Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
At age 35, John Jay LaValle was widely considered Suffolk Republicans' fastest-rising star. He was supervisor of the county's largest town, Brookhaven, and a leading contender for county executive or possibly a seat in Congress.
A decade later, LaValle, 46, now Suffolk GOP chairman, says he is mulling an electoral comeback for county comptroller -- an office that may not exist by year's end, even if he wins.
"The day I left office, I said I would run again someday," said LaValle, who decided against a county executive run in 2003 and did not run for a third term as supervisor in 2005. He said he left to spend more time with his family, but his exit came as the town was mired in corruption scandals, though he was never implicated.
LaValle says that as supervisor, he helped ferret out corruption and oversaw the town budget, and that qualifies him to become county comptroller. "I've balanced budgets, reorganized departments and even lowered taxes," he said.
LaValle said he has made no decision on the comptroller's race, although reaction to his interest in running has been "tremendous." He said he would give up his party job if elected as the $189,200-a-year comptroller.
LaValle said he would "not necessarily be adversarial" as comptroller and would work in a "nonpartisan manner" to assist other county officials. But he would remain vigilant "if something's amiss."
LaValle's name emerged as Democrats proposed a November referendum on a merger of the treasurer and comptroller offices. If successful, the vote would wipe out the comptroller's office at the end of the year.
Democrats would allow the legislature to appoint a temporary head of the newly merged office -- likely current Republican comptroller Joseph Sawicki, who is term-limited -- until November 2015, when an election would be held for the new office of county chief fiscal officer. Sawicki could run for the position because he would be seeking a newly created office.
LaValle called the Democrats' proposal "preposterous" and predicted it would "fail miserably" with voters because it would eliminate the only two jobs that act as watchdogs on the Democratic administration of County Executive Steve Bellone.
Democrats say a merger would save $400,000 to $500,000 a year.
LaValle said the GOP will fight the move in court. "What is Steve Bellone trying to hide?" LaValle asked. "It just doesn't smell right and in politics, it usually means it stinks."
Political consultant Michael Dawidziak, who works primarily for Republicans, called LaValle "a proven vote-getter [who] has been very successful at raising money -- what's not to like?"
However, LaValle's own election as party leader came with significant help from the late Suffolk GOP chairman John Powell, who once was imprisoned on charges of bribe taking and involvement in an illegal truck chop shop. LaValle minimizes Powell's role.
Said Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer: "Any time we run for office we're all held accountable for our past record."
Should LaValle win and the merger lose, the Suffolk GOP leader's job would be open. Islip Republican chairman Frank Tantone, who has clashed with LaValle, said he would be interested in the job if other town party leaders want him.
In the meantime, he said, "We all need to soften our stances -- including me -- and get along better."