Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
It was an incongruous scene last week at the Ronkonkoma train station where Suffolk's Democratic County Executive, Steve Bellone, sat between town Supervisors Edward P. Romaine of Brookhaven and Angie Carpenter of Islip, who in the past had led the Republicans' loyal opposition.
Touting the moment as "historic," Bellone announced an agreement that simply calls for the towns, county and Long Island Rail Road officials to meet four times a year over the pending $475 million Ronkonkoma Hub project that straddles town borders.
It was only the latest event at which Bellone curried favor with former foes. Last month, he named Romaine, once his toughest critic in the Suffolk County Legislature, to the Long Island Regional Planning Council. In recent weeks, Bellone breakfasted with Carpenter, whom he defeated for county executive four years ago and later spent a year trying to ax from her former job as county treasurer.
Behind the scenes, Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, has let it be known to Republicans that his party has no candidate able to wage an aggressive campaign against Carpenter or Romaine this fall. Schaffer also met privately with some potential GOP county executive contenders to discourage their interest.
"I have no insider information, . . . [but] it seems there is some kind of nonaggression pact between Republicans and Democrats," said Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive and longtime legislative counsel. "And the real losers in all this are the voters because they will have no choice."
Speculation of a pact surfaced last year when Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle dropped out of the Suffolk comptroller's race at the last minute. Former Suffolk Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr., who became the Republican comptroller candidate, staged a major upset even though he didn't have Conservative Party backing.
Both LaValle and Schaffer say there's no sub rosa agreement. "Not only is there no nonaggression pact, it's the farthest thing from reality," LaValle said. However, the GOP leader said there have been attempts "to try to pick off our candidates" and discourage them from running.
LaValle, a former Brookhaven supervisor, declined to comment about whether he would run for county executive if he can find no other GOP candidate. He also declined to say if had interest in running for State Supreme Court.
"I'm not in charge of the Republican Party," Schaffer said. "It's up to them to pick their strongest candidates. I have a tough enough time coming up with our own candidates. If they are looking for excuses they've got to look at themselves before blaming others."
Critics say the GOP has squandered the momentum from last year's wins by Rep. Lee Zeldin, of Shirley, state Sen. Tom Croci, of Sayville, and Kennedy. And GOP Assemb. Anthony Palumbo's decision to forgo a county executive race leaves county Republicans, only weeks before the county convention, with no candidate to lead the ticket.
A weak standard-bearer could hurt prospects for a strong GOP turnout as the party tries to narrow the 12-6 Democratic-majority in the Suffolk County Legislature. A weak foe also could free Bellone to use excess campaign funds to aid vulnerable Democratic lawmakers.
Assemb. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-St. James), who is not up for re-election, said he "wouldn't be surprised" if there's at least a tacit understanding between the parties. "It seems that everyone is in a comfort zone on both sides and they seem to be OK with that," he said.
Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) countered that LaValle "has made every effort" to find a candidate for county executive -- but enlisting anyone is tough because of the huge cost of the race, the county's size and the difficulty in challenging Bellone, who can make news daily and has millions of dollars in his coffers. "It's not an easy road," Barraga said.
"There are two things I can guarantee you," said Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), GOP caucus leader who faces his own tough re-election race. "We will not cross-endorse Steve Bellone and we will not leave the line blank. We will find someone to run a formidable and interesting race."