in the Pines, and in Seaview, at the Knobler home. She was offered quiche by an eager supporter, and when she arrived on the Seaview Ferry, a member of the party sent to meet her, asked her friends as the boat pulled to the dock, “Do you see a hat?” While Abzug’s visit was filled with humor, one of her promises was getting a gay rights ordinance passed in the City Council. Her reception, both because of the promised ordinance, and her activism in the past, was no less than joyous chaos. Some had less than noble intentions for their presence at the fundraisers. One woman was quoted as saying, “for $5, I can drink myself silly.” Business and pleasure always mix on Fire Island.

Also in 1977, NY State Senator Carol Bellamy was running for City Council President. She came to the Pines and Cherry Grove, campaigning barefoot along the beach, shaking hands with sunbathers and revelers, many of them, completely nude.

“I’ve never spoken to a reporter before barefoot and in a bathing suit,” said an amused Congresswoman, Geraldine Ferraro to a News reporter. The interview took place on the deck of her Saltaire home, September 3, 1983. She had not yet been offered the VP slot with Walter Mondale, but was contemplating a Senate run in 1986.

Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, fresh from a House reprimand, and an appearance in front of the Ethics Committee, held a fundraiser at the oceanfront home of Adam R. Rose. He was ethically investigated on the grounds that he had hired a male prostitute as an assistant, and that the gentleman in question then ran a prostitution ring out of Frank’s apartment. It was August of 1990, and there was a new decade upon us. Representative Frank’s fundraiser was a success, and when he was asked what he and his lover, Herb Moses, thought of Fire Island, he responded in dry fashion, “We enjoyed the island a lot.”

David Dinkins came to Fire Island to meet with his longtime friend, Bill Hayden, in the Pines. The year was 1993, and times were starting to change in New York City. His Honor was here where things were progressing as usual, and for $500, a contributor could speak and have a photo taken with him. The atmosphere was relaxed as always. Hayden described Dinkins as “one of us,” and that he was “among friends” when he was on Fire Island. Hizzoner played tennis in Dunewood early on, where lucky donors got to hit the court with him. There was also a fundraising lunch in Fair Harbor. The Mayor had a cake for his 66th birthday, and went to the Pines at Forty celebration later in the evening, followed by cocktails at Fred Hochberg’s house.

Governor and former minor league baseball player Mario Cuomo came to speak on the beach here and field questions from a large audience, including SOS and FIA members. Gerard Stoddard had several conversations with Cuomo, and one thing the two men considered was the fact that part of a barrier beach cannot be protected. It’s all or none. Cuomo was quoted by the Fire Island News in July of 1993, from his podium on the beach. He said, “of course, beach restoration must be done,” but as Stoddard would counter: though this visit was a positive step for the barrier beach’s survival, if the Corps of Engineers sits on its hands, “all of this just amounts to nothing.” Cuomo spent the rest of the day chatting with residents and organization members in his casual gear—baseball cap and windbreaker.

Deborah J. Glick was running for Manhattan Borough President in 1997, and in June of that year she held a two-part fundraiser in the Pines. The first event was a cocktail party hosted by Jim Pepper and Tim Gergel. The second was a dinner party at the home of Tom Healey and Fred Hochberg. They raised $15,000 for the Glick campaign. Not only was this a place for Glick to raise money, but also a forum for her to refute her opponent’s claim that she let lesbianism define her platform. Glick spoke about everything she believed in, from gay rights and reproductive freedom, to mass transit and the environment. She called her time on the island “an emotional boost.”

Fernando Ferrer got an early start in the NYC Mayoral race, by doing a fundraiser hosted by Phil and Lucy Suarez at their Fair Harbor home in early August of 2000. In attendance were Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah and Victor Kovner, and Natalie and Chuck Rogers, all there to contribute to Ferrer’s effort.

Annually, since his miraculous run for President, Howard Dean visits the Pines, raising money for the DNC with the help of Brandon Fradd. Mark Green also campaigned in the Pines while running for NYC Mayor. Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer make yearly visits as they promise to back any bill to put sand on the beach. This summer, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) was seen in the Pines at the home of Perry Wolfman also raising money for the DNC.

With fundraising and campaigning coming earlier and earlier in any politician’s administration, Fire Island will never have a paucity of political visitors. These men and women on the hustings add to our abundant island wildlife. We all know about plovers and deer, but did you know that there are also elephants and donkeys on the beach?