LaValle: Suffolk GOP's Job, or Moses?

Chairman of the Republican committee, John Jay LaValle,

Chairman of the Republican committee, John Jay LaValle, on election night in Holtsville. (Nov. 3, 2009) (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein, 2009)

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To some, Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay Lavalle is the political version of Job -- the biblical victim of myriad misfortunes. Others who are less charitable say LaValle's troubles are self-inflicted.

LaValle was the first state GOP leader to back former Rep. Rick Lazio, of Brightwaters, for governor and one of the first to dump him when his campaign faltered. He then backed County Executive Steve Levy's losing bid for governor. Now Levy's not running for re-election, his $4 million campaign fund is to be returned to donors and LaValle is turning back $100,000 Levy gave him to avoid possible taint.

LaValle also touted, and then backed away from Chris Cox, grandson of Richard M. Nixon, who ran last in a congressional primary for Rep. Tim Bishop's seat, and lost a special election with former Legis. Martin Haley in a heavily Republican county legislative district. Now, the GOP chairman is talking to Lazio about facing Democratic Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone for county executive.

"He's just bet on the wrong horses," said John Cochrane, a former Suffolk GOP chairman. "I wouldn't want to be at the track betting with him on Kentucky Derby Day."

But backers say LaValle, 43, is smart and articulate and has brought new energy to what had been a moribund party that in 2007 had to cross-endorse Levy as a Democrat. "Like any good leader, John does not react to the ebb and flow of any one issue," said Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven GOP chairman. "He knows what's important is what happens at the ballot box on Election Day."

Even Democrats say many of LaValle's woes have been beyond his control. "He's really tried to shake things up," said Patrick Halpin, a former Democratic county executive. "But the hands he's been dealt are ice cold."

Supporters say LaValle's reverses are more than offset by steady electoral gains. They note LaValle won four state legislative seats last year, more than any other GOP county chairman statewide. Those ousted included Democratic Assemb. Marc Alessi and state Sen. Brian Foley, whose loss was key to the GOP regaining the Senate majority.

The year before, Republicans knocked off up-and-coming Democratic Legis. Brian Beedenbender, and rebuffed Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan's attempt to install his son in a county legislative seat. The GOP also made inroads in Islip and Huntington Town races.

The feisty LaValle makes no apologies for his moves and says none of the bumps will stall the party's momentum. Even with the loss of Levy at the head of the ticket this fall, LaValle said the party is far better off now. "Last year, we were looking down the barrel of a popular Democratic county executive with $5 million," he said of Levy, before he switched to the Republican Party. "Now we're facing a far less known Steve Bellone with only $1.5 million. I'll take that any day."

LaValle also blamed the timing of Levy's exit from the county executive's race for Haley's special election loss to Democratic newcomer Sarah Anker in the 6th Legislative District. He said absentee ballots cast before Levy's disclosure had Haley ahead 60-40.

While LaValle and Republicans are still trying to settle on a replacement for Levy, no one expects LaValle to encounter any trouble in his own re-election as leader in September -- in part because the $100,000-a-year post may not be attractive given current circumstances.

But no one should underestimate LaValle. As Brookhaven supervisor, LaValle was himself a rising star often mentioned for county executive before he unexpectedly retired from office at age 34. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family. But the town was under a district attorney's probe that later led to the convictions of other officials. While some have asked him to run for county executive this year, LaValle says he is not interested.

But he also predicts the GOP will still win the county executive's race and take control of the county legislature. "We're far from done . . . We are going to win."