Bull in a China Shop

Feature: I crashed a wake with a congressional candidate

David Gurfein
Maj. David "Bull" Gurfein tears down a portrait of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein / AP

The baseball game was my idea. We were supposed to sit on the first base line, third deck. But instead of seeing the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard strike out Nationals shortstop Danny Espinosa to lead off the third, I stand in the Donohue-Cecere Funeral Home in Westbury and watch David "Bull" Gurfein pray over the body of a stranger. He looks at peace there on the kneeler, though he’ll tell me later that he’s uncomfortable at wakes, even the ones he doesn’t crash. He rises, pauses at the casket as if to say a final goodbye to a man he’d never said hello to, then turns to greet the grieving son. I lunge for the kneeler and remove the prayer card from my coat pocket. There’s some Hallmark verse on the back that funeral homes pass off as prayer—"Ah, bitter sweet was the trial to part from one as good as you"—and a print of St. Anthony on the front. The 13th Century Franciscan is the patron saint of things lost. He has helped me find everything from sunglasses to car keys, but not even he can help me recover the story I set out to write.

Gurfein’s running an underdog campaign against the Washington machine to become the first Republican to represent New York’s Fourth District since 1994; the Mets trail the Washington Nationals by one game. The metaphor writes itself. All I had to do was coast through a yawn-filled day on the campaign trail and I could see a baseball game for free. I didn’t count on Gurfein crashing a wake or accidentally getting inducted into a ridiculous veterans group or making a pitstop to help those Koreans.

The whole project seems ill-fated from the moment I leave D.C.—I trip a red light camera on I-295 at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday—to the moment I arrive in Long Island—Gurfein’s campaign manager gets a speeding ticket en route to our rendezvous—to my return home—either my rental car or the VW van next to me tripped the I-295 red light camera at 3:50 a.m. Wednesday. Twenty four hours of sleepless calamity. "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrano [the Fourth Congressional District of New York]."

Gurfein’s resumé and campaign announcement would make most candidates envious. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17 and qualified for officer candidate school after graduating from Syracuse. He led an infantry platoon in Desert Storm and cared for Cuban and Haitian refugees at Gitmo during Operation Sea Signal in 1996. He got an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2000, took an associate position at Goldman Sachs, and headed sales operations for a clothing chain. Then 9/11. Straight back to the Corps. He fought in Afghanistan and was captured on national television ripping a Saddam Hussein poster from a wall and dancing with Iraqi villagers in March 2003. He did liaison work on Capitol Hill on behalf of Special Operations Command before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2007 after the birth of his daughter. He opened his campaign in the fall of 2015 by rescuing two men from a burning car. No, really.

It’s all there on the door knob pamphlet he hands out to Long Island Railroad commuters five days a week. "Hi, I’m David Gurfein. I’m a retired Marine running to serve you again in Congress. Here’s my propaganda," he tells his would-be constituents. His 91-year-old mother, Vivien, stands next to him.

"People find it harder to yell at you if your mother is with you," Gurfein says. "Ninety percent are friendly and engaged. Five percent they’ll challenge you, and you can have a discussion. The other five, there’s no rational discussion."

Of course, I did not see any of these exchanges. The campaign makes an 11th hour decision to skip our originally planned meeting place and takes me to Mineola station instead, where we stroll through the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. Gurfein’s campaign finance director sits on the board and arranged a private tour. The candidate glad-hands with World War II-era warrant officers, the bomber jackets they wore in combat hanging off their skinny frames, and vets-turned-docents as school children marvel at warplanes and a bonafide lunar module. I talk to Vivien, author of the 2012 memoir "Limey" and Proud of it.

It’s obvious why Gurfein brings her along for meet-and-greets twice a week. She’s done three tours in Israel, volunteering in times of conflict to help the families of Israeli conscripts handle their day-to-day lives—a service record that will please the Fourth District’s large Jewish population. She also comes equipped with that British reserve that precludes her from committing the same mistakes as other nonagenarian, tell-it-like-is surrogates. "I told him he was crazy," she says of his campaign. She mimes a zipper when I ask her about his prospects, but lights up when I inquire about her outfit: a tasteful brown wool dress with blue trim, a brown cloche hat, and two-inch heels.

"I buy everything second-hand. Department stores treat you like dirt," she says. She insists she’s only patronized thrift shops since arriving in the United States after serving as a military nurse in Nottingham during World War II. Vivien met David’s father, her second husband, in New York. She possesses that deadpan English wit we’ve substituted with toilet humor.

"Hey, Mom, there’s a V-1. That’s what they dropped on you," Gurfein says up ahead as we transition from the fighter planes to the lunar exhibit.

"How charming," she says.

Gurfein wears a blue and red striped tie and blue windbreaker with a gold "USMC" emblem embossed above his heart. His friends call him Bull. He looks like something out of a Marine Corps recruitment poster: square jaw, intense blue eyes, salt-and-pepper hair high and tight even in retirement. Hollywood casting agents agreed. The first entry on his LinkedIn page says, "Prevented [A Few Good Men protagonist] Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) from ‘ripping the eyes out of Lt Daniel Kaffee's (Tom Cruise's) head and pissing in his dead skull.’" He spent a few days on the set, and once caught Demi Moore snickering at him as he stood his courtroom guard post. It unnerved him enough to ask the actress if he was doing something wrong. "She said, ‘oh it’s nothing. I’ve just never seen an extra get so into his role before.’ I told her I was a Marine. She thanked me," he says.

Still from A Few Good Men

Gurfein (middle) in a still from A Few Good Men

New York's Fourth District

Gurfein faces an uphill climb in the Fourth, which covers the southern tip of suburban Nassau County bordering Queens. It has not sent a Republican to congress since 1994. President Barack Obama won at least 55 percent of the vote in 2008 and 2012. He expects to improve on those results thanks in part to New York’s 2012 redistricting bill, which added more heavily Republican portions of Nassau County to the district. "The resulting Fourth District became about 3 percentage points more Republican after 2012 redistricting, but it still leans Democratic," the Almanac of American Politics says. Democrats still enjoy a 3-point edge—enough for the Cook Political Report to rank freshman Rep. Kathleen Rice’s seat "Solid Democratic."

Gurfein plans to campaign on foreign policy. He wants to keep Guantanamo Bay open, step up the fight against ISIS, and stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He favors limiting domestic surveillance, but only if America can first eliminate burgeoning terrorist groups abroad. "Right now we’re giving up our civil liberties but we’re not any safer. That’s because we need to address the threat," he says.

"Obama is too busy trying to make us more popular overseas … I want to send the message that if you behead an American citizen, we will attack you in a way that makes our allies gasp. It’s not so much about violence. It’s about protecting American citizens."

Rice has positioned herself as a foreign policy moderate over the course of her first term. She publicly condemned the Iran Deal in an August op-ed published in Newsday and the Five Towns Jewish Times. "I'm unwilling to help economically empower an Iranian regime that could use the cash influx to make more muscular its support of terror and more aggressive its antagonism of Israel and our other allies in the region," the op-ed posted to her website says. A month later she voted against Republican measures to keep economic sanctions in place.

"You see a lot of mercenary type actions, votes done for politics or money, but the heart may not be behind those actions," Gurfein says.

A Duck on Water

Gurfein lacks the built-in fundraising infrastructure that even local politicians enjoy. If the Donald Trump campaign has proven anything it’s that free media time can be more valuable than a Super PAC. We drop off Vivien at her church thrift shop and set off at 12:15, about 30 minutes behind schedule. Gurfein needs to be in Manhattan by 1:30 to interview with nationally syndicated radio host Dennis Prager.

If he’s nervous he’s not showing it. He breaks out his phone and snaps a photo of a cement truck as we idle in traffic at the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel. "I have to send this to the team," he says, an odd to way to describe a three-person operation. He’s got a communications director in Washington, D.C.; campaign manager Matt Kirincic sits in the driver’s seat. Kirincic, 24, returned to his native Long Island to recover from major hip surgery—"the same one A-Rod had"—after doing a stint at the Republican National Committee. He was considering business school when he heard about Gurfein. He was inspired enough to shelve the applications, but at the moment he’s rolling his eyes and gripping the steering wheel. Gurfein turns to explain.

The cement truck has #139 painted onto it. Gurfein wore #39 as the quarterback of Great Neck South High School’s only undefeated football team. "Minor miracles happen" anytime he sees the number, he says. Traffic breaks on the FDR Drive. The GPS gives us an arrival time of 1:14.

Gurfein’s watching a Prager University video on his phone when it happens. Adam Carolla’s voice crowds out the navigation and Kirincic misses the exit for downtown Manhattan and ends up crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. A lane is closed in each direction.

Modern campaigns are dominated by a strain of Broken Windows Theory—if we let convention balloons fall incorrectly, chaos will follow. I’ve seen a gubernatorial candidate lash out at junior staff for putting the wrong bottled water on a podium. Gurfein doesn’t seem to notice the devastating gaffes that every wrong turn presents. He never loses his temper with Kirincic, doesn’t even bite his lip to hold back with a reporter present. "We’ll be fine," he reassures the cursing campaign manager. We pull up at the 111 Broadway studio three minutes to air, which could be classified as a major miracle. The Marine hustles out. "We’re like a duck on water: all calm above the surface and all flailing legs below," Kirincic says.

Kirincic and I find parking and hump it to the studio in time to hear Gurfein call politicians "self-licking ice cream cones." Prager is impressed.

"I just want to say to my listeners, this is where the political money should go," Prager says.

Gurfein has raised more than $300,000 as of March, $1.1 million behind Rep. Rice. Anytime he’s not making eye contact, he’s raising cash. Gurfein will spend nearly four hours in Kirincic’s Lexus by day’s end popping off phone calls and voice-to-texts to Harvard Business School buddies and local political fixers. He receives $7,000 in donations and pledges while we’re sitting in traffic.

Money is not as much a concern for the GOP as demographics. The district had "traditionally been Republican … [but it has] become more diverse and more Democratic," according to the Almanac of American Politics. Gurfein has campaigned at two historically black churches, as well as a Korean Church, to boost support among minorities. He insists that outreach, rather than pandering, will win the day.

"I intend to represent everyone in my district, so we’re reaching out to everyone in the district," he says. "I’m not going to craft a message for individual groups. I have a message of unity and leadership."

He finishes up the radio hit and rushes back to the car to carry that message to another group of traditional Democrats. He’s due back in Long Island by 3:45 for a meeting with a local Hispanic leader. Gurfein is in no doubt we’ll make it: there’s a billboard from Lycamobile advertising $39 international cell phone plans as we exit the city. We immediately hit traffic. At 3:24 Kirincic pulls off the highway because we are out of gas. We fill up and Gurfein wheels around triumphant: the receipt says $39. We try our luck on the Southern Parkway. More traffic. The community leader calls to cancel the meeting at 4:30.

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Campaigning in the Fourth

That gives us time to cruise around the district, one of the wealthiest in the country. The lawns are immaculate and devoid of yard signs. Political expression seems reserved for automobiles. There’s a champagne Jaguar parked at a Mineola home adorned with a Bernie bumper sticker. Then there’s the battered Ford Expedition parked in front of the Mineola Post Office with dual bumper stickers saying, "Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Elect One" and "Trump—The Next TR," a high compliment given Theodore Roosevelt’s Nassau County roots.

Gurfein may have an easier time navigating the top of the Republican ticket than his party mates in most swing districts. Trump dominated the primary in Nassau County taking nearly 70 percent of the vote. Gurfein says Trump was not his first choice, but he is "inclined to get behind him given the other option."

"It is my duty as a junior officer to warn command about a minefield straight in front of me. They may see more of the whole picture than I do on the ground, so if I’m told to go through that minefield I fight as if the decision was my own," he says.

An outsider candidate runs on what he knows. There is a military analogy for nearly every topic. Uniform requirements, for example, preclude John Kasich from staging a third party run for the White House.

"This is a guy who shows up to a Manhattan fundraiser wearing polyester suits and velcro shoes. Does this guy look like a leader? Because, right now, we need a leader," he says.

Gurfein believes voters value leadership qualities more than ideology. He points out that the "military has some of the highest trust in polls" as opposed to Congress’ low approval ratings. Surveys back both claims, but experience shows that incumbents win more than 90 percent of the time. He’ll need people to mobilize for him, so he turns to the demographic he knows best.

There are nearly 26,000 veterans in the Fourth District. Kirincic has arranged a talk at American Legion Post 44 Malverne. The doors are locked up top when we arrive, but the basement is open. The bar is empty. Folding chairs are assembled in the back room facing a podium. It looks to be a serious event rather than a backslapping gabfest. Gurfein greets former Army MP Frank Colon and expresses his admiration for the VFW. Colon informs him of the $25 dues and asks him how he’ll pay. This time he bites his lip. He fingers his wallet and comes up empty; Kirincic is short, too. Colon forgives the debt, says he can pay another time.

Gurfein tries to manage his transition from recruiter to recruit. "We have to be somewhere at 7:30," he says. The clock on the wall says 6:48. "We’ll hurry up then," Colon says.

Gurfein signs up for the group and prepares to take the oath. It turns out we’re in the basement because this is not a VFW gathering; it’s the Sons of Veterans of Foreign Wars, no war or even military service required. Four people show, Colon included. The chapter head, who is extremely proud of his dad’s service—just not enough to enlist—welcomes Gurfein, then bangs the gavel and gets down to business: what material should this year’s polo shirt be? A breathable cotton, it turns out. They say the exit pledge, shake Gurfein’s hand, and tell him about their Memorial Day events.

Unconventional Wisdom

We’re out the door at 7:26, right around the time Curtis Grandseron hit a first pitch homerun off Cy Young winner Max Scherzer.

"What the hell did I just sign up for?" Gurfein says as we get in the parking lot.

We have one more campaign stop before heading to the baseball game, an address to a Republican group in Westbury. Kirincic picks up his phone to let them know we’ll be delayed; it rings before he can hit dial. It’s 7:28. They need to reschedule … sometime in June … Okay that works. He hangs up.

"Their treasurer’s father died. They can’t do it today because of the wake," he says.

Gurfein asks for the details of the arrangements. Kirincic didn’t get them. The candidate demands that the campaign manager call back.

"Losing your father, that’s frigging huge. These guys got me on the ballot without knowing me. They walked door-to-door for me," he says. "We’re going."

So we drive to Donohue-Cecere Funeral Home. Gurfein only second guesses himself when we park: he’s not wearing a jacket, but decides that "it’s more important to show up than show up looking good." He tries to reason about the cause of death and ultimately decides that this stranger’s dad was a "member of the Greatest Generation. We lose so many of these guys."

The man in the collage’s black and white photos wears an Italian military uniform, though luckily he was born too late to fight with the fascists against our Greatest Generation. The casket is surrounded by flower displays that nearly touch the gold crown molding. Gurfein passes them without hesitation, bypassing the relatives in black v-necks to pray before the deceased. Kirincic and I follow. We rendezvous in the bathroom, which provides hairspray for mourners.

"I gave [the son] a talk about how tough it is to lose your dad. I told him about losing my dad. Then he asked me who I was," Gurfein says. "His wife died three years ago. He died of a broken heart."

He recounts everything he learned from the mourners in a matter-of-fact manner. He confesses that he’s always disturbed when he sees a corpse. They may look at peace to the average mourner, but he has inspected bodies returning from war to make sure the proper medals and citations are included in the flag-draped casket. Where we see make-up, he sees stitches through chest cavities. This man was not the first stranger he’s prayed in front of, which is why he does not share my discomfort.

We leave in silence bound for the 8:39 p.m. train to Citi Field. Gurfein orders the campaign manager to U-Turn. Kirincic obliges. He hops out of the car at a Community Drive underpass. There’s a mini-bus with hazards on surrounded by Korean immigrant women. He tells us to circle back around. By the time we return he’s pulled the jack out, located the proper position in the undercarriage to place it, and left it for the men to figure out. It is 8:17.

We pull up to the Port Washington station. Kirincic reaches into his pocket. He forgot to print the tickets. Gurfein surely knows that logistics wins wars. If Tuesday is the norm from now until November, conventional wisdom tells me the campaign is doomed. Gurfein pays no heed to conventional wisdom. We’ll just go and hope for the best.

We approach Frank, the Citi Field security supervisor, and ask to be let in without the requisite paper tickets. It seems fruitless until Frank notices the windbreaker. He was a Marine MP from 1971 to 1975. We get in after the first out of the eight inning. The Mets win 2-0.

Gurfein chose the Cradle of Aviation Museum as our start-point to give the D.C. reporter a feel for his district’s heritage. Charles Lindbergh launched the Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island’s "vast, flat, treeless prairie." He arrived in Paris unscathed and became a national hero, overshadowing the feats of another famed New York flight. The museum features an exhibit dedicated to the Vin Fiz Flyer and Galbraith Rodgers. Rodgers left Sheepshead Bay on September 7, 1911, to complete the first-ever transcontinental flight. He crashed 15 times over 82 hours of flight time, breaking his collarbone, several ribs, and both his ankles on the journey. He emerged from the bi-plane puffing a cigar when he landed in Long Beach, California, on November 5, 1911.

One hundred and five years and three days after Rodgers made history, the voters in the Fourth District will decide whether Gurfein will represent them in congress. Until then he’ll crisscross Nassau County with 91-year-old Vivien brushing off rough campaign landings and waiting for that next 39 to pop up and carry him to 50+1.