Contest for Suffolk presiding officer seat begins

Babylon Supervisor and Democratic Committee Chair Richard H.

Babylon Supervisor and Democratic Committee Chair Richard H. Schaffer speaks before supporters after election results are announced at the Suffolk County Democratic Committee headquarters in Hauppauge. (Nov. 5, 2013) (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein)

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Republican lawmakers in Suffolk toasted Legis. Gerry Glass with champagne after picking him for legislative presiding officer in 1986.

But Glass' hopes were upended when fellow Republican Gregory Blass, with the help of Democrats in a bipartisan coalition, beat him out when the full legislature met later for a formal vote on the top leadership job.

While such a scenario is unlikely this year, county lawmakers in coming weeks are facing the first openly competitive contest for legislative leader in a decade.

With a newly elected 12-6 majority of Democrats and minor party allies, contenders most often mentioned for the $118,000-a-year post include Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills); DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville); Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon) and Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), who runs with Democratic support. Other possible candidates include Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), though all are first-termers.

The leadership contest follows the death in September of longtime Presiding Officer William Lindsay, who held the post for a record 10 years. Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) was named as temporary replacement last month, but he will leave next month to become regional director of Long Island state parks.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said he will meet with the Democratic caucus and newly elected lawmakers in about two weeks to determine who wants to be leader and to hold discussions to see whether lawmakers can reach a consensus.

"It's up to them to decide on the best leader," Schaffer said.

Past Suffolk County executives typically have steered clear of leadership fights. But some lawmakers privately fear Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone -- who as supervisor in Democrat-dominated Babylon was used to winning 5-0 town board votes -- may try to play a backdoor role to get the most accommodating new leader.

They cite Bellone's unsuccessful maneuvering to block the appointment of Robert Lipp as the new director of budget review last year and his push to make former Presiding Officer Paul Tonna chair of the county Industrial Development Agency -- a legislative appointment. Tonna resigned only months later after repeated recusals and the leaking of a memo in which Tonna criticized Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's LIPA takeover plan.

Bellone aides have said the presiding officer pick belongs to lawmakers.

Gregory, the legislature's majority leader, says he wants the post and now heads both the Finance and Human Services committees. If elected, he would be Suffolk's first African-American legislative leader. Gregory once worked for Bellone in Babylon, but showed his independence by backing Lipp's appointment.

D'Amaro, an attorney who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, also expressed interest in the job. Known as a skilled debater and adept on policy issues, he lacks Lindsay's personal touch, some colleagues say. "I'm very assertive when I have a position," he concedes, but believes he can work with both Republicans and Democrats and protect the legislature's independence. He noted that as part of the budget working group, he opposed Bellone aides' idea of making sewer fund borrowing a multiyear initiative.

But some also fault him for his role in an ill-fated effort by former County Executive Steve Levy and Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle in 2009 to oust Lindsay as presiding officer and install D'Amaro. D'Amaro said he and Lindsay resolved their differences soon after.

Stern, also a lawyer, declined to say whether he's interested in the job until he can meet with new lawmakers. He chairs the low-profile Veterans and Seniors Committee, and sponsored a successful measure banning BPA, an industrial chemical that mimics estrogen, from baby bottles. But he was also part of the anti-Lindsay putsch, until Schaffer threatened to oppose him in a primary.

Schneiderman also wants the job and touts his experience as a former East Hampton supervisor and his work to expand county bus service. He admits he could face resistance because he is in his last term and would have to drive from Montauk daily to conduct legislative business.

No matter who wins, some say the new legislative presiding officer will be in Lindsay's shadow. "It's going to be really hard," said Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley). "I can't imagine anyone filling Bill's shoes."