Despite months of backroom infighting, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last Wednesday night very publicly bear-hugged Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer before a crowd of 150 at a legislative fundraiser.
A smiling Bellone called Schaffer his "longtime friend and mentor." Schaffer called the county executive "a visionary" and vowed to work hard for his re-election next year.
What made the scene surreal to the party activists was that Schaffer had just sent prosecutors an audit that, sources say, shows that Robert Stricoff, Bellone's closest ally and a boyhood friend, may have overpaid himself by as much as $125,000 as Babylon Town Democratic leader.
A day later, Schaffer called publicly on Stricoff to decline the $155,000-a-year job as executive director of the county Industrial Development Agency.
Bellone has remained mum about his friend.
The bear hug may have been heartfelt, or a public ploy to paper over a yearlong rift between Bellone and Schaffer. Nonetheless, it represented a nervous moment for the majority Democrats in the county legislature, who face re-election in 14 months with Bellone leading the ticket for a second term.
"When dealing with Type A personalities . . . they are bound to clash," Desmond Ryan, a veteran Republican lobbyist, said of Bellone and Schaffer. "The question is do they get a divorce or stay together for the sake of their political offspring?"
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider downplayed any chasm, saying Bellone and Schaffer have worked together for a decade. "You may say a lot of things to the ones closest to you, but you're still a family and you want to see each other succeed," Schneider said.
Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), legislative minority leader and the GOP candidate for county comptroller in November, said the Stricoff probe further tars Bellone only weeks after Donald Rogers, Bellone's information technology aide, resigned and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors.
Kennedy said the Stricoff controversy also damages Schaffer, the Babylon Town supervisor, because it raises the question of how Stricoff "could play so fast and loose for so long without anyone knowing."
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said Schaffer moved proactively.
"This was not uncovered by someone on the outside," Gregory said. "It shows the chairman has integrity; when he sees wrongdoing, he acts on it."
Schaffer's hard-line stand runs counter to his typically "Kumbaya" way of hashing out internal political problems without public confrontations.
But Schaffer has made some battles public. When the late GOP District Attorney James M. Catterson Jr. tried to bring Schaffer down as supervisor in the 1990s by indicting his top aides, Schaffer made no secret of his mission to unseat Catterson when he backed Democrat Thomas Spota, the current district attorney, in 2002.
Schaffer's move against Stricoff comes after more than a year of backroom political strife. Party sources say Bellone and Stricoff mulled ousting Schaffer as county Democratic chief. Bellone and Stricoff also unsuccessfully opposed Gregory as presiding officer. They later sought a district attorney's probe of Gregory's residency, an effort that went nowhere.
Some who support Stricoff say privately that Schaffer is being heavy-handed, making Stricoff collateral damage. They say any overpayments could have been repaid without airing the party's dirty laundry and raising voter anger.
Sources close to Schaffer say Stricoff ignored efforts to deal with the audit questions.
Stricoff has not returned calls for comment, and his attorney, Anthony LaPinta of Hauppauge, declined to comment.
Schaffer said he sees no fallout from the controversy. "It makes us stronger when the public knows we're not going to tolerate people who do not do the right thing," he said.
Said former Democratic Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin, who chairs the Babylon IDA: "Steve Bellone needs Rich Schaffer and Rich Schaffer needs Steve Bellone. It is in both their interests to deal with it and move on. They have to."