Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Republican Assemb. Anthony Palumbo has told county Republican leaders he is taking a "hard look" at challenging Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone this fall and will make a final decision by next week.
Palumbo, 44, former supervisor of Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota's East End trial bureau who is little known beyond his North Fork district, met with party leaders last weekend and again on Tuesday. Those close to the lawmaker say the party, anxious for a standard-bearer, is applying a full-court press to persuade him to run.
"We did talk to him and it does look like he's going to make the run," said one high-level party source, "But there are certain things that still have to be worked out."
One friend said Palumbo, of New Suffolk, may be "getting a lot of pressure" from the party, but "I'm 99 percent sure he won't do it. He's just too realistic." Palumbo declined to comment.
Palumbo, who first won office in a special election in 2013, has gotten more than 200 calls in the past week, said one adviser. Many pledged support, while others including former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy offered advice.
"No one should take an underdog assemblyman lightly," said Frank MacKay, state and Suffolk Independence Party chairman. "Just look at the history; every assemblyman who ever ran for county executive has ultimately won -- Patrick Halpin, Bob Gaffney and Steve Levy."
Palumbo has asked to see the data from a GOP poll done last month by consultant John McLaughlin. He also wants to talk with advisers and consultants about his prospects, his chances for getting minor party support and to mull the impact on his family.
Palumbo has a strong base in his district where he won a special election in 2013 and his first full term last fall with 63 percent of the vote.
While an underdog, Palumbo could do well in Suffolk's two largest towns, where popular GOP supervisors Edward P. Romaine of Brookhaven and Angie Carpenter of Islip also are running this fall, Republicans said. Smithtown is rock-ribbed Republican, they add, pointing to GOP Comptroller John Kennedy's 8,000 victory margin last year.
"If you look at the math, they win four towns and we win six," said one supporter.
Palumbo draws comparisons with Gaffney, who served in the Assembly and was a former FBI agent. But Gaffney, of Miller Place, came from Suffolk's largest town, Brookhaven, and spent eight years in Albany before beating Halpin in 1991, who was hurt by a sagging economy. "He doesn't have the base of support Gaffney had," Desmond Ryan, a veteran Albany lobbyist, said of Palumbo.
Others say Palumbo faces an uphill battle against Bellone, who has 1.5 million in campaign war chest. Bellone backers say the county executive has cut 1,000 jobs, made priorities of protecting local waters and creating a rapid bus transit system to spur job growth.
"The county executive's approval ratings are stratospheric and we are confident that is because the voters in Suffolk County recognize his successful track record," said Bellone spokesman Justin Meyers.
But Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive, said Palumbo could be competitive as a "fresh face," like Gov. George Pataki, who in his first run had little political baggage to defend. But because Palumbo is little known, it is crucial the party assemble a solid issue-based platform, attacking Bellone's failings and providing solutions, Sabatino said.
"The problem as a 'no name' is that you have no credibility coming out of the box unless you have an agenda," Sabatino said.
Word of Palumbo's interest began surfacing as Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, warned 550 party members at their $300-a-head spring dinner this week that they'll need "to do two times more" to offset low off-year turnout and overcome last year's losses in races for county comptroller, Congress and State Senate.
Some say Palumbo may make the run to get countywide experience, like Halpin did in the 1983 county executive race where he came closer than expected to GOP incumbent Peter F. Cohalan.
"If he does it, it's probably because he is looking to get his name better known for a future race should [state Sen.] Kenneth LaValle ever retire," said Desmond Ryan, a veteran Albany lobbyist.
Others say Palumbo may be interested in running for district attorney if incumbent Spota, a longtime family friend, retires. Whatever his ambition, Ryan added, "He's a bright, articulate guy, who has a real future."