Dawidziak: Passion, pols and court nominees

Edward Walsh, chairman of the Suffolk County Conservative Edward Walsh, chairman of the Suffolk County Conservative Party Photo Credit: Newsday/Alan Raia

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The process of choosing State Supreme Court justice nominees is arcane, but it's important. Voters have their say, of course, but entry on the ballot is strictly controlled by party bosses. So the chairmen really decide who gets to sit in judgment in the highest local court on Long Island -- no trivial matter.

Yet judicial conventions, where the candidates are chosen, are usually the most boring of affairs. Normally, the public never even knows the conventions are happening. The leaders of the two major parties make their selections for the ballot. Things go according to the script. Fireworks are rare.

That's why an interparty tussle at the Republican judicial convention at the Levittown Town Hall in Hicksville on Sept. 22 was so surprising.

The rather large disruption of the Democratic-Republican monopoly came in the form of Edward Walsh, the 6-foot-6 chairman of the Suffolk County Conservative Party, who decided to flex his political muscle and put more conservative-minded judges on the bench. The results -- including a broken hand for Nassau Republican Chairman Joe Mondello, who punched a locker in frustration -- shocked many.

Tradition in Long Island's State Supreme Court district dictates that when a judge's 14-year term expires, the county he or she is from retains the nominating rights for the seat. So, for example, when the term of a Republican judge from Nassau County expires, out of mutual respect, Suffolk Republicans allow the Nassau GOP to do the nominating. Democrats do the same.

In theory, whichever county has more delegates to the convention -- determined by how many votes were cast on each party's line in the last gubernatorial election -- controls the nominating process. But that has rarely mattered, due to the parties' gentlemen's agreement.

It mattered this year.

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Votes for governor on the Conservative Party line in Suffolk in 2010 far outnumbered the Nassau vote, so the Suffolk Conservatives had more delegates and control of the convention. While the Republicans and Democrats were content to abide by the mutual-respect pact, the Conservatives felt it was time for a change.

Walsh decided not all of the nominees were going to have an R or D after their names, and that Suffolk County was going to get more nominees than the two of 10 it was slated to receive. That put Nassau Republicans on the outs, losing nominees they felt were theirs.

While Suffolk Republican Chairman John LaValle, aiming to protect his two GOP nominees (and preserve his relationship with both Walsh and Mondello), showed himself the able diplomat, Mondello raged. But ultimately he had little choice but to agree to Walsh's demands.

The Conservative Party often provides the make-or-break line in judicial races -- which are notoriously opaque to voters. A Democrat with Conservative backing will usually beat a Republican without it. And Mondello had no stomach for making a deal with his Democratic counterpart, Jay Jacobs, for a Republican-Democratic cross-endorsement, which would have made the Conservatives irrelevant. In the end, he lost two slots.

Observers who think this is a story about warfare between Mondello and Walsh (or about Mondello's fractured finger) miss the point. Some 37 percent of Long Islanders don't identify themselves as either Republican or Democrat. Walsh struck a blow for them.

Granted, he was doing what any good chairman would do -- securing slots for his party. But in breaking up some long-standing traditions, he barged through the locked door of politics' backroom.

Meanwhile, the tale illustrates why observers have been saying for years, "There must be a better way." If there is, I'm all ears.

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Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.

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