Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
After nearly two decades as Huntington Town supervisor, Frank Petrone's grip on town government slipped last week when he could not get the votes for his choice for town attorney.
Petrone's original choice, former town board member and special town counsel Stuart Besen, didn't even come up for a vote. When Petrone, a Democrat, couldn't get enough support to delay the appointment, he unexpectedly put forward the name of Huntington GOP vice chairman David Riley. When that failed, Petrone's chief ally on the Democratic-controlled town board, Mark Cuthbertson, got nowhere when he offered up former town GOP chief Bob Lifson as a candidate.
Instead, Democratic town board member Susan Berland, who at times goes her own way, got two votes from the board minority to name Cindy Mangano, a Democrat and sister-in-law of Nassau's Republican County Executive Edward Mangano.
What makes the incident significant is that Petrone, 67, after 19 years as supervisor, has been waffling in private about his intention to run for another term in November. Berland has made clear she intends to run for supervisor if Petrone steps aside.
Berland said her resolution was not a shot at Petrone, but a move to promote Cindy Mangano, who has 10 years' experience in the town attorney's office and worked as a homicide prosecutor in the Bronx district attorney's office. "I believe in promoting from within," Berland said.
Petrone downplayed the defeat, saying he would have supported Mangano for deputy. Nonetheless, he labeled Berland's maneuver "a backdoor operation" that wasn't "transparent the way it should be."
Mary Collins, Huntington Democratic chairwoman, said Berland's move will not help her ambitions within the party and has prompted speculation she made a deal with Republicans to get their backing should she run for supervisor. However, Collins said the incident should prompt Petrone to make a quick decision on running or not.
In the aftermath of the meeting, Petrone said he was "leaning toward running" again and that he was planning a late-February fundraiser. He already has $434,000 in his campaign fund and said he expects to have about $600,000 for his campaign. Berland has $78,000 and has scheduled a $250-a-head event on Feb. 11.
Berland described herself as "a loyal Democrat," and said she held no talks nor made any agreement with GOP officials. She said she also doubted Mangano's appointment will hurt her with grassroots Democrats.
"When they realize that Cindy is a Democrat woman and the others put up two Republicans, they might rethink their assessment," she said.
Toni Tepe, Huntington GOP chairwoman, said Democratic infighting and Petrone's long tenure could make the supervisor vulnerable. "This is a year that seems to be generating a lot of interest," Tepe said, noting that Assemb. Andrew Raia (R-East Northport), Huntington Bay Mayor Herb Morrow and attorney Ed Smith are taking a "hard look" at the race. "There comes a point where an official may need to say, 'I've done my time,' and turn it over to someone new."
But even if Petrone doesn't run, political experts say it is unlikely Democrats would turn to the independent-minded Berland; many consider longtime party operative James Gaughran, a former county lawmaker and now Suffolk Water Authority chairman, a more likely nominee.
Berland says she is undeterred.
"I'll go out and get [petition] signatures for a primary," she said. "I'm not going anywhere and I'm not going to scare."