Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Richard Schaffer, decked in jeans and a button-down shirt, spent three hours Saturday knocking on doors in Ronkonkoma, giving out campaign literature and asking for votes.
At homes where Schaffer found supporters, he underscored the importance of turning out. "We need your vote its going to be a tough election this year," he told one Democratic homeowner. "Last year, a lot of Democrats sat home."
It's a ritual that has filled the Suffolk Democratic chairman's October weekends since he handed out fliers for pizza and soda on Tom Downey's upset Congressional win in 1974.
"Richie's a tremendous grassroot organizer," said former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin. "He may not be out there getting headlines and giving big speeches, but he does the blocking and tackling that wins elections."
Over the past decade, Schaffer, the $95,000-a-year party leader, has largely run the table against the still more numerous Republicans. But faced with a public upset by a still sour economy and angry at most incumbents, Schaffer, now 46, is facing his toughest year yet holding on to seats he has already won.
Key Suffolk battlegrounds, both sides agree, are the races involving freshman state Sen. Brian Foley (D-Blue Point) - most vulnerable because he backed the MTA tax - and Assemb. Marc Alessi (D-Wading River), who is facing a stiff challenge from incumbent GOP Legis. Dan Losquadro. Republican Randy Altschuler, meanwhile, is spending millions of his own dollars attacking Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) for voting 97 percent of the time with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while Democrats tar the GOP nominee as an outsourcer.
Next year could be even more difficult when Democrats will have to face their former standard-bearer County Executive Steve Levy, who jumped to the GOP in his ill-fated bid for governor. "Democrats are clearly on the run," said John Jay LaValle, a Republican. He said only Schaffer's skill kept Levy from defecting earlier. "Rich Schaffer used Steve Levy to elect other liberal Democrats, and they will get the pink slip next year without Steve Levy's coattails."
While Democrats face challenges, Schaffer said Republicans have their own problems with free-swinging governor candidate Carl Paladino. "Paladino just energizes our base on why they have to come out because there's the potential of electing a crazy person," said Schaffer. "He's not talking about issues, but whether he can quote-unquote 'take a guy out,' " referring to near fight with an Albany reporter last week.
While this election is still weeks away, those close to Schaffer also say he is already plotting next year's county executive race with Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone at the top of the ticket. "He's already got Steve Bellone energized, making calls and raising money," said one party source.
Schaffer said that Levy's money, name recognition and work ethic make him formidable, but added that he is "relieved" by Levy's exit because he no longer has to "play therapist" to mend fences after the county executive's many battles. "I just see him in a self-destruct mode. . . . He's basically made clear he can't work with anyone," Schaffer said. "And when you can't find common ground to solve county's problems, it becomes a negative."
Levy praised Schaffer as "a master of what he does," but added that he is, too. "The public doesn't care whether I'm fighting with party leaders," he said. "They care about their tax bill, and I'm the best in the business when it comes to holding the line."
But Schaffer said Levy made his switch personal by telling Republicans later he "should never have been in the Democratic Party," after two decades as a Democratic official. "I was offended by that because he was basically denigrating me and a lot of people who worked very hard for him," Schaffer said.