Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk's Republican county lawmakers may have pressed hard at legislative committee last Wednesday to speed up the merger of the treasurer and comptroller to Jan. 1.
But only hours later, Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle put before party leaders the name of former Comptroller Joseph Sawicki as a potential contender for the truncated two-year term for treasurer before the job goes out of existence in 2018.
The timing is striking because Sawicki's name surfaced as legislative Democrats gave their first indication that they may be open to expediting the merger. But in the decadelong roller-coaster ride toward consolidation, it is just the latest in a series of careering, 180-degree turns.
Sawicki, who was term limited last year after 12 years as comptroller, says he is "very seriously interested" in running for treasurer. Sawicki, who once served three years as chief deputy treasurer, says his experience would be a big help to make the merger go smoothly. "It would be a major mistake to rush the merger," he said. "This is a significant structural change in county government and any error could cost taxpayers dearly."
The proposal for the expedited merger, sponsored by Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), the GOP caucus leader, calls for a November referendum, which, if approved by voters, would leave Sawicki, if elected, with a scant six-week treasurer term -- making it hardly worth mounting a countywide campaign.
"I have spoken to Kevin and conveyed to him that it does make it a very awkward situation, trying to recruit a candidate for an office they are trying to abolish," LaValle said. However, he said he did not ask McCaffrey to drop his bill.
Even with an abbreviated two-year term, Sawicki, 60, could make $192,191 a year, not counting the $117,000-a-year pension he earned over his three-decade career. It also could put Sawicki back in a countywide elected post from which he could later launch a run for another office.
What makes Sawicki's candidacy especially attractive to Republican leaders is that he has $207,000 in leftover campaign funds at a time when GOP officials also are trying to enlist Republican Assemb. Anthony Palumbo of Shoreham to run for county executive.
LaValle said he has not asked Sawicki to turn over his war chest, but would like to see a "team concept" in the fall campaign. "If one of your running mates starts off with a couple of hundred thousand dollars, it makes it more attractive for the ticket across the board."
In addition, several GOP sources said the party does not want to see Sawicki take a Democratic cross-endorsement. Campaign finance filings show Sawicki last year transferred $20,000 to Suffolk Democrats. Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer did not return calls for comment Friday.
Sawicki, who opposed a merger for nearly a decade, embraced it when County Executive Steve Bellone two years ago put forward a plan that also would have put Sawicki in charge of the combined agency, allowing him to avoid term-limit rules and run for another 12 years.
However, Angie Carpenter, treasurer at the time, blocked that proposal with a lawsuit. The measure passed last year after the plan was revised to let Carpenter serve the rest of her term. But Carpenter last month left early to become Islip supervisor, creating the current scramble.
New GOP Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., once a merger foe, says an expedited merger would save about $750,000. And his relations with Sawicki are icy since the former comptroller was neutral in Kennedy's upset win. A Sawicki candidacy, Kennedy said, "is irrelevant to my goal of supporting Legis. McCaffrey's resolution . . . and delivering to taxpayers the savings they deserve."