In Hamptons, the Rich and the Locals See Two Elections

HAMPTONS, N.Y. (Bloomberg) -
A worker prepares landscaping at a Hamptons hotel and restaurant. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)
A worker prepares landscaping at a Hamptons hotel and restaurant. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)

The presidential race pervades the cocktail parties of the wealthy who visit the Hamptons, the summer haven of Manhattan’s rich, and the workplaces of the permanent residents who serve them. The discussions rarely overlap.

Stars of Wall Street and Hollywood who enjoy the beaches, hedge-rowed estates and $100,000-a-month rentals talk about income inequality and expanding opportunity. Residents who provide the seaplane set with everything from seafood to massages rail against over-regulation and worry about the country’s direction.

For the past two weeks, the nation’s conversation has been dominated by the party-nominating conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia. If there’s common ground in the Hamptons, it’s that many voters are dissatisfied with both candidates — Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former New York senator who vacations in the Hamptons and has deep ties to Wall Street, and Republican Donald Trump, the Queens-born billionaire real-estate developer who shuns the playgrounds of New York’s wealthy for Mar-a-Lago, his own seaside resort in Florida.

“You have two very flawed candidates running against each other, so there’s a lot of reasons not to vote for each of them,” said Byron Wien, vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Group Partners, during a July 15 party thrown by Stephen Scherr, the CEO of Goldman Sachs Bank USA, the company’s consumer division.

“A lot of working people feel their life is not as good as it was,” said Wien, an 83-year-old sporting yellow linen slacks on his evening’s first social stop.

“We don’t really know how the local people feel,” said his wife, Anita, who is chairwoman of the Observatory Group macroeconomic consulting firm.

GOP domination of the Hamptons has faded, mirroring lost influence throughout New York, said Damon Hagan, the party’s leader in Southampton. Democrats have registered city-dwelling part-timers as local voters, a tactic that Hagan said “has stifled the voice of the local community.”

The two sides rarely discuss politics with each other.

“You have a dichotomy between the super-rich and the full-timers,” said Steven Gaines, a Sag Harbor author who documented the Hamptons’ transformation from a stretch of farms and fishing villages to a haven for the wealthy. “You want the guy who mows your lawn to show up.”

Mike Babinski, 58, a fourth-generation farmer in Water Mill, a Southampton hamlet whose median home value is more than $3.6 million, said some locals may identify Clinton with summer people they blame for the skyrocketing housing costs and crawling traffic. She and Bill Clinton have been summering there for years, and last August, the couple spent $100,000 renting an oceanfront estate for two weeks while she attended fundraisers.

At his farm stand offering fresh raspberries, tomatoes and corn, Babinski said he’s leaning toward Trump, “even though some of the things that come out of his mouth, you have to shake your head about.” He has Latino farmhands and doesn’t like Trump disparaging “Hispanics who are good, hardworking people and just would like to be citizens.” He can’t vote for Clinton, he says, “because the way she talks, she’s not a real person.”

“This is the best this country can come up with?” he said. “Can we get any lower?”

It would be a mistake to conclude there’s unanimity inside either group.

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross this month had 61 summering Hamptonites and visitors show up for a lunch with Trump — $100,000 for co-hosts, $25,000 per couple — at his Southampton retreat.

Other politicians “failed to understand the depth of feelings of middle-class America,” Ross said. “It’s probably the most important sociological and political phenomenon afoot today. When you think about it, the middle class has gotten a bad deal.”

One measure of the competing points of view could be found in stores selling merchandise. At the Fudge Factory on Southampton’s Main Street, owner John Johner kept a tally of chocolate bars wrapped in likenesses of Clinton and Trump until someone paid $300 for all his 100 remaining Trump bars.

East Hampton’s Monogram Shop has been selling plastic cocktail cups emblazoned with Trump and Clinton logos at $3 apiece. At 5:07 p.m. Saturday, Clinton cups were sold out after the store moved 1,706 of them and it had sold 1,598 Trump cups.

On the manicured lawn at the Amagansett home of Andy Sabin, 69, a Republican who owns Sabin Metal, the largest independently owned precious metal refiner in the U.S., are signs reading, “Hillary for Prison 2016.”

“People drive by and give me the thumbs up,” Sabin said. “Hillary would associate with a rat if it would give her money.”

An extreme attempt at civility was practiced by David Bohnett, a 60-year-old philanthropist with a house on Lake Agawam. Bohnett, a Clinton supporter, threw a birthday party for a friend and offered cakes featuring likenesses of Trump and Clinton. He’d planned to entertain the guests with a Trump impersonator. After reflection, he flew in a Clinton imitator as well.

“I had to make sure there was a balance,” he said. “No one in my group wants to strain any friendships.”