Wide-open race for 7th Assembly District seat

Assemb. Philip Boyle got the Conservative endorsement for

Assemb. Philip Boyle got the Conservative endorsement for his run for a State Senate seat. (July 13, 2012) (Credit: Barry Sloan)

Rick Brand

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At the start of the election season, the race for the 7th Assembly District looked like an easy win for Republican incumbent Philip Boyle.

But Boyle in late July replaced retiring state Sen. Owen Johnson as the GOP candidate in the 4th Senate District.

That left the 7th an open seat and one of Suffolk's most competitive Assembly races.

Looking to make a political comeback in the 7th is Republican-turned-Democrat Christopher Bodkin, 65, a former Islip Town board member from West Sayville.

In the eight-week sprint ahead, Bodkin's nearly two decades as a town official give him a significant edge in name recognition townwide, backers say. Bodkin in 2005 won a long-shot town board primary against powerful former Islip Supervisor Pete McGowan, who had tried to dump him from the Republican ticket. Bodkin lost re-election in 2009 after turning Democrat and now works as a part-time county legislature aide.

"He's got a tremendous record of public service, knows the nooks and crannies of every community in the district -- and it's important for us to have an Assembly member in the majority as part of Gov. [Andrew M.] Cuomo's team," said Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer.

Revitalized Islip Republicans, who won back town hall last year, are putting up first-time contender Andrew Garbarino, 27, a Sayville attorney, who has four ballot lines to Bodkin's one. Garbarino is the scion of a prominent GOP family. His father, William, fought losing battles against two of the biggest names in Suffolk political history -- Steve Levy, then a Democrat, in his first race for county legislature in 1985, and Democrat Legis. William Lindsay in his first election in 2001 -- a 55-vote squeaker.

"I'm very confident about Andrew," said Frank Tantone, town GOP chairman. "Islip Republicans have the new, young guy while Democrats are running a retread. I think his last election proved Chris Bodkin is a man without a country."

Victories in the open Assembly and State Senate seats also could boost Tantone's fortunes. Retaking the town made Tantone a rising GOP star, often mentioned for Suffolk GOP chairman -- especially since current chairman John Jay LaValle has expressed interest in running for Brookhaven highway superintendent next year.

But political consultant Michael Dawidziak, who is neutral in the race and once worked for both Bodkin and Garbarino's father, calls it a "fair fight district," despite a Republican enrollment of 31,733 to 22,548 for Democrats, with another 20,069 not aligned with either party.

Dawidziak said the heart of the district -- from Bayport to Oakdale, the home base for both men -- has a high proportion of swing voters. The area in the past has gone for Democrats including the late Assemb. Paul Harenberg, and former Republican County Executives Peter F. Cohalan and Steve Levy, who switched parties.

"They have shown they can vote Republican and they can vote Democratic. And they do it in the same year," Dawidziak said. He said another wild card is the expected heavy presidential turnout, though it is too early to determine who will benefit.

Garbarino said he first got hooked on politics as a high school junior working on his father's race against Lindsay, and that he has worked on campaigns ever since. He expects to have to raise about $70,000.

"I'm feeling a lot of enthusiasm . . . at the doors," said Garbarino. "It's a little bit the national mood, and people know our family going back to my grandfather who had a grocery. But there's also excitement about someone my age getting involved. They feel people are too complacent in Albany because they have been there too long."

Bodkin said he believes President Barack Obama is surging and that the president's campaign will help his Assembly race. He also thinks he will be helped by Cuomo's record of curbing taxes and producing budgets on time. He said he expects to raise about $5,000, but hopes to make it up with his door-to-door campaigning.

"I'm walking my tail off," he said. "I'm sure the Republicans will have more money, but I have six pairs of shoes and I will wear them all through by Nov. 6."