Schaffer basks in Bellone's win, mulls run

Richard Schaffer, 14, on the phone in a Richard Schaffer, 14, on the phone in a trailer at Sunset Shopping Plaza. Schaffer ran the eight-telephone canvassing operation for the Babylon Democratic ticket, every night, after finishing his homework. (Nov. 5, 1977) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas R. Koeniges

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Rick Brand Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on

Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

Suffolk County Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer knows more than most about getting out the vote -- he's been doing it since he was 12.

His political career started in 1974 papering his North Babylon neighborhood with fliers for congressional candidate Tom Downey, in exchange for pizza and soda. By 14, Schaffer was running the phone bank for town Democrats. Later, as student government president at the University at Albany, he even tried to enroll students as local voters -- incurring the wrath of then Albany Mayor Thomas Whelan.

But for Schaffer, who became a Suffolk County legislator at age 23, Babylon supervisor at 28 and Suffolk Democratic leader 11 years ago, Democrat Steve Bellone's victory Tuesday in the county executive race represented a comeback.

After nearly a decade of unbroken electoral successes, Schaffer, 47, had a grim election night in 2009 when freshman county Legis. Brian Beedenbender lost after many Democratic voters had stayed home. Last year, freshman state Sen. Brian Foley and Assemb. Marc Alessi also lost. County Executive Steve Levy turned Republican last year, leaving Democrats without a standard-bearer.

"We had a lot riding on this," Schaffer said. "It was important for the party to send the message we were here and not going anywhere."

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Despite a sour economy and President Barack Obama's sagging poll numbers, Schaffer said he was driven to bring local Democrats out. "I'll be the first to admit we didn't do what we should have in 2009 and we took a hit," he said. "But this year we did everything we could to counter the atmosphere and got people to show up."

The campaign has so energized Schaffer that he is considering running again for Babylon supervisor.

Bellone last week won by 56 percent to 43 percent -- but when Schaffer recruited him a year ago, the race against Levy seemed almost impossible. Levy was popular in the polls and had a $4 million campaign war chest.

Schaffer helped Bellone raise more than $4 million -- double the amount Schaffer had ever raised for a campaign. Schaffer set aside several hours a day to call potential donors, which he had never done before. Schaffer rarely goes to New York City, but he met with Bellone and potential contributors at breakfasts at the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.

Schaffer had planned a frontal attack against Levy using a coalition of foes of the county executive. But Levy pulled out of the race in March after prosecutors raised questions about his campaign fundraising. When Suffolk Treasurer Angie Carpenter emerged as the GOP candidate, Schaffer toned down the strategy to deny her exposure and avoid backlash that could occur by attacking a woman. The risk was a low-key campaign that didn't spark turnout. "There were many sleepless nights," Schaffer recalled.

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Schaffer built a new campaign apparatus that combined volunteers and paid staff, supported by computer software that national Democrats had used last year during the recount in the race between Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and Republican Randy Altschuler. The software assigns scores to voters by meshing their election turnout records with consumer and issue preferences derived from public data, including magazine subscriptions and donations to nonprofits. Those scoring high enough were targeted for personal contact in the county executive's race.

John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, accused Schaffer and the Democrats of essentially buying the county executive's election with their 5-to-1 fundraising edge. "Angie was only able to do three mail pieces while the Bellone universe included mailing to Republicans and Conservatives as well," LaValle said.

Schaffer made no apologies. While the campaign used paid workers, it also had hundreds of local volunteers out knocking on doors, he said. "I don't care if they come from Jupiter," Schaffer said of the volunteers. "The thing is to energize the voter and make sure they show up."

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