East End’s Power Wanes: Representation Lost in Congress and Legislature

political parties cartoon by mickey paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

The Congressmen for eastern Long Island have been from the very eastern part of it—Southampton, Riverhead or Wainscott— for nearly all the 60 years I have lived here. It seemed a wonderful thing. The district stretched out much to the west. Want to call our Congressman down in Washington? He was our neighbor. It felt pretty good.

We had Stuyvesant Wainwright from Wainscott for six terms between 1953 and 1961. Then we had Otis Pike from Riverhead for nine terms from 1961 to 1979. There was a gap of a few years when our Congressman was from farther west. But then came George J. Hochbrueckner from Laurel on the North Fork for four terms from 1987 to 1995, Michael Forbes from Riverhead for a term between 1999 and 2001, then after another outlander, Tim Bishop from Southampton for six terms between 2003 and 2015.

The district was gerrymandered a bit about five years ago. The North Fork got a Congressman of its own, but it extended to Stony Brook, and the South Fork extended farther into Brookhaven. But we still prevailed. All of eastern Long Island was about a million people. Yet for our five East End towns, we were just 110,000. We must be so smart to have those in the western part of the district elect us almost every time.

In 2014, Lee Zeldin from Brookhaven got elected. As a right wing Republican—he supported Trump—he was very attentive to the needs of us folks out here, although he was not from here. He was from Shirley. Most of us thought a successful former Southampton Town Supervisor, Anna Throne-Holst, would unseat him. But she failed. And this may bode ill for the East End. Maybe the rest of the district is coming to its senses.

Another change diminished the East End’s power during my time here. I was 16 when my parents moved out to Montauk. At that time, Suffolk County was controlled by the East End. The County consisted of a Board of Supervisors. Our five East End towns outvoted the rest of the county on almost every matter.

In 1965, “one person, one vote” became the law. And so our five East End towns, which then had a population of 60,000, bowed down to the western end’s 800,000. Now there were County Legislators whose districts coincided with population totals. Although the actual landmass of the East End, mostly farmland, was larger in acreage than the four towns to the west, the new configuration in the County was 17 legislators from the west and 2 legislators from the east. As a result, the west end always has its way with the more rural East End here. A mass exodus of government workers left Riverhead, the county seat. They moved 50 miles to the west, to Islip in the center of the county.

Only the state has retained power on the East End. Way back when, Perry Duryea Jr. from Montauk was the Leader of the State Assembly and the most powerful man in the state, other than the governor. Today, the power on the East End is provided by Fred Thiele from Sag Harbor, who has been our State Assemblyman. He’s been on that job for 10 terms and seems destined to have that job for life, so responsive is he to the needs of the East End. He does have an office in Albany, of course, but his main office is in Bridgehampton. And he works closely with Ken LaValle, the longtime office holder from the district just to the west of ours.

After one-person-one-vote, the powerless East End made a strong effort to create a breakaway county from Suffolk County. The East End is largely farmland and fishing. The rest of the county is suburbs to New York City. We hoped to create Peconic County.

The effort succeeded all the way to the desk of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He said no. And he prevailed. Two years ago, Silver resigned in disgrace. Perhaps Peconic County ought to be put on the table once again.

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