The candidates in Tuesday’s special election to replace former state Sen. Dean Skelos are battling over ethics reform and school aid in a critical race that could determine control of the chamber.
Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), 38, and Republican Christopher McGrath, 57, of Hewlett have flooded the South Shore with millions of dollars’ worth of ads and mailers over the past two months, often leveling sharp personal attacks at one another, as they seek the vacant 9th Senate District seat.
A Siena College poll of 796 likely voters released Saturday showed McGrath, a personal injury attorney, leading Kaminsky, who is in his first term as an assemblyman, by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent, with 5 percent of voters undecided. The margin of error is 3.6 percentage points.
On the campaign trail, Kaminsky has cast the race as a referendum on ethics reform. McGrath has focused on the importance of keeping the Senate in Republican hands, arguing that a Democratic win would allow New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to siphon school and tax aid from Long Island.
Republicans currently hold 31 of the 63 Senate seats but control the chamber thanks to a governing coalition with six breakaway Democrats. There is one vacancy.
“People tell me they are fed up with corruption,” Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, said in an interview. “They don’t feel represented in Albany. But I have a real plan to address the issue.”
McGrath said the election “is about the future of Long Island and maintaining Senate Republican control in order to keep taxes low, keep school aid and get our sufficient share.”
Laurence Hirsh, 56, an accountant from Valley Stream, is running on the Green Party line.
Hirsh, who ran unsuccessfully for the Nassau County Legislature in the 3rd District last year, wants to impose a 1 percent tax on all Wall Street transactions to raise more than $14 billion per year to replace the revenue lost by his proposed reduction in the state’s portion of the sales tax rate from 4 percent to 1 percent. He also supports ending a policy of allowing Democratic and Republican candidates to run on minor party lines, including the Green Party’s.
“I am not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” Hirsh said. “I am trying to prevent corruption.”
Hirsh received his bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in financial management, both from LIU Post in Brookville. He is single and has no children.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, said he anticipates turnout for the presidential candidates to be the biggest factor in the special election.
“The party that pulls the most voters for the top of ticket can pretty much count on them also pulling the lever for their party’s State Senate candidate,” Levy said. “The Nassau GOP is considered more adept at bringing out its voters in a low-turnout local election, but that advantage may be overwhelmed by all the people attracted by the presidential campaign — people who often don’t vote in any other election.”
The district has 98,328 registered Democrats, 78,177 Republicans and 52,475 unaffiliated with any major party.
And while all voters in the district can cast ballots in the Senate race, only registered Democrats and Republicans vote in the presidential primary — potentially limiting the influence of independent voters in the special election.
The winner of the special election will have to run again in November, when all State Senate and Assembly seats are up.
Kaminsky, married with a young son, grew up in Long Beach and graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. He has a degree from New York University School of Law.
Kaminsky began his career as a prosecutor in the domestic violence division of the Queens district attorney’s office. He then served for six years as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, specializing in public corruption cases.
Kaminsky helped secure convictions against former State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr. in 2013 for stealing thousands of dollars from a Bronx nonprofit that he founded to serve the poor, and from former Queens Assemb. Jimmy Meng in 2013 for wire fraud.
A first-time political candidate, McGrath was born in Inwood, the youngest of four children. He was raised by a single mother after his father, a Navy veteran, died when McGrath was 18 months old from an illness he suffered after he was struck by a car.
McGrath, who is married with three adult children, graduated from St. John’s University in Queens with a bachelor’s degree in government. He has a degree from University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio.
McGrath has spent his 33-year career at the Garden City law firm of Sullivan, Papain, Block, McGrath & Cannavo, including the past 27 years as a partner. He is an adjunct law professor at Hofstra University’s School of Law and a former president of the Nassau County Bar Association.
In television ads, McGrath has touted his legal career, specifically his defense of an African-American teenager who was assaulted in 1991 by five white men in a racially motivated attack on the boardwalk in Atlantic Beach. McGrath represented the victim, Jermaine Ewell, in a successful civil suit against the assailants.
But civic activists also have criticized the law firm’s representation of a New York City firefighter who donned blackface during a 1998 parade and mocked an African-American man who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
On the campaign trail, Kaminsky has cast himself as an anti-corruption candidate and has attempted to link McGrath to Skelos, who was convicted with his son Adam in December on eight federal counts of bribery, extortion and conspiracy. They are appealing, but the federal judge who will sentence them on April 28 refused to grant them a new trial, after concluding that evidence produced by the government supported the jury verdict.
McGrath has taken a similar tack, criticizing Kaminsky for voting in January 2015 to re-elect Sheldon Silver as Assembly speaker. Weeks later, Silver was removed from the speakership after he was arrested on federal corruption charges. In November, Silver was convicted of seven federal counts of fraud, extortion and money laundering. He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 3.
Kaminsky says that if elected, he will sponsor Senate legislation to ban most forms of outside income for state lawmakers. McGrath, who has said he would keep his law job if elected, said banning outside income would not work because Kaminsky’s bill would allow lawmakers’ spouses to hold positions in which they could influence public officials.
Kaminsky also has sponsored Assembly bills to criminalize lying to district attorney investigators, strengthen the state’s bribery statutes and create a new felony charge of “abuse of public trust.” None have been enacted.
“I don’t just talk the talk,” Kaminsky said. “I have fought corruption all my life.”
McGrath has pushed for term limits on state lawmakers — two four-year terms for senators, assembly members and statewide office holders including the governor, comptroller and attorney general.
All three candidates support stripping the pensions of elected officials convicted on public corruption charges.
Kaminsky also touts his advocacy for victims of superstorm Sandy. He says he secured aid for South Shore schools and successfully urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to veto a plan to build a liquefied natural gas terminal 19 miles off Jones Beach.
McGrath calls the race the “most important election in New York State history.” He says a Kaminsky victory could allow Democrats to control the Senate. McGrath said when Democrats held the Senate in 2009 and 2010 — along with the Assembly and the governor’s office — Long Islanders saw a new MTA payroll tax and the elimination of property tax rebate checks.
“If I lose this seat, Bill de Blasio will become the most important person in the state of New York because he will control both the Senate and the Assembly,” McGrath said. “And our aid will go to New York City.”
Kaminsky vowed to protect Long Island school aid and said McGrath was campaigning on a “fear of outsiders.”
In the final days of the campaign, the candidates have been knocking on doors and meeting with constituents.
Lou Camerada, 55, a former NYPD detective from East Rockaway, called McGrath a “good guy,” citing his firm’s work representing the families of city firefighters killed in the Sept. 11 attacks to secure federal benefits.
Camerada said he’s “concerned about Democrats taking over the Senate” and wants to limit de Blasio’s influence on Long Island.
But Patrick O’Connor, 61, a retired city firefighter from Long Beach, said Kaminsky helped his family obtain assistance after Sandy and has been a presence at dozens of local meetings.
O’Connor, a registered Republican, said he is voting for Kaminsky. “He fights hard for the community,” O’Connor said.