Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
The incendiary battle between Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh and his GOP counterpart John Jay LaValle is turning into an all-out war that could have statewide implications for Republican control of the New York State Senate.
The latest salvo came late last week from Conservative lawyer Barbara Gervase, a staunch foe of Common Core, who said she will form a committee to look into running against Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). "I'm forming an exploratory committee to see what my chances are for winning the position," said Gervase, a Hauppauge resident.
Conservatives, according to party sources, also are looking to enlist opponents for Sens. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) and even possibly freshman Tom Croci (R-Islip), though the minor party was a major backer of his last year.
Of course, the Conservatives' real target is not any of the state senators, but rather Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, who last week fired Walsh's closest ally, Michael Torres, the party secretary, from his $106,852-a-year post as senior assistant elections commissioner. Walsh wants to see LaValle removed from his position.
Torres' firing came after Walsh made a cross-endorsement deal for state Supreme Court that gave two Democrats the minor party's backing in return for Democratic backing for Howard Heckman, Torres' future father-in-law.
LaValle, alluding to federal charges Walsh faces as a corrections lieutenant for taking pay for time he allegedly did not work, said, "The days of Ed Walsh's inappropriate and undue political influence are numbered. Our Republican senators and assemblymen are honest and hardworking . . . and show up for work every day to help Long Island taxpayers. It's obvious Ed Walsh is only interested in cronyism, not conservatism."
Walsh countered that LaValle is a failed leader who can't raise money or bring out troops and needs the Conservative line for its crucial winning margin. "Actions speak louder than words and he's been the most inept guy around," Walsh said. "And all he ever worries about is where he can put his friends and family." Walsh said many Conservatives also are disgruntled because of the GOP Senate's stands on Common Core, the gun-control SAFE Act and gay marriage.
While Conservative candidates can't win on the minor party line alone, a loss of the 8 percent to 12 percent of the vote that the line pulls is enough to make GOP incumbents highly anxious and make it easier for state Democrats to recruit more serious potential foes.
Some Republicans worry LaValle's approach will not only infuriate the still-powerful Walsh, but also widen the chasm with other party leaders such as Torres, who is likely to remain a major party figure even if Walsh falls. "By choosing to go to war with Conservatives, LaValle could single-handedly throw the State Senate into Democratic hands," said Joseph Sawicki, former county comptroller and Southold GOP leader. "If that happens, he would go down as the worst Republican leader in Suffolk history."
Flanagan, meanwhile, said he was unaware of Gervase's possible candidacy and had "no role whatsoever" in the Torres firing. He believes local GOP senators will earn Conservative backing because of their record of keeping taxes and crime down. "There are always ebbs and flows and relations are tested periodically," said Flanagan. "But I've been proud to run with the Conservative endorsement and by this time next year things will look fine."
Mike Long, state Conservative chairman, said things are "a little more than uptight" between Walsh and LaValle, but added he has little control over what Walsh does locally because "they run their own show and I have no input or authority to impose my point of view."
But others hope tensions ease. "Philosophically, Republicans and Conservatives have an 85 percent overlap on issues," GOP Comptroller John Kennedy said. "But this kind of internal fighting does not bode well for anyone."