Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Going into primary night in Suffolk County, Rob Trotta was the darkest of political dark horses.
By the end, he was the night's biggest winner, taking 57 percent in a three-way GOP race for the 13th Legislative District, thumping each of his opponents by more than 30 points.
"Every election cycle has its surprise and Rob is this year's," said Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James), noting that Trotta showed up at the campaign headquarters of Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio wearing jeans. "I don't even think he thought he was going to win."
Trotta, a 25-year Suffolk police veteran, said he always thought he had a "good shot" in the Republican primary. But he said he was "shocked by the size" of his victory, especially since no one, not even his own police union, endorsed him.
"The reason I won is that I knocked on a lot of doors and my message was clear," said Trotta, 52. "The county has lots of serious financial problems and you need someone who will work full time on them and who has a lot of ideas."
Trotta said that if he wins he will retire as a police detective to become a full-time legislator. He said he backs downtown sewers and open-space purchases. He believes the county could increase revenue not by cuts, but by doing a better job of collecting sales taxes on items like cigarettes and pursuing fraud on county contracts.
What made Trotta's win impressive is that Republican designee Paul Hennings had the backing of the GOP organization. GOP candidate Mario Mattera, business agent of Plumbers Local 200, raised $50,000 and had unions, including the Police Benevolent Association, behind him.
Trotta won 57 percent of the vote, compared with Hennings' 22 percent and Mattera's 21 percent. "Those are staggering numbers," said Jim Teese, a GOP campaign operative.
Trotta became visible during the fight about the future of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, clashing with prominent Republicans including state Sen. John Flanagan of East Northport. In the primary, he capitalized on voter concerns over local development projects.
"Smithtown has four major development projects and two of them are in Kings Park," said Bill Ellis, Smithtown GOP chairman. "Trotta's been very involved in Kings Park civic group, they all embraced him and he rode the crest in." Ellis also noted that Hennings and Mattera, both from St. James, split the vote in their home area, weakening both.
While Hennings remains on the Conservative ballot line and Mattera on the Independence line, Ellis said he expects Trotta to prevail in November in the heavily Republican district. Elaine Turley, former town Democratic leader, is her party's nominee but she has yet to create a fundraising committee.
Late in the primary, Hennings charged in a mailing that a federal judge had cited Trotta for "misconduct," and that he was removed from a federal gang task force and reassigned to a precinct. Trotta said the incidents occurred a decade apart and were unrelated.
Trotta said the judge's criticism came when he urged a violent cigarette bootlegger to take a plea out of the presence of his attorney. He said the bootlegger later went to trial and is still in prison.
He said he was one of several detectives reassigned last year after the county dropped out of the task force. "They try to discredit you with innuendo and half truths," Trotta said.
Given his civic background and past clashes, GOP officials say they are uncertain whether Trotta will be a team player or go his own way. "He's new to the Republicans," said Fitzpatrick. "They got to get to know him and he's got to get to know them."
Trotta has said little about how he will proceed.
"I'm passionate about doing the right thing," he said. "I've spent my whole life in the district and I want my kids to live here too."