Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk Legis. Rick Montano may have no Republican opponent this year, but the veteran Brentwood Democrat is facing a September primary from a challenger whose brother co-chaired County Executive Steve Bellone's transition team.
Monica Martinez, sister of Babylon Democratic Deputy Supervisor Tony Martinez, is circulating petitions to challenge Montano's nomination. Word of Martinez's challenge surfaced as nominating petitions began circulating last week in Montano's 9th District, which includes Brentwood and Central Islip. Martinez needs at least 500 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Martinez, 35, an assistant principal at Brentwood East Middle School, called Montano an unresponsive lawmaker.
"I see what the community needs because I'm on the front line every day," said Martinez, who has worked as a district teacher for a decade and an administrator for three years. "The public needs a choice. They haven't had one for the last eight years," referring the fact Montano has run unopposed since his first election.
Tony Martinez said he is supporting his sister's candidacy, although it puts him in a "super-difficult position" since the party has designated Montano for re-election. Martinez said Bellone has played no role in his sister's campaign.
"It was a decision between facing the wrath of my leader or my mother," said Martinez.
Montano said he had "heard a rumor of petitions but I don't know who she [Martinez] is. I've never met this person. Talk to me on July 11, when petitions are submitted."
Montano, 62, declined to say whether he believed Martinez's candidacy is retribution for bucking Bellone and party leaders in the past. "You'll have to ask them," said Montano, an attorney.
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Bellone played no role in Martinez's candidacy. "A lot of people have voted against us," and the administration has not opposed their candidacies, Schneider said. However, Bellone in recent months has made comments that lawmakers like Montano will have to answer for their vote to block the $23 million sale of the county nursing home.
Some see the Martinez candidacy as a political play. "The Bellone administration is attempting to insert itself into the normal political process and control the outcomes. It's absolutely overreaching," said Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader. "The county executive ought to pay more attention to running the county than screwing around with legislative races."
Montano, a lawmaker for 10 years, has often clashed with officials inside and outside his party. Montano last year ran for State Senate when Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer sought to leave the line vacant so that longtime GOP incumbent Owen Johnson, 83, could run unopposed. When Montano filed nominating petitions without help from the party, Johnson dropped out. GOP Assemb. Philip Boyle defeated Montano in the race.
Schaffer said Tony Martinez called him last Sunday night to tell him of his sister's plans, but that the party will only circulate Montano's petitions. The party leader also said he asked Martinez to arrange a meeting with his sister so Schaffer and Islip Democratic chairman Gerry Pallotta "can find out what this is all about."
Paul Sabatino, a former legislative counsel, suggested that the Republicans could capitalize on the fight by offering Montano the GOP ballot line. If he wins, that would narrow the Democrats' majority in the Legislature.
"Since they can't defeat him, they might as well join him and help restore some checks and balances to county government," Sabatino said.