Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
With its leaky roof patched and drab wood walls spruced up with fresh paint, the creaking Islip Republican headquarters -- once home to Suffolk's most potent political machine -- was abuzz last week with comeback aspirations.
"We're on the pinnacle of becoming the most successful and largest Republican committee in Suffolk County," Islip GOP chairman Frank Tantone told the nearly 200 people crowded into the Bay Shore building. "This is not the time to get lazy . . . It's time to put the pedal to the metal . . . a stake in their heart and take back our town."
Tantone, whose party won one town board seat and a county lawmaker's spot two years ago and two state legislative seats last year, is aiming to reclaim town hall. The GOP dominated town government for decades before losing control five years ago when Supervisor Peter McGowan resigned and was jailed for misusing his $1 million campaign fund.
Republicans need one more seat on the board, which Democrats control 3-2. The Democrats -- Supervisor Phil Nolan and town board members John Edwards and Gene Parrington -- all are up for election.
But the GOP faces an uphill fight against Nolan, who won four years ago with nearly 69 percent of the vote. Nolan has wide name recognition and $400,000 for his re-election bid. Also, voter registration in the once rock-ribbed Republican town has turned Democratic by a narrow margin.
"Phil and his team are in terrific shape because . . . they've kept town taxes steady [and] improved quality of life -- fixing up parks and roads and ending the days of embarrassing Republican one-party rule," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman.
But Republicans have mended fences with Conservatives, who four years ago backed Nolan. The two parties have made a cross-endorsement deal that could add as much as 6 percent to their vote totals. To cement the deal, Conservatives got a town board nomination for attorney Anthony Senft, 44, a longtime friend of Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh. Republicans two years ago passed over Senft when he sought a county legislature seat.
The GOP is touting the military backgrounds of its town board candidates. Senft was once a paratrooper. John Cochrane Jr., 51, considered running for town supervisor in 2007 but withdrew from the field after the Navy called him to active service in Iraq.
Croci criticized Democrats for "crushing taxes" and unfriendliness toward business. "The leadership in town hall has forgotten where they have come from and we have to change that," he said.
Democrats say the GOP slate is inexperienced and lacks money; in their January campaign finance report, the Islip Republicans listed less than $33,000 on hand. Nolan backers say Croci will be vulnerable because Zeldin ran on a platform that included rolling back the MTA commuter tax, but has failed to deliver. Republicans say city Democrats want to keep the tax.
Schaffer said that Senft, as an East Islip school board member, raised taxes 25 percent in the district. Asked about that, Senft said he did not know how much taxes rose while he was a board member. "That's not a guy I want in charge of my checkbook" Schaffer retorted.
But Cochrane said such gibes are to be expected in what he predicted would be a bruising campaign. Using a naval term for heavy seas, he said, "We're rolling up our sleeves and standing by for heavy rolls in the Town of Islip."