To endorse or not to endorse? That’s the question facing Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone after Family Court Supervising Judge Theresa Bryant Whelan’s 65 percent to 35 percent victory in the Democratic Surrogate’s Court judge primary Thursday night.
Bellone, a Democrat, backed Republican Tara Scully in the primary, and went neutral when Whelan emerged as a candidate after Conservative District Court Judge Marian Tinari — the wife of the Suffolk Conservative chairman Frank Tinari — dropped out.
Bellone must decide whether to back Whelan, now the choice of Democratic voters, stand aside or endorse Scully, who will have the Republican line in November, in a way that won’t alienate party members to whom he must return next year for his own renomination.
“With everything that’s going on, elected Democratic officials should heed the will of the Democratic voter,” said Suffolk Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), deputy presiding officer. "Democratic voters are energized, out there and showing up in numbers and we should listen to them.”
Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman who has clashed repeatedly with Bellone, urged the county executive to endorse Whelan — as Bellone did by backing Liuba Grechen Shirley for Congress after his choice, legislative Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory, lost the 2nd District Democratic primary in June.
“I can’t tell him what do, but a lot of people will have questions if he doesn’t do it after the Democratic voters have spoken,” Schaffer said of Bellone.
Bellone on Friday repeated what aides said on primary night — that the county executive will focus on helping local Democrats win State Senate races.
Asked if he will endorse Whelan or Scully, Bellone said, “It’s not something I’m thinking about.”
Bellone said he endorsed Scully, the daughter of one of his top aides, “when there was a Conservative on the Democratic line.” But he said Scully “shined a light on significant issues of judicial reform and those issues are not going away.”
Former Suffolk Legis. Vivian Viloria-Fisher, who is on Scully’s fundraising committee, said she also could not advise Bellone on what to do. But Viloria-Fisher said she has created a committee aimed at restricting cross-endorsement deals of the type that Bellone and Scully oppose.
Viloria-Fisher has called for Whelan not to accept minor party lines, but has received no response. Past cross-endorsement deals, Viloria-Fisher said, for a decade virtually eliminated voter choice in countywide elections.
Some predict Bellone will hold off on a decision until all jockeying for judicial nominations unfolds, and the leadership battle in the county Conservative Party plays out in the next few weeks.
There is a chance Conservative Surrogate nominee Deborah Poulos could leave the race to run for state Supreme Court along with Tinari. Poulos’ exit could clear the way for Whelan to get the Conservative ballot line.
Paul Sabatino, former chief deputy county executive, said Scully’s call for judicial reform rings hollow given GOP control of the Surrogate’s Court for nearly a century. He noted that Scully in 2015 sought a Conservative cross-endorsement with the help of ex-GOP county Legis. Fred Towle, who was jailed and lost his seat for misusing campaign funds.
Sabatino also said the battle between Bellone and Schaffer has reached the point of no return.
“This is not the kind of fight where you can kiss and make up,” Sabatino said. “Only one is going to walk away alive because it is a direct power play for control.”