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Democrats believe Kate Browning can compete against Lee Zeldin

Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning outside of Carlyle

Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning outside of Carlyle on the Green on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

In politics, like real estate, sometimes the most important thing is location, location, location.

For some Democrats looking to oust Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, the most appealing asset Suffolk Legis. Kate Browning brings to the congressional candidacy she announced last week is that she can vie competitively with the two-term congressman in their hometown base of Mastic and Shirley.

“Geography is critical,” said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman. “When you have a candidate who comes from the heart of their opponent’s base and polls more than 60 percent favorable, that’s someone who could do very well and will keep their opponent up staring at the ceiling at night.” What’s more, he added, “Kate has sharp elbows.”

Jennifer DiSiena, Zeldin’s spokeswoman, said, “Congressman Zeldin’s focus right now is not on a Democratic primary that is next June” even if it’s the “top priority in life” for Democrats seeking his job. “Congressman Zeldin is concentrating on bringing home victories for his constituents.”

Browning, term limited in her 12th year as a county lawmaker, easily won her last two elections with 63.1 and 64.4 percent of the vote. A former school bus driver and union leader, Browning emigrated to this country from Ireland. She is married to an NYPD officer.

Patrick Halpin, a former Democratic county executive and now a lobbyist, credited Browning “breaking through” in Mastic and Shirley, which had been a “rock-ribbed Republican stronghold” for decades. “She has an appeal to the working class community because she is part of it and she relates to people very well,” he said. Halpin also sees “huge issues looming” for Zeldin should President Donald Trump win approval to end deductions for state and local taxes, even if Zeldin votes against it. “It could become fatal,” he said.

But Jesse Garcia, Town of Brookhaven Republican chairman, said Zeldin would easily defeat Browning because she had been member of the ultraliberal Working Families Party and part of a Democratic administration that had “ballooned the deficit to record levels,” and “pickpocketed taxpayers with red light camera tickets and backdoor fees.” By contrast, he said Zeldin had removed fishing license fees, brought money into the district such as funding for the Hospital Road overpass in East Patchogue, and rolled back the MTA tax. “When all is said and done, we’ll overwhelm all the Democrats they want to line up,” he said.

Browning also faces serious Democratic competition. Perry Gershon has already raised $500,000, but the high-powered businessman is largely unknown in the district and just moved his voting address in May from Manhattan to East Hampton. And East Hampton, Suffolk’s second smallest town, is already controlled by Democrats. But Keith Barnish, Gershon campaign spokesman, said, “Ultimately candidates will be judged on whether they can revive the economy and Perry as an entrepreneur and a job creator is the best one to do it,” he said. “Perry’s in it to win it and is confident he can go toe to toe with Zeldin.”

Another contender, Vivian Viloria Fisher, a former county lawmaker from Setauket, represented a Democratic district, but said her teaching career in both Three Village and the more conservative Middle Country school districts gave her a broad base in the heart of Brookhaven, the district’s largest town. She also said she had now raised nearly $100,000 — $50,000 of it her own.

Democrats’ greatest fear is a repeat of last year’s expensive primary in which Anna Throne-Holst narrowly beat David Calone, but lost her momentum for the general election. “The worst-case scenario is that we have two or three people running a primary, in which case it would guarantee a Zeldin victory,” said Barry McCoy, a member of the Suffolk Democrats’ executive committee.

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