Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice's entry into the race to replace Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) has led to the exit of two other Democratic contenders, who now are looking to fill the vacant seat of former state Sen. Charles Fuschillo.
Nassau County Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) and Freeport Deputy Mayor Carmen Piñeyro are focused on a race for the 8th Senate District seat that straddles the Nassau-Suffolk border. Piñeyro said she is even ready to wage a party primary, if necessary, to win the nomination.
Denenberg, 49, in his 15th year in the legislature, has repeatedly won with margins as high as 73 percent in a district where Republicans hold a 2-to-1 lead among registered voters. Denenberg is known for his populist independent streak and for walking neighborhoods door to door -- in election and off-years.
Even after Republicans reapportioned legislative districts last year, Denenberg won with 62 percent of the vote. Denenberg's legislative seat is wholly in the Senate district, and he estimates that over the years he has represented 35 percent to 40 percent of the 8th.
Piñeyro, 37, has been a trustee of 52,000-resident Freeport Village for the last five years and deputy mayor for the last two. She served for nine years as a Freeport school board member and until recently was chief of staff for Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood).
Democrats are aiming at local GOP Senate seats, including Fuschillo's and those held by Lee Zeldin of Shirley, who is running for Congress in the 1st District in Suffolk County, and Jack Martins of Mineola, who is considering a run for Congress, in an effort to wrest Senate control from Republicans and breakaway Democrats.
"Fortunately for us, we have a lot of ambition and talent out there," said Jay Jacobs, Nassau Democratic chairman. He called Piñeyro a "tremendous trustee" and "one of our rising stars." But Jacobs hopes to avoid a primary, saying, "It's better to be a rising star than a shooting star."
Jacobs said Denenberg "has the edge" due to his tenure and cross-party appeal. "He has run for many years in the heart of the district and has been extremely successful in attracting Republican voters."
The "big downside," to Jacobs, is that a Denenberg win would mean Democrats "would face a special election in what is a heavily Republican [legislative] district."
Piñeyro says she has a better chance of taking the Senate seat because she would be the only woman running for a spot in the Long Island Senate bloc, which is solidly male and Republican. She noted that she ran on a bipartisan village ticket in the last election, outpolling the mayor. "I bring a diverse background," she said. "And I think I am a more viable candidate who can excite the base."
Denenberg said his record of independence will help the district on key issues, including superstorm Sandy recovery, education aid and property taxes. He recalled that he's differed at times with his own party -- for instance, when he backed GOP County Executive Edward Mangano's call for a referendum that would have authorized Nassau to borrow up to $400 million to build a new Nassau Coliseum.
Denenberg also noted that he never would have voted for the MTA payroll tax. Democratic state Sens. Craig Johnson of Port Washington and Brian Foley of Blue Point backed the tax and each was voted out after a single term.
Unsettled is whether there will be special election for Fuschillo's seat -- which would preclude a primary. Although Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello would like to see a special election, others expect the seat to remain empty until the November election.
Leading Republican contenders include Nassau Legis. Michael Venditto of Massapequa, and Assemb. Joseph Saladino also is in the hunt. Backers say Venditto, son of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, could benefit from his father's fundraising and the town GOP machine. Saladino, a 10-year Albany veteran from Massapequa, heads the Assembly conference of Nassau Republicans.
Democrats say they expect to settle on a candidate by month's end or early March. "We have a plethora of good options, and we're working closely with the Nassau Democratic Party to settle on the best choice," said state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, campaign chairman for Senate Democrats.