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.

When Steve Bellone first ran for Suffolk County executive four years ago, by the campaign's final days he had run TV ads for 12 weeks, burned through $2.6 million in campaign cash, and even paid $660 out of his own pocket to rehire an 84-year-old Santa Claus who was fired by the administration of his predecessor, Steve Levy.

But entering the final full week of his re-election campaign this year, Bellone put up his first TV spot only two weeks ago and has spent $1.07 million of the $2.9 million he's raised. And his latest campaign finance report, filed Friday, shows Bellone with an unspent $1.8 million, which some critics say he's squirreling away to run for higher office.

His Republican foe, James O'Connor, a little-known former North Hempstead Town Board member, has raised a total of $172,642. His campaign finance report filed Friday shows he has spent $91,262 in the last three weeks and had $46,667 left for the campaign's last 11 days.

Republican county Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., who won last year even though he was outspent widely, called Bellone's decision to hold back on spending unduly optimistic. "Leaving so much on the table reflects an unfounded degree of confidence and an imprudent reliance on polls," he said, referring to Bellone's 33-point edge over O'Connor in a Newsday poll this month.

Some Republicans cite former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi's 2009 loss to then-Republican legislative backbencher Edward Mangano, who staged a major upset by winning by 386 votes. The ambitious Suozzi, looking for higher office, had left $2 million in his campaign coffers.

Kennedy added that Bellone, even if re-elected, may be looking for an early exit given Suffolk's ongoing fiscal woes. "There are some rumblings that if Hillary becomes president there may be a federal job out there, and there's some talk about [Rep. Peter] King's seat" in Congress, he said, or even a run for statewide office.

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'11 days is a long time'

Justin Meyers, Bellone's spokesman, said there is no intent to hold back on campaign spending. "We're spending hundreds of thousand of dollars a week and we'll spend what is necessary to do an effective job to win this campaign," Meyers said. Unused cash may still be needed, he said, adding: "In the political world, 11 days is a long time, and . . . things change."

Asked if Bellone aspires to higher office, Meyers said the county executive is "focused 100 percent on running this government."

He also said Bellone fundraising numbers are a sign of his widespread support across the political spectrum. The largest donor in Bellone's latest filing is supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, a Republican who gave $25,000. He was the father-in-law of Christopher Cox, a onetime GOP congressional contender, grandson of late President Richard M. Nixon, and son of state GOP chairman Edward Cox.

Republican Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive, said Bellone may have learned a lesson from last year's comptroller's race, in which Democrat James Gaughran relentlessly attacked Kennedy, but only heightened Kennedy's visibility. "Gaughran spent so much money, he elevated Kennedy, giving him more attention and name recognition. I think the best thing for Bellone is to ignore O'Connor, who is unknown, and spend the minimal amount to just reinforce his own name."

Republicans criticize cash stockpile

O'Connor, meanwhile, attacked Bellone for how much he has raised from county contractors and has called for a ban on the practice. "Stop shaking down Suffolk County's special interests for your re-election efforts and instead, start representing the Suffolk taxpayer," O'Connor said.

And John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, said Bellone should take the unused $1.8 million "and apply it to the county's $200 million structural deficit. . . . Our goal is to make him the next Tom Suozzi."

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, dismissed such attacks, saying Bellone's "a very popular incumbent who has managed the county well and doing everything he has to to win." However, the party leader also said he would prefer Bellone use up the campaign fund to help turn out voters. "I'd love for him to spend it. My philosophy is you raise it to spend it. But that is a decision for his campaign to make," Schaffer said. He added that Bellone has not spoken to him about any other future political race.

However, Michael Dawidziak, GOP consultant, said that given his light TV buy and lack of direct mail so far, Bellone seems more intent on holding onto the cash than running up big numbers. "Clearly he doesn't feel he has to spend money this year," Dawidziak said. "He must be thinking no one remembers if it's an impressive 65 percent or an unimpressive 55 percent. A win is a win."