Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's defection to the GOP last year will likely net party chairman John Jay LaValle, a potent, if unannounced, top of his fall ticket. Now LaValle is intent on building a slate to ride Levy's coattails to regain control of the county legislature, which Republicans lost five years ago.
"We're on the offensive," LaValle said. He says six of the 18 seats are in play, more than enough to give Republicans a 10-vote majority.
With the prospect of Levy's name behind their slate, which used to benefit Democrats, more Republicans are looking to run.
GOP officials are talking to former Southampton Supervisor Patrick Heaney about running against Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk). They also want Assemb. James Conte (R-Huntington Station) to run for the seat now held by Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor), who has hit his term limit.
LaValle also said the party is intent on unseating Democratic Presiding Officer William Lindsay of Holbrook, who has become a vocal foe of Levy since the county executive switched parties last year.
Republicans believe Lindsay, whose district Levy once represented as a county lawmaker, is vulnerable. They note that it took the 11 percent he got on the Conservative ballot line to put him over the top in 2009 - backing they hope will vanish in the upcoming election.
The GOP is eyeing John Gomez, a longtime friend of conservative pundit Sean Hannity who last year ran a losing race against Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, and Tom Westman of Sayville, the 2005 winner of TV's "Survivor," as potential Lindsay foes.
And party officials say they have a half-dozen candidates vying for the seat of Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Medford), who says he will not seek re-election. Democrats are running his aide Rob Calarco.
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, concedes that Democrats are facing another tough campaign cycle, but said LaValle's assessment is overblown. He said Levy has accumulated legions of enemies and has been damaged by his ties to Ethan Ellner, who pleaded guilty in an $82-million mortgage scam and whom Levy once recommended for county title work. "He's got a lot of explaining to do," Schaffer said.
But Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) said Levy only upsets political insiders and predicted he'll win with 70 percent of the vote. "The middle class taxpayers love Levy," he said.
Democrats and their allies have an 11-6 edge in the legislature with one seat vacant after Daniel Losquadro's election to the state Assembly. Their majority, however, consists of only eight Democrats, bolstered by Legis. Kate M. Browning (WF-Shirley) and Independence Party members Schneiderman and Eddington. Like Cooper, Democrat Vivian Viloria-Fisher of East Setauket cannot run again.
"Anytime you lose two incumbents it's tough," Schaffer acknowledged.
Schaffer said Democrats will focus on grassroots campaigning to identify supporters and get them out to vote. He dismissed the chances of two possible GOP contenders, Gomez and Heaney, because of their past losses.
He added that the legislative district in which Conte is weighing a run is largely outside his current Assembly district. He also said Lindsay won with 60 percent two years ago and will rebuff any challenge.
The campaign season's first test is a special election on March 29 for Losquadro's seat. Insiders favor former Legis. Martin Haley because Republicans have 4,500 more registered voters than Democrats.
His Democratic foe, Sarah Anker of Mount Sinai, is a telegenic newcomer with environmental credentials. Marc Alessi, the new Brookhaven Democratic chairman, said, "Special elections are always an opportunity for an upset . . . I wouldn't take her lightly."