Senate race in Brookhaven and Islip getting dicey for Republicans

Town of Islip Councilman Anthony Senft is shown

Town of Islip Councilman Anthony Senft is shown in a June 21, 2011 photo. (Credit: David Pokress)

Rick Brand

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Call it the candidate escape hatch.

Even though political parties filed petitions late last week for their designated candidates to get on the November ballot, contenders still have three days to change their minds. They can get off the ballot simply by telling the county boards of elections that they decline their nomination. The drop-dead date for candidates to make an exit is Monday.

It is an option that could be crucial in the open 3rd State Senate District, which covers the south shore of Brookhaven and Islip -- where Senate Republicans desperately need to keep the seat if they are to have any chance to win a Senate majority in November.

And Senate Republicans, according to local GOP sources, worry about the prospects of the current Republican candidate, Conservative Islip Town Board member Anthony Senft, a former Army paratrooper and federal prosecutor.

The problem is that Senft, though not personally implicated, has been the town's point man over the scandal arising from the dumping of tons of toxic material at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood and the subsequent avalanche of negative publicity. Making things worse, his likely Democratic opponent, Adrienne Esposito, is one of the region's leading environmentalists, and her Democratic primary foe, Joe Fritz, has repeatedly lashed out at town board meetings over the town's response to the mess.

And Senft's longtime friend and mentor, Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh, is under suspension as a correction lieutenant and is facing possible termination from a probe into whether he was paid for time he did not work.

Further complicating matters for Suffolk Republicans is that their entire slate needs the Conservative ballot line to win in November. They are waiting patiently for Walsh to sign the authorization for each Republican to also run on the minor party line. The deadline for Walsh to sign also happens to be Monday.

As a result, local Republicans are loathe to say anything about a potential Senft exit or the naming of a replacement candidate. In fact, Republican leaders Thursday formally gave Conservative Senft authorization to run on the GOP ballot line and say they are ready to move forward with him.

Trying to distance themselves from any blame, one top GOP official, who did not want to be identified, said Senate Republicans are the ones most worried about Senft's chances. "They are concerned enough to be having conversations," he said. "But they are the ones who are raising the issue."

Republican Senate spokesman Scott Reif in the past has said the GOP backs Senft, but he did not return calls late last week.

Should Senft decline the nomination, a three-member committee -- Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, Brookhaven GOP leader Jesse Garcia and Islip GOP chairman Frank Tantone -- would have to fill the vacancy by Friday.

Likely topping the GOP wish list of potential replacements is just-returning Navy reservist Tom Croci, the Islip supervisor, who has already spoken out strongly against the dumping scandal. Alternate names could include former Assemb. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue), already nominated to try and win back his former seat, or former Islip Town Board member Pamela Greene.

No matter the political machinations, Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who works mainly for Republicans, said Senft has the final say. "If he doesn't want to get out, he could stay," he said. "But my sense is that he is a team player and wants to do what is right . . . but I think he is looking to leadership for guidance to tell him the right thing to do."