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Nassau GOP chief makes deal with Democratic chief instead of Conservative boss

Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello, left, and his

Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello, left, and his Democratic counterpart Jay Jacobs, right, are shown in these file photos. Credit: Karen Wiles Stabile , Ed Betz

In the past, relations between Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello and his Democratic counterpart Jay Jacobs have been less than warm — usually cool, and often strained.

But last week's judicial cross-endorsement deal shows that Mondello's misgivings about Jacobs pale to his loathing of Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh.

Last year, Mondello in a monumental shift ended his three-decade-long stand opposing major party cross-endorsement of judicial candidates. Back when he first took the chairman position in the 1970s, Mondello said voters deserved a choice, but the GOP at the time dominated most judicial races.

In 2011, Walsh wanted an extra Conservative on the ballot, prompting a lengthy backroom telephone shouting match with Mondello while the GOP convention was held up for hours. Walsh won an extra Conservative candidate while a livid Mondello broke a finger after he punched out a locker in frustration.

When Walsh tried the same tactic last year, Mondello balked and made a last-minute deal with Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer and his GOP counterpart John Jay LaValle, which cost Walsh the extra nomination he sought, as well as one promised in preliminary talks.

Like last year's pact with Suffolk's major party leaders, Mondello's deal with Jacobs this year will last two years.

Both sides will back two Republican judicial candidates and one Democrat this year while Democrats will get two next year and the GOP one.

What makes the wheeling and dealing so significant is that there's no chance in state Supreme Court contests for anyone to challenge party leaders because conventions are held after party primaries. And Conservatives, particularly in Suffolk, had made it a priority to concentrate on judicial races, not only for the judicial nominations they can wrangle, but for patronage involved with judges' staff and lucrative court appointments.

The new cross-endorsement deals are important because it is the first time in decades that Long Island's major parties have tried to try to rein in minor parties.

In the early 1970s, major parties in both in Nassau and Suffolk imposed short-lived cross-endorsement bans for about three years, aimed at limiting the clout of the still-young Conservative Party. At the time, Suffolk's GOP County Executive John V.N. Klein said, "I don't think it consistent with good government when you have a relatively fractional part of the voting population that can control close elections."

But those pacts disintegrated in the wake of the 1974 Watergate scandal when Republicans embraced Conservatives, who draw 10 percent or more at the polls, as a life preserver in close races.

Now Republicans in Nassau and Suffolk need the Conservatives more than ever in nonjudicial races, as Democrats, once outnumbered 2 to 1, now have a growing voter-registration edge in both counties.

Walsh, no matter his legal problems from a federal probe and the county sheriff's effort to fire him as a corrections lieutenant, remains a formidable political force.

He heads the largest Conservative Party in the state and the 745 party activists who re-elected Walsh as party chairman last week more than doubled the convention turnout of Democrats and the GOP.

One sign of that clout is that Jacobs, while making a deal with Mondello, took pains to praise Walsh as a "man of his word" with whom he has always had good relations.

Of course, prospects of a future deal with Walsh only gives Jacobs leverage with Mondello.

But Jacobs hopes his deal with Mondello can blossom because judges — unlike legislators or county executive — don't campaign on policy issues, just their legal credentials.

"This could be the start of a good relationship to look at judges from a quality standpoint," he said. "That's the way we should be doing it."

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