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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Comptroller-elect John M. Kennedy Jr. boosted by Smithtown Republican base

GOP Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr., shown at

GOP Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr., shown at the William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Hauppague on July 24, 2014, won the race for county comptroller Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. Photo Credit: Richard T.Slattery

Suffolk Comptroller-elect John M. Kennedy Jr. was the very last local Republican candidate put on the November ballot, Conservatives withheld their endorsement -- usually worth more than 10 percent of the vote total for candidates -- and he was outspent $800,000 to $100,000.

And much of the money raised by his opponent, Democrat James Gaughran, went for highly negative direct mail and TV ads that excoriated Kennedy, a Suffolk County legislator, for hiring his wife as an aide.

But Kennedy had a secret weapon: his hometown Republican base in Smithtown, which gave him a whopping 8,000-vote edge -- almost half his countywide margin of 18,000 votes -- even though it's the smallest of Suffolk's five western towns. Only Brookhaven, Suffolk's largest town, matched that total.

"Everyone I talked to wrote him off," said Desmond Ryan, a Republican lobbyist. "But he was the biggest upset of the night. He not only won, he led the ticket."

Kennedy, of Nesconset, got into the comptroller's race only minutes before the election board deadline in July, after Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle backed out.

Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh, who had endorsed LaValle, balked at backing Kennedy. And when Kennedy entered the race, Gaughran, chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, already had been on the stump for nearly four months. Gaughran had raised $154,000 and locked up the support of most unions, even though Kennedy's late father, Jack, once headed the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council.

"John went for 55 days, 24/7, and at 90 miles an hour," said Bill Ellis, Smithtown Republican chairman.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said, "People say I walk fast going door to door. John almost runs."

Democrats attribute Kennedy's success to low Democratic turnout caused by a lopsided governor's race and unhappiness with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo among some party factions, and President Barack Obama's unpopularity.

"It's like a judge's election," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman. "It's just a party-line vote based on who shows up."

But Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said efforts to attack the hiring of Kennedy's wife, Leslie, backfired -- particularly in Smithtown, where she is well known for handling constituent issues.

"Leslie is the go-to person and is always at John's side when they go to night meetings," Fitzpatrick said. "I think people in the community reacted negatively to those attacks. It was a miscalculation."

Gaughran, a former Huntington Town Board member and county lawmaker, also lost his own home base after two decades out of office. Kennedy edged out Gaughran in Huntington 22,926 to 22,223. Even in the Democrats' stronghold, Babylon, Gaughran only beat Kennedy 17,182 to 15,498. Overall, Kennedy beat Gaughran 53 percent to 47 percent.

Kennedy, the county legislature's minority leader, said he had strong support not only in Smithtown but also in East Northport, where he grew up.

"I started from a pretty tough position -- and I never thought it might be a Republican year because of Obama," he said.

Kennedy credits decades of dealing with "meat and potato" issues, including saving Suffolk's fire academy, for winning the support of groups such as firefighters.

Kennedy also said he "cannot see any set of circumstances" to even consider a county executive run next year, but hoped his win will encourage a strong GOP contender to emerge.

Ellis said despite the negative ads, he already has asked Leslie Kennedy if she wants to screen as a candidate for her husband's legislative seat, an option she is contemplating.

Kennedy said running is a "personal decision" for his wife, but said: "No one knows the day-to-day operations of the office better . . . and any leader would be foolish not to entertain her as a prospective candidate."

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