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.

Suffolk Republicans, in reaching out to former North Hempstead Town Board member James O'Connor, finally have found someone with experience running for county executive.

Of course, he ran for Nassau County executive. His bid was 14 years ago. And his campaign lasted just 48 hours.

"It was a learning experience," O'Connor laughed. He said he was surprised when Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle sought to enlist him, but added, "once it's in your blood to run for office, you are by definition a politician."

More coverageSuffolk budget issues

After months of searching for a county executive candidate, GOP leaders this week screened O'Connor, a Great River resident since 2004; retired Suffolk Homicide Det. Sgt. Robert Doyle; and former Smithtown Town attorney John Zollo to take on Democratic county Executive Steve Bellone. GOP officials will make a decision next week and will hold their convention in Farmingville on June 1.

"We're looking at people in the private sector," LaValle said. "Suffolk residents are unhappy hearing from career politicians who are insulated from the economy with taxpayer dollars . . . we have people talking about solving problems, not defending failing institutions."

Barry McCoy, a longtime Democratic state committeeman, said LaValle is just putting up a brave front for a weak field.

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"It's just one step up from running someone from the board of elections or OTB," said McCoy, referring to agencies filled with patronage appointees where both parties often find names to fill empty ballot lines.

Until now, O'Connor, 52, was an arcane footnote in Nassau's political history. As a one-term town board member, his star flashed briefly after former Nassau County Executive Tom Gulotta, a Republican dogged by a $2 billion budget deficit, decided not to run in 2001 and no high-profile GOP incumbents were willing to make the race.

As Republicans scrambled, Nassau Conservatives nominated Wall Street millionaire Bruce Bent. Unwilling to let a minor party dictate a candidate, freshman town board member O'Connor, at the GOP's urging, put his name forward -- only to fold when Bent, a Republican, threatened to run a GOP primary that could have splintered the Republican and Conservative vote. Bent lost by 100,000 votes to Democrat Thomas Suozzi, and O'Connor lost re-election to the town board.

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O'Connor, a partner in a New York City insurance law firm, once served as North Hempstead building commissioner and spent nearly a decade as counsel to the state insurance fund, and was deputy superintendent when Republican George Pataki was governor.

"The people of Suffolk County, particularly Republicans, deserve a choice, not a coronation," O'Connor said. "And I think I have the experience to be a credible candidate and make it a competitive election."

Frank Moroney, North Hempstead GOP chairman, called O'Connor "a quality guy -- classy and calm under fire. He's not a table pounder. He'll negotiate with a fractured legislature and convince them with facts."

Backers say Doyle, who spent 38 years in law enforcement, will be an outspoken candidate who will take the contest aggressively to Bellone.

"He's got a raging fire in his belly. He's passionate beyond passion," said Suffolk Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), himself a former Suffolk police detective.

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"We're going bankrupt and our children and businesses are fleeing," Doyle said. "The freight train is coming and Mr. Bellone is not doing much if anything to stop it. I'll be that guy."

While he supports police, Doyle said Bellone's contract with the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association is "way too generous." Doyle said he hopes to fund his race with small donations: "A campaign should not be about money but ideas," he said.

Zollo, 55, served a total of 12 years in two stints as Smithtown Town attorney but was fired last year after backing GOP town board member Robert Creighton in a GOP primary against veteran Supervisor Patrick Vecchio. He concedes the race is "uphill" but described himself as an "old school Republican" and came forward to give voters a choice.

Despite the firing, Zollo also said he learned a lot about being fiscally conservative working for Vecchio.

"He espoused that government is designed to provide just basic, essential services, and compassionate when you have to be," he said. "I'm worried we're mortgaging our future."