Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Only hours before the name of Steve Bellone's new top aide surfaced last week, the Suffolk County executive-elect and county Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer lunched in Melville with the state's most powerful Republican -- Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre.
Schaffer said the timing was coincidental. Still, Skelos was one of the first people Bellone told about his choice for chief deputy, Regina Calcaterra.
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A year ago, Calcaterra was poised to wage a well-financed race against veteran State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). Calcaterra's candidacy ended when courts ruled that she had failed to meet the residency requirement, and her signing on with Bellone means that she will not, as earlier expected, make a Senate run next year. That means Skelos will have one less competitive race on his plate as he seeks to protect his party's 32-30 majority in the Senate.
While seemingly routine, the meeting may be a telling indicator of the seismic shift about to take place in county government, which was led for eight years by combative dynamo Steve Levy.
"It's a tale of two Steves," said Frank MacKay, state and Suffolk Independence Party chairman. "Steve Levy is a bull but sometimes a bull in a china shop. Bellone knows to fix a very troubled and damaged government he is going to have to work with all sides. He knows he's going to have to use more finesse."
Skelos spokesman Scott Rief called it a "get acquainted" luncheon. "The election's over and we all have to work together," Rief said.
But Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said he doubts the timing of Bellone's chief deputy announcement was accidental. "As someone said there are very few coincidences in politics," Romaine said, "and a lot of what the new county executive is going to need is going to have to come from Albany."
Veteran Albany lobbyist Desmond Ryan put it more simply: Bellone and Schaffer were "sending a message: 'We're not the enemy.' "
Schaffer has always had cordial relations with Suffolk GOP senators, and recently showed up when local Republicans honored the Senate's most veteran member, 82-year-old Owen Johnson, against whom Schaffer has put up token opposition for years.
State Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), who represents part of Babylon, said he has worked closely with Schaffer and Babylon supervisor Bellone on issues including redevelopment of Republic Airport and the Route 110 corridor. "I didn't have much dealing with Levy other than [his] coming up once a year to present his agenda," Fuschillo said.
Schaffer said Bellone's manner may be cordial, but that he shouldn't be underestimated. "He treats everyone with respect and doesn't start off by blowing people up," Schaffer said. "Don't let the smile fool you. He's one of the toughest negotiators I've ever seen but he's got a way to make people come along."
Bellone not only has met with Skelos but also with Levy, a Republican, and former GOP county executives Robert Gaffney and Peter Fox Cohalan, now a State Supreme Court justice. Bellone has said he plans to meet in the next week with county legislative minority leader John M. Kennedy (R-Nesconset).
Beyond Calcaterra's appointment, party sources say Bellone has decided to name Babylon Town aide Ben Zwirn, a former Democratic town supervisor in North Hempstead, as liaison to the county legislature, a role Zwirn once played for Levy.
Kennedy said he has always worked well with Zwirn, and that the legislature's GOP 12-6 minority is willing to work with the new administration.
"A clean slate bodes well for everyone," Kennedy said, but added that, with the county's fiscal problems, difficult discussions are inevitable. "The days when we were everything to everybody are over."