Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
At the beginning of the year, Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer believed the one place he could rest easy was the un-contest for district attorney.
Democratic District Attorney Thomas Spota had already successfully challenged the county's 12-year term-limit law in State Supreme Court, allowing him to run. And Schaffer cemented a deal with Republican, Conservative and Independence party leaders to back Spota in return for Democratic backing of Conservative Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and Republican Treasurer Angie Carpenter.
But that changed last month, when Republican Ray Perini, a criminal attorney who once worked with Spota when both were assistant prosecutors, jumped into the race with 4,600 signatures. He then went to the state's highest court trying to oust Spota from the ballot by seeking to have Suffolk's term-limit law apply to Spota.
While Spota last week survived that court battle when the Court of Appeals ruled that the limits do not apply to district attorneys, Perini in 16 days will get a second shot against Suffolk's top prosecutor in a Sept. 10 primary, a contest in which only Republicans can vote. Should Perini win the primary, they will square off in a November rubber match, where Spota would have three ballot lines to Perini's one.
If Spota wins, both can go on vacation.
On paper, Spota should have a decided edge, with hundreds of GOP committee members helping get out the vote. But what makes the GOP contest potentially dicey for Spota is that Perini's main attack is essentially that he is the Republican and the DA is not.
Perini hammers home that GOP voters have been denied the choice of even picking a Republican candidate since 2001 because of three successive cross-endorsement deals. "You can't be the only name on the ballot for 12 years," Perini said after last week's final court ruling. "It's time the voters have a choice."
Schaffer downplayed the impact of Perini's partisan pitch. "I think it's a pretty easy choice for Republicans," he said. "I think they are more concerned about having the best prosecutor, which Tom Spota demonstrated by fighting drugs and gang violence. Ray Perini, for 25 years, has represented criminals and other characters in the criminal justice system."
However, Spota, on a smaller scale, benefited from the same strategy in 2001 when Conservative lawyer Richard N. Thompson, a baseball agent, won a Conservative Party primary, denying the late Republican District Attorney James M. Catterson Jr. the minor party line in the general election.
Perini's other main argument is that Spota sued to throw out term limits for his own gain, despite the fact that the limits had been approved in a referendum with the support of 70 percent of voters.
Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who represents mainly Republicans, said that as an incumbent Spota has a significant edge, even in a GOP primary, because he is far better known and can command press on almost a daily basis. But he also warned that term limits are "the minefield of American politics."
"Look at Mayor Bloomberg," he said. "He almost lost to a guy [former city Comptroller Bill Thompson] who was unknown and had no money in what was an extraordinarily close race." Closer to home, he noted that former Islip Supervisor Peter McGowan suffered when he got on the wrong side of the term-limit issue.
Spota also has a huge financial advantage -- he has $662,000 to Perini's $126,000. Perini said he is counting on his grassroots army of more than 50 volunteers who knocked on 10,000 doors gathering petitions to spread the word.
And in a 16-day campaign, he said, there's a limit to how much either side can spend. "I can match him dollar for dollar," Perini said. "And I'm prepared to spend whatever it takes to get our message out."