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Suffolk Republicans assess their chances in race against Steve Bellone

Republicans have criticized Bellone, saying he is mismanaging the county budget. They accuse him of imposing illegal fees amounting to hidden tax increases.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Political consultant Mike Dawidziak said Suffolk’s fiscal woes give Republicans “a chance to raise a major issue” against Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone this fall.

But it will be an uphill battle to raise the money and make their case with this year’s accelerated election cycle, Dawidziak said.

Party nominations are weeks away, candidate petitions hit the street Feb. 26, and party primaries have been pushed up to June.

Potential GOP contenders John Kennedy, the Suffolk County comptroller who has about $120,000 on hand, Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta, with $38,271, and legislative Minority Leader Tom Cilmi, with $71,762, all are weighing whether they can be viable contenders.

“There’s a lot of money to raise in a very short time,” said Dawidziak, who works mainly for Republicans. “You don’t have to match your opponent one to one, especially if you have a good message, but you’ve  got to have  enough money to get your message out.”

Republicans have criticized Bellone for mismanaging the county budget. They accuse him of imposing what they say are illegal fees amounting to hidden tax increases, while failing to whittle down the county's $180 million structural deficit.

Bellone has focused more on issues such as fighting gang violence and clean water. He also cites his cuts to the county workforce, unloading of the expensive county nursing home and reducing county health clinic costs by using a nonprofit operator. Bellone also froze his own salary and voluntarily pays part of his health insurance, like new hires.

There are also numerous wild cards in the mix.

The powerful police unions appear to be leaning toward Kennedy, but could shift if Bellone agrees to a new contract.

There’s also possible local backlash to the policies of President Donald Trump, and the possibility of higher than expected turnout in local races.  

For Kennedy, who won a close re-election race last fall in the face of a huge off-year turnout, considerations also are personal. His wife Leslie Kennedy, a GOP Suffolk legislator, dealt with health issues last year.

Kennedy, who has strong union ties because his late father long led the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council, might have to face serious budget cutbacks to deal with fiscal woes, should he win.

However, the county executive contest is a safe run for Kennedy, who would not have to give up the comptroller's seat and would have three years left on his term, should he lose.

Cilmi of Bay Shore said for the first time he has had discussions with Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle about challenging Bellone, although he declined to go into detail.

“It no secret county finances are a mess . . . and it’s a matter of who really has the desire to put his heart into the race," said Cilmi, who said he expects a united GOP front and no primary.

But both Cilmi and Trotta would have to give up their safe legislative seats to run for county executive. That also could put the seats in play for Democrats.

Despite his own differences with Bellone, Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic Party chairman, said he backs the county executive’s re-election.

Schaffer also said Republicans lack the resources to take on Bellone. Campaign filings show the Suffolk GOP had only $15,694 on hand as of Jan. 15. LaValle did not return calls for comment.

Schaffer also argued that none of the GOP contenders have said how they would fix fiscal problems.

“When you run against an incumbent you have to say what you would do different,” said Schaffer. "It’s easy to throw grenades, but more difficult to come up with solutions.”

Schaffer also raised the specter that none of the leading GOP contenders will run and that the GOP will have to enlist someone just “to carry the party banner.”

Dawidziak, referring to last year’s Suffolk surrogate judge race, said, “Maybe they could put an ad in Newsday.”

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