Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Democratic dissidents' unexpected victory in removing Suffolk County Legis. Monica Martinez from the party's primary ballot has turned what was expected to be a slam-dunk re-election into a far more costly and uncertain bid.
And if she wins a second term, Martinez will have done something no county lawmaker has done before -- win solely with minor-party lines.
Critics say Martinez's voluntary withdrawal from major-party line was tacit admission that Martinez and her paid staff, in seeking signatures for nominating petitions, witnessed Democrats who signed not only their own names, but also those of other family members as well. If proven, the actions could constitute fraud.
"No one ever abandons a major-party line without a fight unless there's a larger issue to be concerned about," said Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk chief deputy county executive.
Martinez has declined to comment on the petition signatures. But dissidents led by former county Legis. Rick Montano, whom Martinez defeated two years ago, and a handwriting expert they hired say the 97 signatures Martinez and her staff witnessed were enough to make the entire petition unreliable, even though it contained 1,600 names -- far more than the 500 minimum to qualify for the Democratic line.
Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer tried to take the blame. "I'm the leader of the party and I'm the one ultimately responsible," he said.
The most immediate impact for Martinez is that her opponent, Giovanni Mata, 35, an event planner who is making his third try for office, will get Democratic Row A on the ballot, a major advantage in a largely minority Democratic district where turnout in 2013 was only 13.1 percent.
Loss of the Democratic line relegates Martinez far down the ballot, to the Row E Working Families and Row E Independence Party ballot lines. Schaffer said Martinez also will seek backing on Row F of the fledging Women's Equality ballot line, created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in last year's election. As a new party, Women's Equality can name candidates with no petitions by Sept. 19.
Analysts said Martinez has made her prospects much more difficult.
"I'd never call anyone not on a major-party line a favorite," said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who mainly works for Republicans. He said Martinez has a chance because there is no Republican candidate in the race, but that it will require a costly campaign to educate voters about why she lost the Democratic line and why they still should back her.
Meanwhile, Montano is pressing Martinez to drop her campaign. He has filed a complaint with the Suffolk Board of Ethics, and the dissidents have hired a lawyer to present Martinez's petitions to prosecutors. "What she did was a crime and she should be prosecuted plain and simple," Montano said.
Schaffer predicted Martinez will prevail. "We're just moving the primary to election day," he said. Schaffer said Martinez is known in the district and has a record of stabilizing taxes and fighting illegal dumping at Brentwood's Roberto Clemente Park.
"Voters on the whole are not interested in the political back and forth the other side likes to dwell on," Schaffer said.
The Democratic Party cannot directly fund Martinez, who has $35,000 on hand, but Schaffer can encourage donors to give directly to her campaign fund.
Mata and Montano's slate has only $4,531 on hand, about a quarter of it loans, according to campaign filings. Martinez also owes $19,000 in loans she made to her first campaign in 2013 -- debts that might discourage new donors.
"We worked very hard to create this majority-minority district and the politicians have done all they can to suppress the vote," said former Democratic Legis. Vivian Viloria-Fisher of Setauket. "The only good thing about it is that may finally bring people in the district out to vote," she said.