Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
With Mark Lesko's impending exit, Brookhaven's top elected job is up for grabs, but the last-minute supervisor race will include a huge wild card -- a presidential voter turnout, more than twice what town elections normally draw.
When Lesko ran last year for town supervisor, the turnout townwide was 24 percent, or 70,293 of the town's 280,000 eligible voters. In the last presidential contest in 2008, Suffolk's turnout was 74.2 percent; Barack Obama won the county by 52.5 percent to 46.5 percent.
On that same ballot, even a little-noticed Brookhaven district court race drew 155,000 voters, or 55.3 percent turnout, double the number of voters that would be expected in an "off-year" town contest.
"This is going to be a real wild-card election," said John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman. "It's going to turn out a lot of people to vote who don't understand or pay attention to local issues."
"It's a tremendous opportunity for us," LaValle said, adding, "We won't have to spend any money on turnout."
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, sees an edge for his party. "The bigger the turnout, the better it is for us . . . More of our base shows up in a presidential year," he said, adding that having right-wing Rep. Paul Ryan on the GOP ticket for vice president will drive moderate voters to Democrats. "It adds a whole new dimension," he said.
Schaffer also said that the 2008 Obama victory helped local Democrat Stephen Ukeiley win as a Brookhaven district court judge. "That's something we could never do in an off year," he said.
Since Lesko's departure is not expected until after Labor Day, political parties will not formally hold their conventions until late September, leaving a six-week sprint to Election Day.
"Because of the shortness of time . . . name recognition is going to be key," said Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive.
Jesse Garcia, the Brookhaven GOP chairman, said the town GOP has a stable of contenders, all of whom are elected incumbents. "We've been building a bench for five years now; it's time to pick up and go," he said.
Among the leading contenders is Suffolk Legis. Edward Romaine, a GOP official who has served more than two decades, both as lawmaker and county clerk, but also has lost bids for county executive and Congress. Other GOP contenders include Assemb. Dean Murray of East Patchogue, Assemb. Dan Losquadro of Shoreham, Legis. Thomas Muratore of Ronkonkoma and town board member Dan Panico of Shirley. None has served as long as Romaine and each only represents parts of the town.
Democrats, meanwhile, are eyeing former assemblyman and town Democratic leader Marc Alessi of Shoreham; Lesko's top aide, Brian Beedenbender, a former county legislator from Centereach; and Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri.
The downside: Alessi and Beedenbender lost their last elections, and Pontieri, while revitalizing the village, has had local union battles and clashed with North Shore Democrats.
"Half the people who will cast ballots will have never voted in a town election before," said Jon Schneider, former Brookhaven Democratic leader and now a deputy to County Executive Steve Bellone. "It's going to come down to Obama vs. Romney. Who's running [for supervisor] may not really matter."
Garcia said the GOP will gain from Obama's inability to spark the economy: "Things are falling into place with the way people are feeling about Obama, 8.5 percent unemployment, the loss of 30,000 local jobs and record foreclosures. People don't have the American dream anymore; they are just scraping by."
But Democrat Patrick Halpin, former county executive, said the Republican ticket has created a very "stark choice" on issues such as the future of Medicare.
"There are going to be a lot more people at the polls, but their concern is national issues, not town issues," Halpin said. "Republican voter performance is higher than Democrats' in off years. If there is an advantage, I'd give it to the Democrats. Of course, it depends on how well Obama does."