Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
At 82, I. William Bianchi is looking to make an electoral comeback — again.
Out of office for nearly two decades, Bianchi, a Democrat, is running for town board in Riverhead, where he moved his orchid-growing business in 2006 and bought a home four years ago.
For Bianchi, a former 11-term assemblyman, it would be a third comeback bid.
Bianchi was a major force in Suffolk politics. In 1962, he filed a federal lawsuit that led to creation of the Suffolk County Legislature, which elected its first members in 1969. In 1972, with the county GOP dominant, he became the second Democrat from Suffolk ever elected to the Assembly.
Bianchi also tilted with some of the state's most powerful politicians, including the late Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea, a Montauk Republican, former Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and the late Brookhaven and Suffolk GOP chairman John Powell. Powell ousted Bianchi from the Assembly in 1988. Bianchi in 1989 won back the seat but lost in 1994 to Republican Debra Mazzarelli. In a twist, he got Powell's backing to run against Mazzarelli in 1998 after she defected to the Democrats, but lost the race.
"We owe him a lot," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, whose party this month overtook the GOP in voter registration.
"The legislature he created gave me, [former County Executive] Pat Halpin and [former Rep.] Tom Downey our starts," Schaffer said of the former Democratic officials. "It allowed Democrats to run in smaller districts." Schaffer blamed Bianchi's defection to the GOP from 1999 to 2003 on a personality clash with former Democratic Party boss Dominic Baranello.
Republicans portray Bianchi as largely unknown in Riverhead, as he represented Bellport and Patchogue as a state lawmaker.
"I don't know if I would use the word carpetbagger," said Republican Town Supervisor Sean Walters, who is seeking re-election. "But that's the way a lot of people would look at it."
Walter said Bianchi's role in creating the legislature might not help him on the East End, home to only two of the 18 county lawmakers. Under the former county board of supervisors, the East End had five of 10 seats. "A lot of people would say that was a mistake," Walter said of the changeover to a legislature.
However, Bianchi has re-entered the political ring at a time when the all-GOP Riverhead Town board is plagued by infighting, and there is a contentious three-way GOP town board primary in which incumbents John Dunleavy and Jodi Giglio and challenger Tony Coates are vying for two seats.
"We need someone who can bring some decorum and civility to the board because they are always bickering," Marge Acevedo, Riverhead Democratic chairman, said of Bianchi. "Bill is easygoing and smart and is up on everything happening in the town."
Bianchi says he believes his years in Albany, his environmental record creating the first legislation to protect the Carmans River and his understanding of the agricultural business are assets to the town.
"I can look out my kitchen window and see a farm, and yet if I need to go shopping there's a big-box store 10 minutes away," he said. "This is Suffolk's last frontier . . . All I want is to make it better."
Dunleavy, 72, a retired town police officer and one-time head of the ambulance corps, said Riverhead residents have not seen Bianchi become involved in the community since moving in. "I think he'll have a long haul upstream," said Dunleavy, who also played down GOP board infighting. "We may argue but afterward we come together for the community," he said.
Bianchi said he is used to uphill battles and that voters understand "it's good to have another party [on the board] to keep those in charge on their toes."
A previous version of this story said erroneously that I. William Bianchi was the first Democrat from Suffolk County elected to the state Assembly. He was the second.