On primary night last Tuesday, unexpected winner Larry Zacarese told supporters he couldn’t “count the number of times” he was called an amateur when he first announced his run for Suffolk sheriff last year.
But he showed the savvy of a veteran political operative last week when he tapped a crucial and highly energized bloc: Gun owners who were angry at his opponent, state Sen. Phil Boyle, for voting for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s gun-control measure known as the SAFE Act.
Zacarese, assistant chief of the Stony Brook University police, drubbed Boyle in a GOP primary, in part due to two mailings to 3,000 gun owners throughout Suffolk. Zacarese also did ads on two local radio stations on the East End, where the gun issue is a significant concern and where the sheriff’s department handles gun licensing.
As a freshman senator, Boyle voted for the SAFE Act but said shortly thereafter that his vote “was a mistake.” Boyle further angered gun users by saying he might have realized the mistake “if we were given more than two hours to read the bill.”
Gun owners are a powerful bloc in low-turnout primaries — about 7 percent of Republicans voted Tuesday in the sheriff’s race — because they vote in force. That also gives them clout beyond their numbers in a general election.
One gun owner, Dov Neidish of Commack, said in an interview that Boyle had “no backbone” and “staunch supporters of the Second Amendment haven’t forgotten.”
Boyle admits the issue was “definitely a factor” with some voters even though he considers himself a Second Amendment advocate and co-sponsored SAFE Act repeal measures, though they have yet to pass.
“Some folks will never forgive my original support, which was based solely on the law’s gang provisions,” that increased penalties for gang-related crimes involving guns, Boyle said.
The Suffolk GOP should have a big edge in primaries because it has 1,347 committee members who can turn out voters. But Zacarese said he had a committed cadre of 50 to 150 volunteers working for months to help deliver literature and do other campaign chores.
Some said Republicans seemed disengaged because Boyle was seen as the favorite to newcomer Zacarese.
“It just looked like Republicans weren’t interested,” said Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, who said he is open to giving Boyle the Democratic ballot line for sheriff.
Boyle may have added to the malaise inadvertently by making a trip to Texas to deliver emergency supplies to hurricane victims several days before the primary.
Some Conservatives say privately that Zacarese got backdoor help from John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, and Huntington GOP chairwoman Toni Tepe, whose relations with Conservatives are often strained. Tepe said she backed Boyle as the GOP choice. LaValle did not return calls for comment.
But some Republicans say GOP voters were upset that Boyle got Conservative backing first, forcing Republicans to endorse him or lose Conservative support for other GOP candidates.
“They were unhappy with the Conservatives’ strong-arm tactics, and rebelled in the privacy of the voting booth,” said one GOP official who declined to be identified.
Campaign manager Steve Zalewski said Zacarese’s law enforcement credentials beat Boyle, who has no direct law enforcement experience.
Zalewski likened it to the Nassau district attorney’s race in 2015, when Democrat Madeline Singas beat former GOP Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray. “Kate Murray was a popular Hempstead supervisor, but had no qualifications to be DA, while Singas was a career prosecutor,” Zalewski said.