Small group of election lawyers see more battles

Thomas Garry, attorney for a candidate in the Thomas Garry, attorney for a candidate in the race for the 1st Congressional District, reviews ballots at the Suffolk Board of Elections in Yaphank. (Dec. 2, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Late last week, attorney Tom Garry sat in the third-floor hallway overlooking the man-made pond at the Cohalan court complex, waiting for a ruling in his 15th, and hopefully last, case of this election season.

"It's been a busy year," said Garry, 45, who at other times specializes in zoning, development and planning issues. "Over a year, elections cases are about 10 percent of my business . . . In August, it's 115 percent."

Garry last week successfully represented Democratic primary challenger Monica Martinez in a lawsuit brought by Suffolk Legis. Rick Montano (D-Brentwood) claiming among other things that she improperly had the backing of the local party. Earlier, Garry represented Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota against GOP primary challenger Ray Perini, who tried to knock the cross-endorsed Democrat off the ballot.

"An election lawyer can make or break a candidate," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic leader.

Jay Jacobs, Nassau Democratic chairman, said Garry "doesn't just have the legal skill and knowledge of case law ..., he's a fair-minded human being who's well-liked and that goes a long way when you have to appear before a judge."

Garry is one of a small cadre of local attorneys who specialize in the arcane world of New York State Election Law and its byzantine maze of rules regarding conventions, nominating petitions, filling vacancies when a candidate drops out, and monitoring recanvassing of votes after Election Day.

Others in Nassau include Steve Schlesinger, dean of Nassau Democratic election lawyers, and Republicans Peter Bee and John Ryan. Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli has a statewide reputation in election law, but because of his position, now only serves as a behind-the-scenes adviser. In Suffolk, top election lawyers include Republicans Vincent Messina, former Islip Town attorney, and Steve Losquadro, law chairman of the Suffolk GOP. Democrat Larry Silverman has also played an increased role since the party's leading election lawyer, John Leo, became a judge.

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"It takes a special type of person," said Messina, who grew up in politics and was part of party research teams even as a teen. "You have to work very hard in a very compressed period of time. But the thrill is to see the result in finality in three to five weeks, even if you are not always thrilled with the outcome."

Schlesinger, who's been involved in 25 election cases this year, said the battles have become more numerous and more intense because the major parties are now more evenly matched and both sides are looking for any possible edge. He also said the proliferation of minor parties has increased the number of battlegrounds.

"When the Democrats weren't competitive, it didn't matter if you knocked a Republican off the Conservative line," he said. "Now it's a battle to get the most real estate on the ballot to billboard your candidate . . . Everyone wants to get as much as they can."

All sides agree that judges have become more lenient in applying election law in favor of increased access for candidates and voters. "On one hand, people are entitled to elect who they want and no one should be thrown off on a hyper-technical issue," said Bee. "But it's also important that rules apply to all and everyone follows the same rules."

Garry, once a stock boy in New York Conservative chairman Michael Long's Brooklyn liquor store, was Thomas Suozzi's lawyer when he ran a 2001 primary for county executive and led the legal team in the 2010 recount of Rep. Tim Bishop's 563-vote win over Republican Randy Altschuler.

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But Garry said it's sometimes important to know when to ease off when ahead, allowing that recount to stop on Thanksgiving Eve, without finishing. "It allowed Altschuler to go home for the holiday with his family and think it over," he said. "When they came back after the holiday, he conceded."

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