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Democrats now outnumber GOP in Suffolk

Standing with Mrs. Nixon, President Richard Nixon acknowledges

Standing with Mrs. Nixon, President Richard Nixon acknowledges cheers of about 14, 0000 spectators at a Republican rally at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. (Oct. 23, 1972) Credit: AP

The late Republican Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea, once a would-be governor, must be rolling over in his grave. So must the late cigar-smoking Brookhaven GOP chairman Richard Zeidler, whose fundraisers generated so much cash in the 1970s that he held events for three days running.

But those czars of Suffolk's Grand Old Party during the period when the suburbs were booming and the party dominated the politics are gone, and Republican dominance has ended.

Suffolk Democrats last week quietly overtook Republicans as the county's largest political party by voter registration. As of Monday, Suffolk has 304,114 registered Democrats to 303,728 Republicans -- a 386-vote edge. That means Long Island, once a national base of GOP suburban power, is officially Democratic.

In Nassau, where former county GOP chairman Joe Margiotta in 1972 filled Nassau Coliseum for a campaign rally for President Richard Nixon, Democrats first turned the tide by a trickle in 2008. Now, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 363,911 to 326,266, or by nearly 4 percent.

"It's the passing of a generation," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman. "This is the place that gave record votes for Nixon and Reagan."

John Jay LaValle, the Suffolk Republican chairman, discounted the impact of the shifting registration numbers, saying much has to do with "motor-voter" laws that allow people to register to vote when they get or renew driver's licenses. LaValle said many are young people: "They are checking boxes, but they don't vote."

Suffolk Democrats now hold an enrollment edge in three of the county's western towns: by a margin of 14,600 voters in Babylon, 6,000 in Islip and 2,650 in Huntington. Democrats also outnumber Republicans in East Hampton and Shelter Island on the East End.

The two remaining GOP strongholds are Smithtown, the smallest of Suffolk's western towns, where the GOP has a 10,700 voter edge, and Brookhaven, the county's largest town, where the GOP has a 9,900 voter advantage. The GOP also has the most registered voters in Southampton, Riverhead and Southold.

"We've gotten out of shape politically speaking," said John Cochrane, former Suffolk Republican chairman. "We used to have events, voter registration . . . We need some dynamic young people, who say let's go back and take it back."

While Suffolk Democrats' countywide edge is small, the trend is unmistakable. In the past month, voters by a ratio of more than 2-1 have been enrolling as Democrats -- 924, compared with 394 for Republicans. More than 800 people enrolled as "blanks" who are unaligned with any party.

William Biamonte, Nassau's Democratic election commissioner, said the trend is Islandwide. In the past year, 42 percent of new registrants were Democrats, 21 percent Republicans and 31 percent blanks, Biamonte said.

Demographics are partly responsible. "It used to be if a parent was registered Republican, so did the kids. That's not happening any more," Biamonte said. "Older Republicans are aging out and moving away and younger voters moving in are more diverse and tend to be more Democratic."

Schaffer said harsh stands by national Republicans on budget and social issues have damaged the local GOP.

"I certainly wouldn't want to have the Republican banner wrapped around my neck," Schaffer said. "Long Island is more moderate and I think those far-right positions backfire."

LaValle said the registration numbers reflect an exodus to Long Island of city residents, many of them registered Democrats. He said he expects them to embrace the GOP.

"These people are trying to escape the Democratic urban life and are looking for a rural life that is better for their families," said LaValle. "That's a Republican way of life."

Edward Walsh, the Suffolk Conservative chairman, said the GOP decline has made his minor party, with 21,632 registered voters, more important.

In countywide races, "we draw 40,000 to 45,000 . . . votes, pulling from blanks, Republicans and Democrats," he said. "We got those kinds of numbers when [Democratic President Barack] Obama ran and they don't change in other years when everyone else goes down. The people who vote our line come out every year."

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