Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Since last spring, Nassau Comptroller George Maragos has been quietly spending many nights and weekends driving to far-flung places, from Watertown to Olean, meeting GOP committee members and huddling with party leaders in an admittedly uphill bid for U.S. Senate.
"I think I've hit all the counties," said Maragos, 62, who has lived for 32 years in Great Neck. "Some I've visited two or three times."
Still a first-term comptroller, Maragos is making his second bid for Senate. And at a $150-a-head fundraising breakfast Sunday at the Uniondale Marriot, Maragos will get his biggest boost yet: the formal backing of the Nassau Republican Committee as its "favorite son" for the Senate nod against incumbent Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.
"George is a great guy, very bright, he knows a lot about fiscal matters," said Joseph Mondello, Nassau GOP chairman. "He's still learning politically and he'll admit that . . . " But "he's well liked by a lot of the party leaders he's met." Mondello said Gillibrand is vulnerable, noting recent polls showing her favorable rating at only 49 percent.
Maragos, who worked as vice president for Chase and Citibank before starting his own financial data company, came out of nowhere in 2009 to win the Nassau comptroller's job over incumbent Howard Weitzman, a Democrat. Within months, Maragos set out to run against New York's senior senator, Charles Schumer, but he went nowhere. In retrospect, Maragos said he did not expect to win the GOP nomination but used the run to build name recognition and become better known in party circles.
"I have no illusions it's a very difficult challenge," Maragos said of the Gillibrand race. "But I've done a lot of impossible things no one expected."
Jay Jacobs, state and Nassau Democratic chairman, said Maragos has little chance against Gillibrand, who has already raised $21.8 million and represents a heavily Democratic state. "George is an affable guy but he just doesn't measure up to Gillibrand," Jacobs said. "I don't think it will be close."
Jacobs also warned that Maragos could suffer voter backlash for appearing like he wants to move up the political ladder. "This is the second time he's looking to run and he hasn't even finished his first term," Jacobs said.
Maragos said he is buoyed by a recent Siena poll showing him running only 4 percentage points behind another potential Republican contender, Harry Wilson, who ran last year for state comptroller. But in head-to-head matchups, Gillibrand beat both, taking Wilson by 63-21 percent and Maragos 65-17.
So far, Maragos has funded his campaign with $121,000 of his own money, and says he soon will add $1 million to show he's serious. Local GOP officials say Maragos has committed to spend $3 million to $5 million of his own money.
But Maragos' biggest challenge may be Marc Cenedella, founder and chief executive of the job-search website TheLadders.com, who is also making the rounds. Newspaper reports say Cenedella told GOP donors in Buffalo that he is willing to spend $15 million of his own money.
Among past Nassau Senate contenders, former Hempstead presiding supervisor Alfonse D'Amato in 1980 defied expectations to oust Sen. Jacob Javits in the GOP primary. Garden City lawyer Robert McMillan, a former Panama Canal commissioner, suffered a bruising loss to Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1988. Only two years ago, former Nassau Presiding Officer Bruce Blakeman lost in the GOP primary to former Rep. Joseph DioGuardi, who was trounced by Gillibrand.
"It's a doable campaign" for Maragos, said McMillan, who ran when the GOP had trouble fielding a contender. "But it's going to take a lot of money . . . If you don't have the funds for TV and ads, it's going to be a tough row to hoe."