Ex-local radio talk show host John Gomez concedes he has never been active in local politics, only registered as a Republican six weeks ago and has not raised a nickel for a political campaign.
Yet Gomez, 47, is among the GOP front-runners to take on five-term Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) because he has an 800-pound gorilla in his corner: megastar radio and Fox TV conservative pundit Sean Hannity.
"When he first mentioned it, I thought he was name-dropping," said John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chairman. "But anytime someone with Sean Hannity's stature vouches for your credibility, it's very significant." Hannity's role, LaValle added, could "absolutely be a game-changer."
Gomez wowed Suffolk GOP leaders by bringing in Hannity for a meeting two weeks ago and another with county Conservative chairman Edward Walsh. GOP sources say Hannity touted his boyhood friend as a conservative who can win, vowing "to do all he could" to promote Gomez, help fundraise and bring in headliners for events. Hannity last week even tried to coax an on-air endorsement from Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). Hannity declined to comment.
The ties between the men go back to third grade at Sacred Heart School in Hempstead and later St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary. They were in each other's wedding parties. Gomez even bought Hannity's house when he moved out of Bayport.
But the recession and President Barack Obama's slide in polls have created a stampede of nine GOP hopefuls ready to challenge Israel, who won by a 2-to-1 margin just two years ago. He has $1.7 million in his coffers and a 38,000-Democratic-voter enrollment edge. Party leaders say a final screening and decision is likely within two weeks.
Despite the crowd, Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said none have Israel's record. "It might be a nice show," he said, "but it doesn't put food on the table. Steve has delivered for the district." Israel declined to comment.
GOP sources say beyond Gomez, other top contenders include Sal Ferro, 46, of Huntington, owner of Alure, a home improvement firm, who has vowed to spend $300,000 to $500,000 of his own money.
The Huntington GOP is backing former congressional aide and lawyer Josh Price, 38, of Commack, who says he has commitments for at least $100,000 as soon as he gets the party nod. There's also Tea Party organizer Steve Labate, 42, of Deer Park, an Iraq vet Army reserve officer with 200 grassroots backers.
Some say Hannity is unfairly using his star power. "I think it's very unfortunate that Sean Hannity would inject himself into the screening process," said Labate, who describes himself as a fan. "National exposure will not put boots on the ground . . . It will backfire on Gomez because people don't like that." Ferro agreed: "I have a lot of respect for Sean Hannity . . . but Republican leaders should be making the decision, not a radio host."
While the process has been fair, Ferro wouldn't rule out a primary. "If they make a choice and I feel it's not the right choice, I'd have to consider my options."
"I hope the leaders pick the candidate . . . [who] is the most competent and will make the best congressman," Price said.
Gomez argues even without Hannity, he'd be viable, citing the recent Islip Town board win by former News 12 anchor Trish Bergin. Gomez, a former WLIE talk show host, lawyer and now a wireless communications consultant, said, "Who else has the same experience behind a mike and in front of a camera?"
Yet Hannity has already begun pitching his pal on radio. "Are you going to support him for his run?" he asked King last week. King called Gomez "a very good guy," but parried because he didn't want to pre-empt the GOP screening process.
"Why are you equivocating?" Hannity quipped. "I've been best friends with the guy since third grade." King jibed back: "The only thing I have against him is that he's a close friend of yours. That makes me worry."