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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Among Suffolk Republicans, talk turns to county executive's race

Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle at the

Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle at the Suffolk Republican election night headquarters in Patchogue on Tuesday. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle didn’t make an endorsement and Republican John Kennedy, the apparent victor in the county comptroller's race last Tuesday, did not declare his candidacy.

But less than two hours after polls closed on Election Day, both were speaking out about next year’s county executive race against Democrat Steve Bellone.

“I believe next year we’re going to win the county executive race,” LaValle told GOP faithful at the Stereo Garden in Patchogue. “One of the reasons we are going to win the county executive race is because we have a county comptroller, who . . . is exposing everything that is wrong with our government — the waste, the fraud and he’s doing it to the tune of millions of dollars.”

“We’re going . . . to take this county back after 14 years,” Kennedy bellowed after his introduction. “I will keep finding the fraud. It’s everywhere we look . . . We’ll take the county back and make it Republican.”

Several days later, Kennedy, coming off what he called the “toughest” victory in his career as a Suffolk County legislator and as comptroller, said he needed to talk to his wife, Leslie, herself a county lawmaker, who has had health issues in the past year.

“I’m not being coy,” he said. “I think there’s a screaming case for a change in leadership . . . I’ll look at my options.”

As comptroller, Kennedy helped convict concessionaire Beach Hut for bilking the county out of taxes and fees. He also pressed for the ouster of a homeless shelter operator for misspending $3 million, and has done debt refinancing he said has saved Suffolk $35 million.

But first, Kennedy still needs to await the count of 29,366 absentee ballots in the comptroller's race.

His Democratic opponent Jay Schneiderman, the Southampton Town supervisor, has not conceded the race. Kennedy's unofficial lead is 8,623 votes, but absentee ballots still have to be counted: 12,678 so far sent in by Democrats, 9,320 from Republicans and 5,452 from voters not aligned with any party.

The deadline for absentee ballots to arrive at the county Board of Elections is Nov. 13, with military ballots due Nov. 19.

In some ways, the battle for county executive has been underway for months.

Bellone strongly backed Schneiderman, whose election as comptroller could eliminate a potential rival. Bellone last week also lobbied to keep Kennedy from getting extra staff in the 2019 budget to audit the $450 million spent annually on health insurance.

“While it remains to be seen if Kennedy is re-elected comptroller . . . we will gladly put the county executive’s record of staying within the tax cap for seven years and overseeing the lowest crime rates in county history up against anyone,” said Jason Elan, Bellone’s spokesman.

Despite running countywide for comptroller, Kennedy never has raised the $2-$3 million recent winning county executive races have cost. Kennedy said he raised about $250,000 for his just-finished campaign.

Those close to Kennedy say he will not run for county executive unless he can amass a war chest of at least $1 million.

While county police unions endorsed Kennedy this year and their relations with Bellone have soured, their backing likely will depend on whether they can make a deal with the county executive on a new labor contract next year.

The other major name circulating in Suffolk GOP circles is State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), whose party lost the Senate majority on election night with a half-dozen local GOP Senate losses. Flanagan remains a strong vote-getter in his district, which stretches across Huntington, Smithtown and Brookhaven towns.

But Flanagan balked at seeking the open county executive seat in 2011 when he had no Senate leadership role.

Scott Reif, Senate GOP spokesman, said Flanagan is “actively pursuing the position of senate minority leader.”

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