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Contested primaries can give decisive edge

Former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi speaks about

Former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi speaks about issues as he announced he is running for county executive at his office in Uniondale. (Feb. 14, 2013) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau Republican chairman Joe Mondello is chortling over the prospect of an expensive Democratic county executive primary while his Democratic counterpart Jay Jacobs is looking to clear the field for the comeback bid of Thomas Suozzi.

But history shows that contested countywide primaries aren't always bad things, and that most winners have gone on to win the general election. Over the years, six of eight winners in Nassau and Suffolk have gone to victory in November.

No one should know that better than Suozzi. Suozzi vaulted to victory in his first campaign for Nassau County executive in 2001 after dispatching then-Assemb. Thomas DiNapoli, now the state comptroller, in a Democratic primary.

In the Democratic primary in the Suffolk County executive's race in 2003, then-Assemb. Steve Levy beat William Cunningham, Suozzi's former top deputy whom Suozzi had backed strongly in a move to create an Islandwide power base for himself.

The primary win gave Levy much-needed credibility, helped his fundraising and gave him momentum against then-County Clerk Edward P. Romaine, now Brookhaven supervisor. Levy won though Romaine had the GOP, conservative, Independence and even the Working Families Party lines on the ballot.

"There was a real question whether I could raise money and win on a larger scale than my own district where I could knock on doors," Levy recalled. "When I won by a 2-1 margin, those issues were put to bed and it gave me a huge boost in credibility and more money came our way."

Even former North Hempstead Supervisor Ben Zwirn, who narrowly lost his bid for Nassau County executive in 1993, credits his primary victory over Richard Kessel, former chairman and chief executive of the Long Island Power Authority, for making his race against then-GOP incumbent Thomas Gulotta so close.

"You get to campaign all summer and you get coverage that you would never get if there wasn't a primary and that lets you frame the debate," Zwirn said. "It gives you a head start and a big bump, if you win." Gulotta, the incumbent, held on with just 51 percent of the vote.

The potential downside of primaries is that contenders within the same party rip each other -- in effect, helping their outside foes.

In 1987, Suffolk's Republican Comptroller Joseph Caputo went on the attack against acting County Executive Michael LoGrande, who easily won the GOP primary but later lost to the aggressive campaign of Assemb. Patrick Halpin.

Halpin said Caputo's primary attacks on LoGrande gave ammunition to his own broadsides. "It's easy to discard an attack when if comes from the opposition party, but it's harder to dismiss when it comes from someone within," Halpin said. "When Joe Caputo joined in, it was just fine with me."

But primaries are not contests about who has the broadest popular support but who has the ability to bring out more supporters from within party ranks. That could hurt an outsider like Adam Haber, a Democratic candidate in this year's Nassau executive's race whose ties to the party are not as solid as Suozzi's or those of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman, who is exploring a run.

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio tried to challenge party choice Robert Gaffney in a GOP county executive primary in 1991, but lost because he came from Suffolk's smallest western town.

Islip Supervisor Peter Fox Cohalan challenged GOP incumbent John V.N. Klein in a party primary in 1979, though he also had the backing of the powerful Islip and Babylon GOP.

Both organizations also were mired in the Southwest sewer scandal, which involved cost overruns, delays and which ultimately led to criminal convictions. But by winning the primary, Cohalan stole the sewer issue from the late Legis. Martin Feldman (D-Dix Hills), who led a county probe into the scandal.

"Marty thought he could take John Klein," recalled Eric Kopp, a Cohalan aide and later a chief deputy county executive under Gaffney. "But after the primary, it was all over for him. He had no issue."

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