Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
If Islip Town Board member Anthony Senft is elected to the State Senate in November, he immediately would become one of a kind among Albany lawmakers.
He would be the first enrolled Conservative Party member elected to the State Senate in a quarter century. The last Conservative to win a Senate seat was former state Conservative chairman Serphin Maltese in Queens in 1988. Two years later, he became a Republican.
Senft's party is not lost on state Sen. Michael Gianaris, who is also from Queens and heads the Senate Democratic campaign committee. He sees the 3rd District as one of three potential Senate battlegrounds on Long Island in a year when GOP Senate control hinges on a coalition with a few Democratic dissidents.
"He's out of step with the people in his South Shore district," Gianaris said of Senft. "And we'll make that known."
At his first fundraiser last week, Senft, 47, of Great River, downplayed his minor party membership, emphasizing his GOP backing. He said he does not see himself as a "standard-bearer" for Conservatives. "I want to be the voice for the middle class who struggle to pay taxes," he said.
Senft, a former Army paratrooper and federal prosecutor, said he opposes abortion and gay marriage, and backs gun rights. But he noted that those issues are "largely settled" in New York and his focus is on "more jobs, lowering taxes and cutting the size of government."
Gianaris said Senft voted for a 28 percent property tax increase in his first year on the Islip Town Board and was on the East Islip school board when it proposed tax hikes.
Senft, a school board member from 1997 to 2000, said voters, not the board, make the final decision on school budgets. He said local residents pressed to create a middle school, which the district did not have, and approved the tax hike to pay for it.
Edward Walsh, Suffolk Conservative chairman and Senft's chief backer, blamed past Democratic town officials for using up surpluses. Walsh said that forced a tax hike to straighten out town finances. However, he noted that the GOP-controlled town board voted for a no-tax increase budget this year. Former Democratic town Supervisor Phil Nolan said Senft and GOP officials did not want to make cuts needed to stabilize taxes.
Once a GOP bastion, the 3rd is now a swing district and this year an open seat because state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) is running for Congress. By registration, Democrats outnumber Republicans 60,282 to 54,100. There are 4,305 Conservatives and 44,225 unaligned voters.
As Senft was fundraising in Patchogue last week, two possible Democratic contenders for the seat spoke to the Jefferson Democratic Club in Farmingville.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizen Campaign for the Environment, spoke about water-quality issues and made no mention of running, even though she's already filed papers for a fundraising committee. While not enrolled in a party, Esposito, of Patchogue, says she has talked to Democratic officials and will decide next month whether to make the race.
Joseph Fritz, a veteran Democratic committeeman from Brentwood, has declared his candidacy, saying he deserves a shot after taking on past uphill fights against powerful incumbents including former Islip Supervisor Pete McGowan and late former Presiding Officer Michael Grant.
Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said the local party can only give limited support to state candidates because it is saving up for next year's county executive race.
But some say Schaffer puts no effort into Senate races because suburban areas do better under a GOP Senate.
Walsh even joked at the fundraiser that he might consider accepting a Democratic endorsement for Senft. "I want Richie Schaffer to know we're not closing any door," he said.