Gerald McKinstry Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Gerald McKinstry

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

Standing in front a room full of Republican donors last week, County Executive Rob Astorino joked that he and his wife, Sheila, were going to share a Valentine's Day dinner with their "favorite couple": Legislators Mike Kaplowitz and Virginia Perez.

The Democrats have been cheered by some -- and jeered by others -- since they broke ranks with their colleagues in December and joined Republicans in passing a $1.7 billion budget. The two basically stayed in the legislative chambers with Republicans during lights-out budget talks after the other Democrats marched out of the room . . . and actually flipped the off switch.

Kaplowitz and Perez were the decisive votes in the 9-8 tally on the 17-member board.

While the budget isn't without its painful blemishes -- program cuts, layoffs and increased parental day care contributions -- it was part of a needed compromise, something we just haven't seen enough of between the Democratic majority of the legislature and Republican county executive.

The nine legislators who stayed behind added back money for the arts and probation, and struck middle ground at 27 percent on day care contributions (Astorino wanted 35 percent and the Democrats, 20 percent), all while avoiding a tax levy increase.

Perez and Kaplowitz have been called many things: rogues, sell-outs, despicable and Lord knows what else behind closed doors. But I think what's missing on that list are the terms gutsy and diligent. The pair crossed the aisle so that Westchester didn't become Washington on the Hudson. They did what most people expect from leaders -- they worked the problems out.

The Westchester County Association, a business organization, has dubbed them the "hottest political duo" and touted them as the twosome that "saved Westchester."

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"They took a big risk," said Marissa Brett, executive director of the association. "They put the politics aside and they put Westchester County first."

They did take a risk -- the kind that, frankly, we haven't seen enough of -- and there's sure to be a price to be paid, or at least a fight to be had with potential primary candidates, and in November's general election.

Some of the blowback started just days after the budget vote in December. A rumor was floated that Astorino had hired Perez (untrue). Her cell phone number was reportedly given out to people who were none-to-happy with her, and fliers blasting her position blanketed a community rally. Legislators called the twosome out on Facebook. It seems "friends" really is a loose term.

Expect more of that sort of nonsense this election year.

These two potentially face battles on several fronts ... from just about any line they seek: Democrat, Independent and Working Families. And there's always a GOP threat, if local party bosses decide to put candidates up against the county executive's new allies.

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Any GOP challengers to the pair may have to go it alone, however, as the top of the ticket, Astorino, likely won't get involved. He can't be perceived as turning on the two who delivered him a budget, and saved him from a lengthy list of vetoes. That presumably means challengers won't be able to tap Astorino's or the county party's war chest.

Perez said the blowback from her vote has been "disheartening" and that she expects a tough battle, but she nonetheless is "not worried, at all."

She's not going to be campaigning with Astorino, either, she said. Perez is still a proud Democrat and will be knocking on the doors in her district alone.

"I'm going to run the same way" (I did the last time), she told me recently. "With a lot of hard work and pounding the pavement."

Kaplowitz has run in tough races before -- 10 times in the last 16 years for various offices -- and this one won't be all that different, he said.

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"In the end, hopefully it will be the same result," Kaplowitz said of winning another term. "I was just doing my job. God forbid, I did it with Republicans."

When told of Astorino's joke, he laughed, paused for a moment, then said: "Hot and Kaplowitz don't go together."

He assured me he'd be having Valentine's Day dinner with his wife.

We know the county executive race will get heated. We'll have to wait-and-see just how "hot" the Kaplowitz and Perez races turn out to be.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.