Rick Brand Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on

Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

Two weeks ago, Suffolk Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer was faced with two Democrats vying in a messy Babylon Town Board primary. But he has made both vanish as if with a Hogwarts spell.

Schaffer now has the candidates he wanted all along — the Independence Party’s Anthony Manetta, who also has Republican and Conservative backing, along with Tony Martinez, a Democratic town board incumbent. Both will win in November with no opposition, and voters will have no choice.

The imbroglio arose when the newly energized grass roots effort of Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley, 36, of Amityville, began circulating petitions to get the needed 1,250 signatures to run when her own party failed to put up anyone.

In response, Claire McKeon, 63, the $103,000-a-year town Youth Bureau head and a longtime Schaffer ally, decided to wage a primary against the newcomer Grechen Shirley.

After McKeon declared, Grechen Shirley dropped out. But Schaffer and McKeon, despite an army of petition gatherers, last week said McKeon fell short, getting only 1,100 signatures.

They blamed a late start and said party workers, who earlier had gathered petitions for other candidates, were unavailable.

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Instead, Schaffer named McKeon, a former Lindenhurst school board member, to run against Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), head of the GOP caucus, after another Democrat, Ed Buturla, dropped out.

Some labeled Schaffer’s ploy a backroom deal to deny voters a choice, and said it would increase public distrust in politics.

“I’m beyond disappointed McKeon . . . did not submit signatures,” said Grechen Shirley, calling it “an affront to voters.” Grechen Shirley vowed to pursue the fight for “real change” in the future.

GOP political consultant Michael Dawidziak called Schaffer an “extraordinarily talented leader,” capable of untangling a mess while leaving no trail.

“If this is a backroom deal, you will never . . . find the fingerprints,” Dawidziak said. “But in politics, it is very unhealthy to believe in coincidences.”

Schaffer said he originally committed to Manetta because Democrats earlier had supported Lindsay Henry, an Independence Party town board member not seeking re-election. He also said the party must be strategic to save resources for its most competitive races.

Manetta also is an influential political strategist who helped Conservative Vincent DeMarco win the county sheriff’s job with Democratic backing in 2005.

Manetta served as head of Suffolk’s Industrial Development Agency and four years ago helped Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election, ward off a primary for the Republican line with Ray Perini, now the GOP’s district attorney candidate.

McCaffrey said McKeon is a “real opponent” who is well known locally. But he questioned whether Schaffer will invest money in the race because he has other Democratic seats to defend. “Who knows? If Tim Sini becomes district attorney, maybe they will make her police commissioner,” he said.

Schaffer’s maneuvering also may not be over.

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On Thursday, he named attorney Stuart Besen, a former Huntington Town Board member, to replace Don Caroleo, who declined to run as the Democrats’ sheriff candidate.

That means Besen, an attorney, could be tapped in September as a State Supreme Court candidate, which would mean he’d exit the sheriff’s race. That could permit State Sen. Phil Boyle, the GOP, Conservative and Independence Party candidate for sheriff, whom Schaffer has praised, to run unopposed in November, if he survives a three-way GOP primary.

Schaffer downplayed that prospect.

“Right now I don’t see it,” he said, but conceded, “Obviously, there is always a possibility.”