GOP anxious as Sen. Johnson, 81, gets sick

The nine Republican state senators from Long Island.

The nine Republican state senators from Long Island. (Credit: J. Condrad Williams Jr. )

Rick Brand

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When veteran Republican state Sen. Owen Johnson coughs, the entire GOP Senate majority collectively covers their mouths -- with anxiety.

That was never more apparent than about a week ago when Johnson (R-West Babylon) missed a vote on state Sen. John Flanagan's controversial bill on teacher seniority.

"He got a little sick, the rumors start flying and everyone freaks out," said John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, who was in Albany for state party meetings. LaValle said rumors that Johnson had pneumonia or was hospitalized were untrue and that he had bronchitis.

The tremors occur because Johnson, 81, a senator for 39 years, belongs to the slim 32-30 GOP majority.

Johnson's absence even led state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, to meet with Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer to get a lay of the district's political landscape, should Johnson depart.

Democratic insiders say Johnson's future has been the subject of recurring rumors that he will step down when the current budget is done, or after the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative district lines is completed. "We have to be ready to compete for every special election anywhere in the state," said Gianaris.

Johnson said speculation goes with having lasted a long time in office. "Democrats are so hot and bothered to get the majority back, they keep hoping something happens . . . but they are just going to have to put up with me," he said, vowing to serve out his entire term, though he has made no decision beyond that.

Even Schaffer said he does not take talk of a Johnson exit seriously. When similar speculation over a Johnson ailment arose in December, the party leader called a senator's office to inquire as a friend. "Two hours later, Owen personally showed up at my law office door to show me he was alive and well," he said.

Schaffer and Johnson have a special relationship that dates back to the 1990s, when the senator helped Babylon Town get special state legislation to deal with financial woes when Schaffer was town supervisor. Since then, Johnson has had virtually no re-election foe. But it has meant that the Republican Senate majority has made no effort to draw district lines to benefit Johnson. The lawmaker's district, once rock-ribbed Republican, now has 61,684 Democrats and 59,001 Republicans.

The GOP Senate majority, which will soon start recasting lines for the next decade, must weigh altering Johnson's district for a potential successor. But Gianaris said there is a limit to how much the GOP majority can help because other incumbent Republican senators are unlikely to give up any part of the strong GOP areas they now hold. "It's a house of cards," he said.

Rumors of Johnson's departure also have set off speculation about a possible successor. Leading Republican names include Assemb. Philip Boyle of Bay Shore and Babylon Town Board member Lindsay Henry, an Independence Party member. Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh even floated the name of one of his own, county parks Commissioner Joseph Montuori.

The leading Democratic contender is Legis. Louis D'Amaro, who gave the race a "hard look" last year but demurred. Schaffer said he wants D'Amaro, of North Babylon, to stay put because he is a virtual lock for re-election.