William Garbarino made his first race for public office in 1985 running for the Suffolk Legislature in the aftermath of Hurricane Gloria, losing to a little-known Democrat, Steve Levy, who won with an anti-LILCO ballot line. Levy went on to become county executive and a GOP contender for governor.

Two decades later, Garbarino tried again, losing narrowly in 2001 to IBEW labor leader Bill Lindsay by just 78 votes. Lindsay went on to become the longest-serving presiding officer in the Suffolk Legislature before his death while in office two years ago.

But Garbarino, known for his fiery manner, appears ready to put those past losses behind him as the leading contender to become Islip's next Republican chairman, should current town leader Frank Tantone get a long-rumored nod for state Supreme Court justice later this week.

What makes Garbarino, 69, the top contender is that Islip Republicans at their town convention last week returned Garbarino, a Sayville attorney, to the post of the party's first vice chairman.

If Tantone gets the nomination, he will likely step down as leader because judicial candidates are supposed to eschew politics. Garbarino then would become acting chair and call a town convention within 60 days to pick Tantone's successor. What makes Garbarino's ascent more likely is that the other leading candidate, Joseph Stassi, stepped aside as first vice chair to make room for Garbarino. Stassi, 66, a psychiatric social worker from Hauppauge, said he "thinks the world" of Gabarino and would "not battle him publicly" for the party's top job.

Garbarino said he is interested in being leader and believes he has the experience. "Experience is not only longevity -- though I've been doing this for 35 years," he said. "To be a leader you have know what it's like to run for office and what it's like to be out there and to knock on doors in the rain."

"Bill's a fighter," said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant involved in Garbarino's 2001 race. "He's a fiery kind of guy, but that's not a bad thing for a leader."

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If he takes over, Garbarino would succeed Tantone, who was at the helm for six years during which time he took back town hall by ousting Democrat Supervisor Phil Nolan. Both Tantone and Garbarino also were allied in the 21st Century Republicans, a dissident GOP group that took over in the wake of the corruption conviction of former Supervisor Pete McGowan and ouster of late state Sen. Caesar Trunzo as town GOP leader.

More recently, the GOP-controlled town has been rocked by the dumping scandal at Roberto Clemente Park and other sites. Earlier this year it put a new face on the town regime, appointing former County Treasurer Angie Carpenter as town supervisor.

Garbarino also has taken his own hard knocks. He blames McGowan for a lack of help for his narrow loss against Lindsay. And two years ago, Garbarino originally stepped down as the party's first vice chair because he was in line for a state Supreme Court judicial nomination, only to see it go to a Huntington candidate at the last minute. Yet Garbarino's son, Andrew, with his father's help, won an Assembly seat in 2012 and is serving his second term.

Garbarino acknowledges that his prospects for leader as well as Tantone's judicial nomination are not yet assured. But he takes his setbacks in stride. "Sometimes things happen, but it doesn't mean it isn't painful" Garbarino said. "I may not have liked some of the results, but maybe God had something else planned."