Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
When Republicans polled early this year on contenders for the crucial State Senate seat in Suffolk's 3rd District, freshman Islip Town Board member Anthony Senft ran toward the bottom of the contender's list, according to party sources.
But Senft, a one-time high school football back who ran behind the blocking of boyhood friend Edward Walsh, Suffolk's powerful Conservative chairman, became the GOP's unofficial choice with the help of his former teammate. Walsh hoped to see Senft, a former Army paratrooper and federal prosecutor, become the first Conservative elected to the Senate in more than two decades.
That was before 32 tons of asbestos-laden debris was discovered at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood, touching off a growing environmental scandal that has led to state, federal and local probes of dumping there and at other sites.
While not personally implicated, Senft is Islip Town Board's liaison to the town parks department. A former parks commissioner, a Conservative, has been fired. At the same time, Walsh, a Suffolk County correction officer, is under investigation separately in a probe into whether sheriff's office employees collected wages for hours they did not work.
"It doesn't read well, and it's painful to watch," Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said of Senft's situation. "I know Tony to be a gentleman and a class act, but he's in a pickle because of circumstances."
Despite the controversy, top GOP officials in Brookhaven and Islip say they will officially name Senft as their Senate candidate at the party's county convention Wednesday night at the Coram firehouse.
Frank Tantone, Islip GOP chairman, acknowledged the dumping is a "very serious" issue, but said there is "no intention" to replace Senft.
"We've tried to put Anthony out front to help resolve the problem rather than playing politics with it. Hopefully it works," Tantone said. Vying for the Democratic ticket are Adrienne Esposito of Patchogue and Joseph Fritz of Brentwood.
Senft says he is committed to remaining in the race through November, and Scott Reif, spokesman for the State Senate Republicans, said, "We support his campaign."
Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven GOP chairman, also backs Senft, saying the candidate walked neighborhoods in Medford last week, and appeared at a ceremony at a local high school for the late Navy Seals war hero Michael Murphy. "Feedback at the door has been good," said Garcia, noting that only one resident raised the dumping issue.
Some say the fate of Senft's candidacy may not be settled until mid-July when candidate petitions are filed with the board of elections. Candidates can decline their nominations, and parties can permit nonparty members to run on their ballot lines.
Some party officials privately want the incumbent, State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), to give up his bid for Congress against Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and make the Senate race.
Should Zeldin lose the June 24 GOP congressional primary against former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer George Demos, some say Zeldin still could circulate petitions or replace Senft on the Senate ballot should Senft decline the nomination.
Some election lawyers say Zeldin cannot run for Senate because he already has accepted the Conservative line for Congress and cannot get off. Zeldin spokeswoman Kara Cumoletti said Zeldin is "all-in on the congressional race and is confident in Anthony Senft's ability to win the [Senate] seat for the Republicans."
Should fallout from the dumping scandal mount, Senft could decline the nomination and the GOP could name another replacement. Contenders could include Islip Supervisor Tom Croci, now serving as a reservist in the Mideast; former Assemb. Dean Murray of East Patchogue, now running for his old seat; and Islip Town Board member Trish Bergin Weichbrodt. Some GOP officials also mention Pamela Greene, a former Islip Town Board member and supervisor candidate.
Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive and a Republican, said Senft should pull out of the Senate race. "There is going to be a steady toxic drip from now until Election Day that is so harmful no candidate could survive," Sabatino said.
"It's always bad when things happen on your watch," said former Conservative county lawmaker Michael O'Donohoe, now Suffolk commissioner of jurors. But O'Donohoe said Senft can survive if he takes a hard line.
"He has to find the people responsible and call for their heads," said O'Donohoe.