Montano-Schaffer rift has Suffolk Dems uneasy

A file photo of Ricardo Montano.

A file photo of Ricardo Montano. (Credit: David Pokress, 2011)

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Lately, Suffolk Legis. Ricardo Montano and Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer are not seeing eye to eye, and it's making a lot of other Democrats uncomfortable.

Schaffer, who is also Babylon Town supervisor, has said he wants to see the Senate's most senior Republican, Owen Johnson, re-elected to another term.

But Montano (D-Brentwood), who does not even live in Johnson's district, is looking to take out Johnson, 82. He foresees a heavy turnout in the presidential election, along with the district's growing Democratic tilt, as the recipe for a potential upset that could reverberate statewide. The GOP controls the Senate by a 32-29 edge, with one vacancy.

"It's certainly complicated," said Jay Jacobs, Nassau and state Democratic chairman. Jacobs said he expects the state party to "support the Democrat running in the race." He added that Schaffer's stature statewide "has earned him a bye" in his personal support for Johnson, a senator since Richard Nixon was president.

Even state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, who headlined Montano's first fundraiser last week, balks at bashing Schaffer.

"My job is to win elections. Rick [Montano] backs traditional Democratic values like women's rights and the environment."

Schaffer has been quoted as endorsing Johnson outright, but lately he's more circumspect: "My personal position is that Owen Johnson has been an outstanding state senator for the . . . Town of Babylon," Schaffer said.

Schaffer said he will not block Montano. But Schaffer says the party won't help Montano collect the needed 1,000 signatures -- or 2,000 if he wants to be safe from challenges -- to qualify for the ballot. "It's all a matter whether he can get the signatures," Schaffer said. "I'm sure he'd want to do his own signatures."

Some question whether the 61-year-old Montano, who had no opponent in four of his five elections, can wage a credible campaign. "The problem with Rick is follow-through," said former legislative counsel Paul Sabatino. He cited Montano's losing bid in 2006 in a Democratic primary for the right to take on former GOP state Sen. Caesar Trunzo. Despite his incumbency as a county lawmaker, Montano came in third.

Montano notes that he already has raised $79,000 -- more than Johnson has in his account -- and that Johnson has not faced a competitive race in decades. Montano also notes that the Senate Democrats have promised financial support.

The lawmaker also said he would not repeat missteps of former Democratic state Sens. Brian Foley and Craig Johnson, who lost re-election as freshmen after backing the controversial MTA payroll tax. "No one is going to browbeat me into going against my constituency," said Montano, who has a history of bucking Democratic legislative leaders.

Schaffer's loyalty to Johnson dates to the early 1990s during Schaffer's first stint as Babylon supervisor, when he needed emergency financing to avert problems in the town garbage district. Johnson backed Schaffer despite pressure from the then-Suffolk GOP chairman. Since then, Schaffer has put up only token Democratic candidates against Johnson.

Schaffer also has not forgiven city-centric Senate Democrats for trying to bar him from talking to Foley during the MTA debate. "They told me to stay out of their business," Schaffer recalled. "I told them my business is getting candidates elected on the platform that makes the most sense to taxpayers." Schaffer also questioned the ability of Senate Democrats to help Montano. "With a $100,000 in the bank, I don't know how much of a major effort they can make," he said.

John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, called Schaffer's stand a "bold move" in light of the importance of the race. "Talk about doing the right thing," LaValle said.

Said Babylon GOP chairman Anthony Pancella: "It doesn't scare us that Rick is running."