Bellone sends GOP a message with early re-election start

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the county's budget problems and solutions during a press conference in Hauppauge. (April 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Ed Betz

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's surprise re-election announcement at last week's $300-a-head fundraiser was, according to aide Jon Schneider, "an audible from the line of scrimmage."

In reality, Bellone's plans were not much in doubt. Checks for the fundraiser were made out to the Bellone 2015 Committee. However, Bellone's declaration two years early will officially make the next county executive race akin to a seemingly endless presidential run.

Republicans see Bellone's ploy as simply a bid to divert attention from the bad press he has been receiving in recent weeks. "It's an attempt to change the discussion from the mismanagement of his government," said Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven Republican chairman.

Those issues include a critical state comptroller's audit that found that when he was Babylon town supervisor, he repeatedly transferred millions of dollars in town funds without town board approval. There are also allegations that the highest uniformed police officer, James Burke, punched a suspect who stole his duffel bag and an old internal affairs report that found Burke once had a sexual relationship with a prostitute with a criminal record.

Then there's a bill, now withdrawn, to allow Legis.-elect Monica Martinez, who is also an assistant principal, to collect salaries totaling $215,000, despite a ban on double-dipping. Lawmakers last week also killed a Bellone bill to erode the residency requirement for county jobs by allowing hiring as far away as New York City.

Frank Tantone, Islip Republican chairman, said, "I think it's safe to say his brand has taken a hit with the public."

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But Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, downplayed any impact. "It's all inside baseball," he said.

Bellone backers maintain that the county executive has made inroads with the county's fiscal woes by reducing the workforce by 1,000, closing the county nursing home and taking steps to privatize county health centers. He has also repaired relations with Albany, getting approval of a moneymaking new traffic court and a planned video slot casino that will bring millions in new revenues.

Supporters say Bellone has also shown leadership in a personal way -- not taking a county car, paying a share of county health insurance like new hires and even including his wife among those laid off, although she later got a job with Babylon town.

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Some analysts see Bellone's announcement as a way to freeze the fundraising of potential foes. It also sends a warning shot to Democratic and Republican lawmakers that he remains a force to be reckoned with. "It's a good move for Steve," said Frank MacKay, state and Suffolk Independence Party chairman. "It shows he's the big dog in the county and not going anywhere."

While Republicans say they have a deep bench of potential contenders, many of their top possibilities balked two years ago when county executive was an open seat. State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) decided to remain with the GOP's semi-majority in the Senate and Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) has shown little fundraising prowess.

Edward P. Romaine, supervisor of Suffolk's largest town, Brookhaven, is coming off an impressive 62 percent victory last month, but, at 67, says he is not interested in county executive at this stage. The town GOP also might be reluctant to lose Romaine as its standard-bearer.

Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset), a major Bellone foil as minority leader, said he might consider the race, but some doubt he could raise the $2 million to $4 million needed for a countywide race.

However, Kennedy said some candidates, such as Republican Robert Gaffney, who served as Suffolk County executive from 1992 to 2003, won without having an edge in fundraising because of repeated incumbent missteps.

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"Ninety-nine percent may be glancing blows," Kennedy said. "But after a while you can suffer death by 1,000 cuts. It depends on the number of body blows Bellone can absorb."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke.

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