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The Fish Family: Hooked On Politics After 200 Year

Hamilton Fish Jr. hopes to join the four generations of Fishes who have served in Washington; but unlike his predecessors, he's running as a Democrat

FISH have run for Congress since 1800.

So it is no surprise that Hamilton Fish Jr. is on the campaign trail trying to join four generations of Fish who have gone to Washington.

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But what is surprising is that this Mr. Fish is trying to run as a Democrat - the first Fish to cross to the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt since 1842, when the first Hamilton Fish was elected to Congress as a Whig - the forerunners of the Republican party.

And, here's another surprise: Fish, who declared his candidacy May 3, is asking for the support of Christopher Roosevelt, grandson of FDR.

``Your grandfather and my grandfather had a pas de deux,'' Fish tells Mr. Roosevelt, while at the North Castle Democratic Club, of which Roosevelt is a member.

``It was very, very heated,'' recalls Fish's father, Rep. Hamilton Fish (R) of New York. The heat came from Fish's opposition to the New Deal and the involvement of the United States in World War II (before Pearl Harbor.)

But what particularly galled Roosevelt was that Hamilton Fish was his congressman, representing Hyde Park, which is located in Dutchess County. ``Pop knew that he would never lose and Roosevelt would never carry Dutchess County,'' recalls Congressman Fish, who will retire at year's end after 26 years in Congress.

Fish felt comfortable in Dutchess County because the 19th district is predominately Republican.

``There have been Democratic county executives, but clearly it tips generally to the Republicans,'' notes Lee Miringoff, executive director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie.

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The Republican leanings are not dissuading other Democrats from entering the race as well. To get the nod, Fish must beat Dennis Mehiel, a former Westchester Democratic Party chairman and Al Lynn, a Pound Ridge businessman. Other candidates may still declare.

The fact that he is swimming upstream is quite clear to candidate Fish, who notes that being a Democrat ``is the path of greatest resistance.'' This led a Democrat at the Mt. Kisco Democratic Club to ask him, ``How does someone with such deep Republican roots become a Democrat?''

The answer, according to young Fish, is that his father had made sure he had a good education (Harvard). He also credits his father with acting as a buffer from his grandfather. ``He deflected the personality and scale of grandad, which allowed us to develop independently.''

There was lots of personality to deflect. His grandfather had been an All-American football player and was a decorated officer of an African-American unit sent over to Europe in World War I. Even after his grandfather left Congress in 1945, young Fish recalls, ``Grandad always conducted his life as if he were still in office -

politics was part of the backdrop of growing up.''

There was the weight of history on young Fish. Two ancestors were signers of the Declaration of Independence. The first H. Fish was named after a family friend, Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the US Treasury. A Fish was President Ulysses Grant's Secretary of State.

Yet he was molded more by his times. When he was at Harvard, the Vietnam War was in progress and Fish was opposed it.

He dropped out of Harvard in 1971 to register young voters. He recalls the effort, from his standpoint, was only partially successful. ``We registered lots of new voters, but 51 percent of them voted for Richard Nixon in 1972.''

After graduating from Harvard, Fish embarked on a varied career, from publisher of The Nation magazine to producing an Academy Award-winning film to director of a film festival for Human Rights Watch, his current job. His contacts helped him raise $500,000 for an unsuccessful run in 1988 for the congressional seat in southern Westchester County. He'll need the contacts again since the Fish family has no fortune.

In a district without dominant television coverage, one of his greatest assets is his name.

So far, Congressman Fish has stated that he will remain neutral through the September primary. Candidate Fish would love to get his father's endorsement. ``I think I would make him proud,'' he declares.

Politics seems to have attracted a whole school of Fish this year. A daughter of Congressman Fish, Alexa Fish Ward, is running for the state Assembly. A son, Nicholas, has been mentioned as a candidate for the state Senate. And the current congressman's step-mother, Lydia Fish, who is younger than Congressman Fish, is also running for the state Assembly.

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