Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Islip Town's Roberto Clemente Park, where tons of asbestos-laden debris was dumped, became ground zero in the heated race in the 3rd State Senate District last week, although it wasn't always clear whether the combatants were acting as candidates or advocates and town officials.
Environmentalist Adrienne Esposito, who is seeking the Democratic line, held a news conference Thursday at the Brentwood park, but maintained it was not a political event. She said that as executive director of the nonprofit Concerned Citizens for the Environment, she was responding to more than two dozen calls asking for the group to react to the dumping at the now-closed park.
Esposito, 53, of Patchogue, said she did not mention the name of her Senate foe, Islip Town Board member Anthony Senft, a Conservative running with GOP backing, or the fact that he is the town board liaison to the parks department. She did press for a federal environmental probe and for the state Health Department to hold a community meeting to deal with potential health problems.
"It was difficult because I didn't want anyone to think we were using this terrible situation for political reasons," Esposito said later. "But it was the district attorney who called it an environmental nightmare and . . . we have never stood on the sidelines when the public is faced with an environmental health issue . . . and we won't."
Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven Republican chairman, countered that Senft "is leading the charge" to get to the bottom of the park mess and said the controversy will have no long-term impact on his candidacy.
John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, said Esposito was using her nonprofit group as a political platform. "It's a conflict and a self-created conflict," LaValle said. "And it shows she has questionable judgment at best."
Senft, 47, a town board freshman and an attorney from Great River, said he was "so focused" on responding to this "horrible event" he has not assessed the impact on his candidacy. He said he is committed to remaining in the race to the end.
"I want to lead from the front and not bury my head in the sand," Senft said. "If anyone wants to step up and politicize this crime, it's their business. I'll leave it for the voters to decide."
But state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), chairman of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee, said Senft will face damage as more becomes known about the incident. "The one thing that is clear is that the toxic dumping occurred on Senft's watch," Gianaris said. "And try as he might to avoid responsibility, he's accountable."
Desmond Ryan, a business lobbyist, said Senft has been a "very instrumental pro-business" town board member who helped forge a board zoning agreement for Serota Properties' 2.2 million-square-foot residential and retail complex. He also said he expects the dumping issue to be "corrected in a timely manner" and Senft, a former prosecutor, to assist the district attorney's probe.
While she made no mention of Senft in the news conference, Esposito concedes she did call for outside agencies to investigate the dumping.
"The Town of Islip cannot investigate itself," she said. "It would be like having Chris Christie investigate 'Bridgegate' " in New Jersey.