Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh may be the head of a minor party, but his clout is so far-reaching that the Suffolk sheriff's probe of whether Walsh was paid for time he did not work is shaking up the entire Long Island political landscape.
"It puts everyone in a delicate position," said John Gallagher, a former Suffolk County police commissioner and deputy county executive. "And it shows you how intricate this maze of interwoven party relationships is."
Those relationships exist because the Conservatives often do not put forward their own candidates but instead cross-endorse major party contenders, mainly Republicans. In other cases, the major parties back the Conservatives' choice, or Conservatives are rewarded with patronage jobs after the election.
Walsh, 48, a correction lieutenant who stands 6-foot-5, has a dominating and often combative personality. In his eight years as party chairman, Walsh has done battle with Suffolk's powerful Police Benevolent Association, throwing out 1,400 union members who had enrolled in the Conservative Party in 2009 in an attempt to take it over. He also has fought with Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello. Three years ago, Mondello broke a finger punching a locker during a telephone screaming match with Walsh over 2012 judicial cross-endorsements.
What makes Walsh so formidable is that he heads the largest Conservative county organization in New York State. The Suffolk Conservatives have 22,561 members, more than twice the number in either Nassau or Westchester, and more than in all of New York City.
More important, the Suffolk Conservatives get out the vote. Last year, Democratic District Attorney Thomas Spota, Republican Treasurer Angie Carpenter and Conservative Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, all cross-endorsed, each got more than 13 percent of their vote from the Conservative line.
For Spota, it meant nearly 25,000 votes.Walsh declined to comment, but Michael Torres, a close ally and Islip Conservative chairman, said: "We have never done better under any other chairman" and Walsh will survive. "Ed has told the truth. When all is said and done, it will be nothing."
In Nassau and Suffolk, where Democrats now outnumber Republicans, the Conservative line is often the electoral life preserver for GOP contenders seeking more than 50 percent of the vote.
"The Conservative Party has always played a very pivotal role for the Republicans," said Desmond Ryan, a veteran Republican lobbyist. "The worry once was, could they lose the endorsement?" Ryan said of candidates. "The question now: Is the situation so hot they don't want the endorsement?"
In investigating whether Walsh collected wages for hours he did not work, DeMarco is probing his own party leader, who has worked for him for more than eight years. DeMarco could face criticism for going too soft, or retribution from Walsh loyalists within the party when he seeks renomination.
Paul Sabatino, ex-Suffolk chief deputy county executive, says DeMarco may come out of the controversy "as a sheriff on a white horse, cleaning things up." But Walsh's battles with police, and the parties' endorsements of officials, prosecutors and judges, pose a potential minefield in how authorities should proceed.
Others call the controversy surrounding Walsh further evidence that New York State -- like more than 40 others nationwide -- should bar cross-endorsements because they give minor parties influence far beyond their numbers.
"Republicans . . . and Democrats should run on their own party line and whoever wins, so be it," said Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip). "But it will never happen in New York because every party thinks they need a minor line to win."