Johnson-Montano state Senate race heats up

From left: Suffolk County Legislator Rick Montano, with

From left: Suffolk County Legislator Rick Montano, with State Senators Lee Zeldin, and Owen Johnson, speak about issues during a round table discussion in Central Islip. (Jan. 13, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Danielle Finkelstein)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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State Sen. Owen Johnson and Suffolk Legis. Ricardo Montano sat one person apart at the same oval table in the Central Islip school board meeting room one night last week.

The subject was a proposal to create a state gang member registry; the subtext was that Johnson, for the second time in a few weeks, was in Montano's political territory. Montano said in December that he would run against Johnson for state Senate.

"We had thought it odd that Rick wasn't invited to the first meeting," said Marcos Maldonado, who works with a local youth services group. "Tonight, we're glad to see all of them here. It is a rare chance for the community to have input into their thinking on a proposal."

Of the two, Montano did most of the talking during the one-hour meeting Friday.

Montano spoke in agreement with residents concerned about how a gang registry could be fairly compiled, and whether there was a way to rectify mistakes or earn a way off.

"I do have my concerns because I have a son who was profiled because he was walking down a street," said Maxima Castro of Brentwood.

Other residents told Johnson, State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), whose Senate district includes Central Islip, and other officials that they would not want a gang registry to become another state mandate.

"We don't want money going into a registry rather than going to keep an officer out there on patrol," said Marvin Smith of the local NAACP.

But most of all, residents wanted more preventive programs to help keep children out of gangs. "It's a complex issue that needs a lot of different approaches," Maldonado said.

Johnson, a 38-year Republican incumbent from West Babylon, said he would return to Central Islip for the group's next meeting to keep the exchange of ideas going. So will Montano, 61.

"I'm in a race with Johnson and there's nothing anyone can do about it," Montano said in an interview after the meeting.

Montano, a Democrat from Central Islip, lives just outside the boundary of Johnson's 4th Senate District. But because it's a reapportionment year, Montano needs only to live in the same county to challenge Johnson. It's possible, however, that after reapportionment the district lines could move far enough east to include Montano's residence.

Johnson, 82, didn't seem concerned about the competition from Montano. "It's a free country," he said.

Just as Johnson is reaching out to Montano's constituents, Montano will have to reach out to Johnson's. But first Montano will have to get past Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman, who has said he likely would agree to another deal with Republicans that would protect Johnson and a Democrat, Assemb. Robert Sweeney, of Lindenhurst. An agreement would also help Republicans keep the majority in the state Senate. Currently, a Long Islander, Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), serves as Senate majority leader. Skelos leads a potent voting bloc of nine Republican Long Island state senators.

Montano himself is proud that he has run unopposed in every race for county legislature since 2003.

But deals, while they save major political parties the expense of fielding candidates against incumbents, deprive voters of choice.

If Montano wants to fight for a higher office, he should go for it. So should anybody else interested in this or any other race.

The more, the merrier.