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Richard Schaffer in political balancing act as State Senate races heat up

Babylon supervisor and Democratic committee chair Richard H.

Babylon supervisor and Democratic committee chair Richard H. Schaffer. (Nov. 5, 2013) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

As shrewd a political operative as he is, Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer acknowledges he feels like he is "in the Twilight Zone" this year.

Although he doesn't like to talk about it, Schaffer is facing a quandary about how to deal with races for two highly competitive open seats in the 3rd and 8th State Senate districts.

The party leader for years has privately had a sub rosa nonaggression pact with the Senate Republican majority, whom he saw as good for Long Island suburbs on issues including school aid.

But if Senate Democrats, with the backing of unions and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, take control of the chamber, Schaffer may face the need to have a Long Island bloc in a new Democratic majority.

"He's been the master of detente," said Desmond Ryan, a Republican business lobbyist. "But this year, he has to be like the Flying Wallendas," referring to the circus high-wire act. "He's on a tightrope . . . He may have to wait to the eleventh hour to act."

Schaffer's ties with Senate Republicans started in 1997 with Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon), who won state approval of a budget note to allow Babylon Town to borrow $10 million to ease its fiscal woes, despite pressure from local GOP leaders to block it. From then on, Johnson had virtually no electoral opposition.

When Johnson announced his last-minute plans to retire two years ago, Schaffer did little to help then-Suffolk Legis. Rick Montano, a Democrat, in his State Senate bid against GOP Assemb. Philip Boyle, who won Johnson's seat. Even state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) had a free run the same year when his Democratic opponent, Errol Toulan, left the race to take a $125,515 a year job as an aide to Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone.

In return, the Senate GOP majority has helped Suffolk with legislation such as the $65 million sale-leaseback deal for the H. Lee Dennison Building, a new local traffic court and extra red-light cameras, which produced new revenue for the county.

Montano said Schaffer basically gave him lip service and on Election Day did little to counter county GOP efforts to depress turnout in minority communities.

"He's put himself in a box because the Democratic leader has an obligation to support Democrats, but he doesn't . . ." Montano said. "He does the rah, rah, boom-bah, but does nothing to help you."

Schaffer has made clear his top priorities this year are Rep. Tim Bishop's congressional race, getting out the vote for Cuomo and getting Suffolk County Water Authority chief James Gaughran elected county comptroller.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, chairman of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee, said Schaffer has been nothing but supportive: "He's done everything we've asked and more. He's a real partner."

Gianaris (D-Astoria) said that in the 3rd Senate District, Schaffer authorized Adrienne Esposito, an environmentalist backed by Senate Democrats, to run in a primary, although she is not an enrolled Democrat.

Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick), running for the 8th Senate District, said Schaffer, a law school classmate, has appeared at his fundraisers and gave him space at party headquarters.

About 20 percent of the district is in Babylon Town. That could be crucial because Democrats have an enrollment edge of 8,300 voters there.

"Richie had a personal relationship with Owen Johnson that transcended politics," Denenberg said. "But he [Schaffer] knows no one will fight harder for the district than me."

However, Ryan said Schaffer may have a more pressing interest in keeping the State Senate in GOP hands. Ryan noted that if Republicans are in the minority, Flanagan might decide to run for Suffolk County executive, "and he would be very formidable."

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