Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
North Hempstead Town Clerk Leslie Gross recalled that when she held a fundraiser on Super Bowl Sunday in February, her Democratic colleague, Nassau County Legis. Wayne Wink, introduced her as the "best town clerk the town has ever had."
Wink, who now is running against Gross for the job, said he does not remember using those exact words, but concedes, "I'm sure I said some nice things about her."
While politics often makes strange bedfellows, this race between two former Democratic allies is stranger still.
Wink, 46, of Roslyn, was reapportioned out of his legislative district in March. He launched a campaign for county comptroller, but withdrew on May 20.
Gross, 61, of Manhasset, will remain a Democrat but is running on the Republican line. In April, she read a newspaper article in which Democratic Party leaders declined to say whether they intended to nominate her for a third term. She said that with no Democratic nomination in hand, she accepted GOP overtures to join that ticket on May 21. A day later, Wink jumped into the town clerk contest.
Town clerk is an administrative position with no policy-making role. The clerk keeps town records, issues death certificates and can officiate at weddings. The salary is $95,000 a year.
Republicans are trying to create sympathy for Gross by portraying her as a woman scorned by her own party. "Democrats are trying to give Wayne Wink a booby prize," said Frank Moroney, town GOP chairman. "While we have Leslie Gross who loves her job, and for her it's the brass ring."
Democrats say Gross had conflicts with many in Town Hall, disclosed sensitive information to Republican officials and created behind-the-scenes problems for the party on several patronage appointments -- leaving her with little support among party activists.
"Leslie has done an adequate job serving the public but has a lot of problems of her own making which have caused a lot of dissension in Town Hall," said Wink. "She has squandered her opportunity to be a goodwill ambassador."
Gross said she simply has tried to run a nonpartisan office. "The people of North Hempstead are very bright. They don't like the nasty stuff and I have the skills and qualifications to serve everyone," she said.
Jay Jacobs, Nassau Democratic chairman, said Gross will give Wink a "tough race" because she is a long-term incumbent with name recognition. She was appointed clerk in April 2007 and first won election later that year.
But Democratic officials say Wink, a lawyer, has an advantage because of the Democratic voter registration edge -- there are 62,831 Democrats, 46,382 Republicans and 38,623 who have no party affiliation, according to the Nassau Board of Elections -- and his more than a decade in office as a town board member and county lawmaker.
Unlike the rest of the GOP ticket, Gross will not have the Conservative ballot line, while Wink is seeking the Working Families and Independence Party lines.
"From my point of view, being a Republican or a Democrat is not interchangeable, based on opportunity," Jacobs said.
Wink tried to minimize any direct clash with Gross. "I'm running for an office, not against any particular individual," he said. "I'm running to be the best town clerk North Hempstead has ever had."