Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
The tea party made its first local splash last summer protesting at a Rep. Tim Bishop forum and giving the Democrat YouTube agita. Since then, the movement has taken on various Republican candidates around the country for failing to toe the conservative ideological line.
But late last week, local tea party groups went further, declaring war on fellow right-wingers by filing petitions to force a write-in vote in a Conservative Party primary in the 1st Congressional District.
"This is historic," Steve Flanagan, Conservative Society for Action founder, told 200 sweltering activists Thursday night at Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall in Bay Shore. "We're not going to take the rule of party bosses anymore."
In two weeks, tea party activists from both Nassau and Suffolk helped collect 860 signatures, almost 300 more than the minimum required to force what is officially called an "opportunity to ballot."
Tea party people joined GOP contender Christopher Cox, grandson of the late President Richard Nixon, in the petitions drive, upset that Conservatives made millionaire Randy Altschuler their candidate rather than allow an open primary - like the GOP does - between Cox, Altschuler and former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer George Demos.
They also say Altschuler is not a true conservative, that his former company, Office Tigers, exported thousands of jobs to Asia and that he was once a member of the liberal Green Party, which they label extreme.
Altschuler said he created 700 jobs in the United States - 250 in the state - and once belonged to the Green Party because he thought it was pro-environment. Rob Ryan, Altschuler's spokesman, declined to comment until Altschuler's campaign has a chance to review petitions.
But Richard Johannesen, Brookhaven Conservative chairman, assailed the anti-tax group as "nothing more than a front and a shill" for Cox, claiming it doesn't have the capacity to garner petitions and noting a tea party leader was "dead last" in a six-way Riverhead school board race in May.
"These are self-appointed people who have been elected to nothing, who are lackeys doing the will of Republican leaders," he said.
Both sides say they have tried to to work cooperatively and blame the other for the bad blood.
The chasm has perplexed some officials. Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said the tea party "came to be partners" but are now "being called invaders. That's vintage [Pasquale] Curcio," he said, referring to the late Suffolk Conservative leader, known for his strong-arm ways.
Flanagan says the Conservative Party has "lost their way" as Republicans did in the early 1960s, when the minor party was formed to counter liberal Republicans like Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Sen. Jacob Javits.
"We have no illusion how difficult the road is going to be," Flanagan said. "They are going to be kicking us around as best they can. And the reason they are doing it is for self-preservation of power."
While getting petitions may have been daunting, it was possibly the easy part. For now, activists face legal challenges to petitions. Later, Altschuler will have a huge edge because only his name will appear on the ballot. Those who want to vote for Cox or Demos will have to go to the bottom of the ballot where it says "write-in" to make their choice.
Write-in bids in the past have largely been confined to minor-party primaries, such as for county legislator, where a handful of voters, usually supplied by the campaign with ink pads and rubber stamps, could win. But with 11,107 Conservative voters in the district, it is a labor-intensive effort. Challengers also have to worry about splitting the anti-Altschuler vote or being diverted from the larger GOP primary.
"I'm betting maybe Randy is wishing he never left New Jersey," Schneider said.