Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo continues to soar in the polls, Suffolk Democrats are looking to see whether the new governor's coattails are long enough to help Steve Bellone win his race for Suffolk County executive.
The first step in that strategy was Cuomo's effusive endorsement of the Babylon supervisor at the party's $400-a-head fall dinner, where Cuomo touted Bellone for his "record of social progress and fiscal discipline." Cuomo's appearance also was the magnet that attracted more than 600 donors who gave nearly $500,000 for the Democrats' 40-day sprint to win the open seat.
More important, Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, had party workers over the summer collect petitions for a "Cuomo-Bellone Reform Team," for a separate line on the ballot. But because Bellone is the nominee of more than two established political parties -- he's on the Democratic, Independence and Working Families lines -- state election rules limit him to listing the reform team's name and symbol on one of his existing ballot lines. Schaffer said the designation will appear as part of Bellone's Democratic line, heightening the connection with the popular governor.
He has engineered such linkages in the past. Before County Executive Steve Levy switched from Democrat to Republican, Schaffer capitalized on his popularity by stamping every campaign mailing for the Democratic legislative slate with a golden oval -- reminiscent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval -- listing them as part of the "Levy Reform Team." That helped Democrats take control of the county legislature for the first time since the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. Schaffer said the party will highlight Cuomo's backing in all Bellone mail, TV and radio spots.
John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, said Schaffer's attempts to boost Bellone by connecting him to Cuomo won't work.
"Steve Bellone is trying to grab onto any popular political figure because he doesn't measure up himself," said LaValle, citing a 108 percent increase in town general fund taxes since Bellone voted on the 1999 budget, his first as a Babylon council member. Bellone said the focus should be on budgets he oversaw as supervisor, starting with the 2003 spending plan.
LaValle also predicted Cuomo's endorsement would backfire on the governor because "Bellone's agenda is more like the tax-and-spend policies of Barack Obama," and supporters of the president are "few and far between."
But Paul Sabatino, a former Levy chief deputy who has advised the Bellone campaign, said Cuomo's property-tax cap and his ability to wring concessions from public unions could help Bellone weather a tough political cycle. "Cuomo will help Bellone draw independent voters who will decide this race," Sabatino said.
Schaffer acknowledged that voters are frustrated by the economy, but said party workers already have knocked on 100,000 doors and made more than 200,000 calls to bring out the vote. The Democratic leader said Cuomo would benefit from a Bellone victory, which would prevent the GOP from taking control of Suffolk, a major suburban base from which a future foe could emerge.
Cuomo's help in the race also is payback to Schaffer, whose early support in 2006 helped Cuomo win the state attorney general's race. The victory revived Cuomo's political career after his ill-fated challenge to state Comptroller H. Carl McCall in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor. Cuomo noted last week that Schaffer was the first county leader to back him for governor last year.