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.

The conviction and departure this past spring of powerful Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh on federal corruption charges spurred a flood of paper at the Suffolk Board of Elections last week — the first salvo in a fight for control of the largest county Conservative committee in the state.

Warring party factions filed hundreds of competing nominating petitions to put their backers on the Suffolk Conservative Committee. Committee members are political foot soldiers, who gather petitions for those seeking public office, but most importantly, vote every two years to elect a party leader at a convention within two weeks of the September primary.

While Conservatives could have as many as 2,094 committee members — two for each of Suffolk’s 1,047 election districts — parties almost never are able to fill all those posts. There rarely are primaries for committee spots, which only become elected positions if more than two people file a petition to run in an election district. To get on the ballot, a committee candidate normally needs from one to five signatures and can win with just a handful of votes.

Leading the insurgents is veteran party activist Kenneth Auerbach, who county election officials say, filed petitions to run committee candidates in 574 districts. Frank Tinari, the party’s acting county chairman and Huntington leader, has filed candidates in 474. Nick LaLota, GOP elections commissioner, said the competing petitions could mean 190 primaries.

Auerbach wants to oust Tinari because he was closely tied to Walsh, who was convicted of politicking, playing golf and gambling when he should have been at work as a Suffolk correction lieutenant. “People are disgusted with what the party has become,” said Auerbach, co-leader of the Brookhaven Conservative Committee. “We are not going to compromise and do business with people who are political terrorists — anyone involved with Ed Walsh and his bully tactics.”

Auerbach also claims Walsh’s hometown of Islip had 50 percent of the party’s executive committee vote, but only 25 percent of the county’s Conservative voters, and Brookhaven, with one-third of the Conservative voters, had only 20 percent representation of the executive committee. He also said Walsh stripped the Brookhaven party of its power to nominate its own candidates.

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Tinari said he has strong backing across the party. Without mentioning Walsh by name, he added the party in the past decade has grown far stronger, electing 17 Conservative judges and 17 other elected officials while increasing the vote on the minor party line from six percent to 10 to 15 percent in many local races. “That’s a pretty powerful organization and that we need to continue,” he said.

Tinari added Auerbach did not circulate any petitions for Republican Senate candidates — in effect helping Democrats. Tinari backers also said Auerbach filed petitions for some who may not back him.

Both sides, for example, filed petitions for former Suffolk Legis. Michael O’Donohoe, who has not taken a side and is trying to be a peacemaker to avoid a messy convention fight. “With Walsh gone, there’s no wicked witch in the equation,” said O’Donohoe. “Frank’s very laid-back and much more attuned to spread control of the party to the rank and file.”

O’Donohoe also said Auerbach’s fight to win primaries and corral those new committee members to show up to vote at a convention is hard to pull off, especially because Tinari backers will run the convention.

“I’ve been on both sides,” said O’Donohoe. “And the guy with the gavel always wins, and no judge is going to rule against the guy with the gavel.”