Brand: Deciphering top LI judge's resignation

Photo of Suffolk Legislature Presiding officer Donald Blydenburgh. Photo of Suffolk Legislature Presiding officer Donald Blydenburgh. Photo Credit: Don Jacobsen

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Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island. ...

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When former Presiding Officer Donald Blydenburgh was the second-most powerful elected official in Suffolk County government, he did not suffer fools, county executives or party leaders easily.

And now, State Supreme Court Justice Blydenburgh, who had been looking for the Republican nomination to a second 14-year term, is displaying his old instincts.

In a highly unusual move, Blydenburgh, 58, is resigning three months before his term is up. He's decided to exit on his own rather than face the prospect of being dumped as a GOP nominee at next week's Republican judicial convention at the Sheraton Hotel in Smithtown.

"That's vintage Blydenburgh," said Paul Sabatino, who was legislative counsel under the Smithtown lawmaker. "He's . . . a Republican with an independent streak, which separates him from party hacks and cronies."

Blydenburgh declined to comment, but those who have talked to him say party leaders for months refused to give him a commitment for nomination to the $136,700-a-year post, usually pro forma for an incumbent. "They told him he was in the running," said Michael O'Donohoe, once a lawmaker with Blydenburgh and now commissioner of jurors. "But he felt like they were yanking his chain."

Noting that Blydenburgh has a good reputation as a judge, O'Donohoe added, "Why sit through a nomination that is getting kind of humiliating?"

What's so odd is that Blydenburgh had an 11-year track record as a GOP legislator, seven years as presiding officer. His family dates to Colonial times on Long Island; a county park and other landmarks bear the family name. Blydenburgh's father was the first clerk of the Suffolk Legislature.

During his legislative tenure, Blydenburgh did not shrink from battle, leading a probe of a questionable car leasing deal and whittling former County Executive Robert Gaffney's 22-percent property tax increase in his first budget down to 3 percent.

What makes even less political sense is that if his likely replacement on the ticket, County Court Judge Andrew Crecca, wins, Crecca's successor would be appointed by the governor, who could be a Democrat.

Since January, Crecca, also from Smithtown, has been angling to move up to State Supreme Court, where he now serves as an acting justice. He even got Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle and Suffolk Conservative Edward Walsh to serve as hosts for a $200-a-head fundraiser in June. Crecca maintains that he is simply vying for one of two of Suffolk's Supreme Court seats.

As a sitting judge already in the top local judicial post, Blydenburgh, under ethics rules, could have no contact with political leaders over the past 14 years, a generation in politics.

William "Mickey" McGuire, the Smithtown GOP chairman who first backed him for judge, has died and was replaced by Bill Ellis. In contrast, Crecca, first elected in 2005, has annually expressed an interest in moving up, which has allowed him to maintain ongoing contact with party officials as a candidate.

However, LaValle said Blydenburgh was still in contention and a final choice would have been difficult if he did not decide to retire. Now, he said, GOP officials will likely name Crecca and Huntington District Court Judge Jerry Asher as their nominees. Party sources say District Court Judge Joseph Santorelli was also in the running, but will be asked to defer to Asher, 69, who hits the age limit of 70 next year.

Some critics say the Blydenburgh exit comes more from pique or economics because judges have not had a raise in 11 years. But other say Blydenburgh may eye a return to the political arena. "He may be sending the message he's getting ready to run for county executive," Sabatino said.

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