Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Before walking into this week's Republican judicial convention, Islip Republican chairman Frank Tantone had expected to take the nomination for state Supreme Court justice, step down as town leader and lope to easy victory with the Republican, Conservative and Independence Party ballot lines for a 14-year term.
Instead, the Republican judicial convention was delayed for 45 minutes while Tantone and other Suffolk GOP leaders huddled with furrowed brows, after which the Islip GOP leader pulled his name -- at least temporarily -- and was replaced by "spaceholder" Walter Lang. Tantone has until Tuesday to decide whether to make what will be a dicier, uphill race.
The GOP turmoil arose because embattled Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh hours earlier made a rare cross-endorsement deal with his Democratic counterpart Richard Schaffer, backing Democrats Robert Quinlan and appointed District Court Judge William Ford in return for Democratic backing for Conservative Howard Heckman, future father-in-law of Suffolk Conservative secretary Michael Torres.
That deal in large part jelled, both major and minor party sources say, because of a major split between Walsh and Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, who has made disparaging remarks about Walsh's legal woes. Walsh, a corrections lieutenant, has been accused of defrauding the sheriff's department by claiming he was working when he was performing duties for the political party.
Walsh backers minimize it as a "time sheet case."
LaValle, meanwhile, says Conservatives agreed to back GOP judicial candidates. Yet in recent weeks he tried to make a separate endorsement deal with Democrats and Conservatives who say LaValle shut them out.
"Clearly there's a lack of trust and friendship," said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who has worked for Walsh. "It's at a historically low point."
The situation is so bad, sources add, that Walsh in recent weeks had lobbied Republican town leaders to block LaValle's re-election as chairman this week. Walsh declined to comment.
Despite Walsh's own legal battles, he remains a formidable force in judicial races, not only with Heckman's Democratic cross-endorsement, but also with cross-endorsements for Anthony Senft in the Fifth District Court in Islip and Matt Hughes for Family Court. Earlier this year, he also got Marian Tinari a district court appointment in Huntington and she has a cross-endorsement for November as well.
While the Suffolk Conservatives, because of their party's size, also could give their line to all three Suffolk Republican candidates along with the Democrats (seven nominations are available in the bicounty region), several minor party sources said Friday that is unlikely to happen at their convention Monday night.
However, some Republicans believe it may be difficult for Walsh to withhold the line from Tantone, to whom he has been long allied, or GOP incumbent Emily Pines and County Court Judge Jack Toomey, with whom he has close ties. "What makes this fascinating are the personalities and the relationships," said one GOP official who declined to be identified. "And from now and Monday is an eternity."
Dawidziak doubts Walsh would undercut his agreement with Schaffer. "The party's got to show the Conservative line makes a difference," he said. "It's tough to work against yourself."
Adding to Suffolk GOP judicial contenders' woes is that Democrats will have the first three spots on Row A on the ballot, while Republicans will be on lines eight, nine and 10 down the ballot, a distinct disadvantage.
For Tantone, the issue is more immediate because he has to step down as Islip GOP leader should he decide to run in what has become an uncertain contest. "I'd be shocked if he runs," said Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive. "No leader would give up his power for a race he could lose."