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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Party nods sought in Brookhaven Town race

A file photo of Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri.

A file photo of Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri. (Jan. 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Suffolk County Legis. Tom Muratore is going after the Republican nomination for Brookhaven highway superintendent in a big way.

The day after Thanksgiving, the Ronkonkoma Republican mailed 2,000 invitations to a $200-a-head fundraiser Dec. 12 to raise $100,000 for the politically potent town post.

"I really want the job and I think I can do what needs to be done," said Muratore, 67, saying he would seek to use new technology and smart growth methods to increase efficiency.

What makes Muratore's aggressive bid unusual is that it comes more than a month before Democratic incumbent John Rouse exits to become a county court judge, and Muratore sent out his mailing even before Brookhaven GOP officials set a date to screen potential contenders. Screening begins Monday.

While not raising money, Assemb. Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham) is just as interested in the highway job, though he has yet to serve a day of his second term to which he was elected last month. "What put it over the top for me was the storm and how important the highway job is to returning things to normalcy," said Losquadro, 40, noting his family has long been in the construction business and he worked as a laborer while in college.

Democrats tomorrow will screen Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri and Brookhaven Town board member Connie Kepert. Party officials also will interview Kevin Gleason, head of the Huntington Town highway union and president of the Eastport-South Manor school board, and Peter Zarcone, state political director for Laborers' Local 66 and a member of Brookhaven's planning board and the Suffolk Industrial Development Agency board.

"It's a fantastic field," said Marc Alessi, town Democratic chairman and a former state assemblyman.

Officials in both parties say the top highway job -- especially in Suffolk's largest town -- is a powerful base with an army of patronage workers and millions of dollars in paving and snow-removal contracts to dole out. Three years remain in the superintendent's term.

The late Harold Malkmes wielded huge political influence during his three-decade reign at the highway helm. His protege the late John Powell rose from the payloader to become town and county GOP boss until his downfall. And Rouse's 2001 ascent helped spur later town Democratic town board and supervisor victories. A Democratic loss could jeopardize party's chances to remain an effective counter-balance the new GOP town board majority.

The leading GOP contenders both are battle-tested. Losquadro defeated Alessi for an Assembly seat in an upset in 2010. Previously, Losquadro had served seven years as a county lawmaker. Muratore, a 35-year police veteran and former Police Benevolent Association official, unseated Democratic Legis. Brian Beedenbender in 2009.

Other Republican contenders include GOP town board member Dan Panico, though the party may be reluctant to jeopardize its solid board majority. Assemb. Dean Murray, popular in GOP ranks, also is in the field. He was defeated recently in his newly redrawn district.

John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chairman backs Losquadro. LaValle said Losquadro's election "would be a great thing for Brookhaven." LaValle added that he is trying to bring back a GOP majority in the county legislature, and "wouldn't want to lose a guy like Tom Muratore."

Brookhaven GOP chairman Jesse Garcia, whose relations with LaValle have been strained, said he is "keeping a very open mind" and plans to do polling before picking a nominee by mid-December.

GOP town board member Kathy Walsh on Facebook expressed interest in running for the highway job, but many Republicans are wary because of her past alliance with former Democratic Supervisor Mark Lesko. Conservatives are also angry at Walsh because her husband, William, a Civil Service Employees Association leader, once waged a bitter primary campaign against Conservative town board member Jane Bonner.

Walsh, 53, of Centereach, said she hopes the past "fury will die down." She cites her seven years of experience on the town board and noted that her father once was a highway worker. Walsh got Democratic cross-endorsement last year for town board. Asked whether she would consider running on the Democratic line for highway chief, she said, "I'm not speaking to anyone but the Republican leadership at this time."

Alessi said that although Walsh has not reached out to him, he "would be amenable" to letting her screen for the Democratic nomination. Alessi's wife, Gretchen Penn, does political work for CSEA.

"It's not the party that is important but the person and whether they can do the job," said Alessi.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said Republicans have an enrollment edge. But he argued that Democrats have a strong shot at a highway job because the party can get supporters out in low-turnout special elections. "If you have any doubt, just ask Mazzei," he said, referring to town board member Timothy Mazzei's loss to Lesko in 2009.

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