Major party switch in race for highway post

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Kathleen Walsh at town hall.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Kathleen Walsh at town hall. (Jan. 15, 2009) (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan, 2009)

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Brookhaven Town Board member Kathleen Walsh, who has long given her own Republican Party agita, went to a Democratic screening for highway superintendent last week -- but pointedly said she did not come to seek the party's nomination, just to thank them for past support.

Despite her protestations, Walsh underwent a grilling Wednesday night -- part of a political Kabuki dance that led her to defect from the GOP on Friday. She registered as an Independence Party member, and town Democratic chairman Marc Alessi proclaimed her the Democratic highway nominee.

It was the latest episode in a lengthy soap opera in which Walsh has tried to straddle party lines and survive in a perilous political landscape where she has been on the verge of becoming a woman without a party.

In the past month, the GOP spurned Walsh for nomination for highway superintendent. Just before Christmas, new Republican Town Supervisor Edward Romaine also forced Walsh to step down as deputy town supervisor -- a $10,000-a-year post on top of her $67,000 annual town board salary -- an act that cemented her alliance with former Democratic Supervisor Mark Lesko.

There also is no guarantee Republicans will nominate her for re-election to town board in November, especially now that her onetime mentor, former Suffolk GOP chairman John Powell, is dead.

Walsh, 53, said she joined the Independence Party for "self-preservation" and out of "self-respect," adding that she has been shunned by some Republican officials and did not even get a formal party endorsement the last time she ran.

But Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven GOP chairman, called Walsh's candidacy "political high treason."

Republicans have named Assemb. Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham) as their choice for highway superintendent. Losquadro last week launched his campaign outside the department's Coram headquarters, promising to improve the town's storm response and aging roads. Losquadro, a former Suffolk County lawmaker and a proven vote-getter, ousted Alessi from the Assembly in a 2010 upset.

Both major parties covet the highway post because it controls big paving, truck and snowplowing contracts, and an army of patronage jobs.

Alessi sees Walsh's candidacy as the party's best chance to hang on to the powerful post, which Democrat John Rouse first won seven years ago. Rouse left the post to become a Suffolk County judge. Republicans want the highway job, which they controlled for decades, to solidify their newfound control of town government.

Alessi said Walsh will be formidable in her Centereach-based district, long a GOP stronghold, and will have strong union support because her husband, William Walsh, is a high-level Civil Service Employees Association official. The downside is that political activists of both parties -- the voters most likely to turn out in a planned special election on March 5 -- dislike defectors.

"I don't expect the seas to part for me. I know I've created an unusual situation," Walsh said. "But I think I have a reputation for independence and casting votes for what is right and not just what someone else tells me to do."

Walsh said she was initially reluctant to declare her candidacy for highway superintendent because Rouse's former top aide, Democrat Lori Baldassare, had formed a committee to explore the race.

Baldassare's move on New Year's Day came after Rouse, just before leaving office, filed papers to make his other deputy, Michael Murphy, his successor until the special election. Murphy fired Baldassare Jan. 2; neither returned calls for comment.

But top Democrats cleared the way for Walsh when Jon Schneider, a top aide to Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, offered Baldassare a county public works job hours before the Democrats' highway screening.