Ripples at Suffolk Democrats' convention

Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone accepts the Suffolk

Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone accepts the Suffolk County Democratic Party nomination for Suffolk County Executive at the party's nominating convention. (May 18, 2011) (Credit: David Pokress)

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It was the only clash in a kumbaya Suffolk Democratic convention.

After party activists anointed Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone as their county executive candidate, more than 100 Huntington committee members adjourned to a side room at the IBEW Local 25 union hall in Hauppauge.

Then after brief final words from contenders -- Dr. William Spencer and Steve Rossetti -- committee members voted election district-by-election district to pick a designee for the seat now held by term-limited Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor).

Spencer, a pediatric ear nose and throat doctor, easily won 6,324 to 3,016 in a weighted vote, but Rossetti, a real estate broker and a major party fundraiser, said he will run a September primary to win the seat. "We have a small roomful of Democrats here and it's not appropriate that they make the decision for every Democrat in the district," said Rossetti, only minutes after the votes were tallied.

Before the vote, Rossetti also complained to Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer that some supporters were feeling pressured to back Spencer. Before the vote, Schaffer reassured committee members he was not taking sides. "Please vote for whom you want. No one is telling you what to do," he said.

"People just recognized that Dr. Spencer was just the better candidate," said Jane Devine, a former county lawmaker, later. "He had the qualifications, works hard, and when you're out walking or calling every third or fourth house seems to be the family of a patient."

After the vote, Schaffer, looking to keep the seat -- one of three where Democratic incumbents are term-limited -- asked for calm. "Let's take a few days and all take a breath," he urged.

But the day after the vote, Rossetti, 51, of Lloyd Harbor, appeared ready to push on. "I'm not a party lackey," he said. "I won't follow the edict of a party boss. I'll vote my conscience for the benefit of the people."

But Spencer, 43, of Centerport, hoped to avoid an intraparty battle. "A primary would delay unifying the party," he said, adding "Nothing would make me happier than working with Mr. Rossetti."

If there is a primary, the contrast will be stark. Spencer is low-key and soft-spoken. He is chairman of the Huntington Housing Authority but will step down next month to campaign. Friends tout the fact that he has more than 12,000 local patients and that he has knocked on some 1,000 doors. Rep. Steve Israel even emailed Schaffer from Huntington's St. Patrick's Day parade saying Spencer was getting more shout-outs than officials.

Rossetti, meanwhile, is brash and passionate. He estimates he has raised more than $1 million for the party over the years. He is a member of Suffolk's industrial development agency and has knocked on about 1,400 doors.

"I think he's got a good shot," said town party treasurer Peter Costantino, of East Northport. "I think we can mount a good ground operation that will surprise a lot of people."

Republicans tried early on to recruit incumbent Assembs. James Conte and Andrew Raia to run for Cooper's seat. Both demurred. Now Republicans are now eyeing Elizabeth Black, a Huntington school board member; Herb Morrow, Huntington Bay mayor; and Eugene Cook, an Independence Party member.

Both Spencer and Rossetti have raised more than $70,000, but Schaffer doesn't want to waste resources in a primary. And Rossetti has lost his biggest backer, Cooper, who supports convention winner Spencer. "I don't expect a snap decision," said Schaffer, "I know he's upset, but in the end, I think he'll do the right thing."