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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Suffolk Democratic leader pays his party's bills, again

Babylon Supervisor and Democratic Committee Chairman Richard Schaffer

Babylon Supervisor and Democratic Committee Chairman Richard Schaffer speaks on Nov. 5, 2013. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer is again dipping into his own pocket to help pay his party's bills.

Late last month, the party leader called a special meeting of the county committee, which authorized him to borrow up to $500,000 to help finance "party affairs and business."

While the resolution makes no mention of the lender, Schaffer, also the Babylon Town supervisor, said last week he already had given the party an $80,000 "no interest loan" to help the committee get through Election Day.

Schaffer called the borrowing authorization a "safety net" to assure that Democrats have the necessary money for key county and town races, and said he didn't expect to come near the $500,000 limit. He said he may ask several other party donors to provide temporary help, but declined to identify them.

"We just want to make sure we have the funds for all our mail and canvassing plans," Schaffer said.

Republicans say the move shows Democrats are willing to plunge deeper into debt to maintain control of the county.

"It seems the Democrats can't get away from borrowing whether it's for party coffers or the county government," said Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, who heads the GOP legislative caucus and is in a heated and costly battle for re-election with Tim Sini, a Democrat and aide to County Executive Steve Bellone.

Schaffer countered that voters understand Bellone had made the tough decisions to lower the county budget deficit by cutting 1,000 jobs, privatizing county health centers and merging the comptroller and treasurer posts. Nonetheless, Schaffer expressed concern about possible low turnout in an off-year election with neither a presidential nor gubernatorial race to spur voter interest.

While off-year turnout normally ranges from 23 percent to 27 percent, Schaffer says he's worried about further potential declines, citing a 10 percent drop in Suffolk last year when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ran for re-election. Turnout was 35 percent compared with 45 percent four years earlier when Cuomo first ran, and last year he lost Suffolk County to Republican Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive.

To combat the problem, the party put canvassers in the field in mid-June instead of August, Schaffer said. According to campaign-finance filings, Suffolk Democrats in the last two months have already spent $670,000. Their 10-day post-primary report showed the party with only $96,811 on hand.

Exacerbating the cash-flow problem, Schaffer pushed back the party's fall dinner, which raises about $350,000, to Oct. 26 so the event would not clash with Bellone's $300-a-head re-election fundraiser this week.

While Schaffer, who makes $100,000 annually as county leader and $107,000 as town supervisor, has lent money to the party in the past, this is the first time the loans come during the height of the fall campaign season. Four years ago, Schaffer lent the party $200,000 shortly after Bellone was elected, after an accountant warned the party had to pay withholding taxes for the 650 temporary canvassers used in the campaign or face major penalties.

Schaffer in 2013 also lent the party $140,000 to help finance two special elections in which Southold Democrat Al Krupski was elected county legislator and former GOP Brookhaven Town Board member Kathleen Walsh lost a bid for town highway superintendent.

Former Suffolk Legis. Rick Montano, who led a faction of insurgent Islip Democrats in close but unsuccessful town primary races, criticized Schaffer for wasting money attacking fellow Democrats instead of Republicans.

"If he were CEO of a company, he'd be fired," said Montano.

Schaffer said the party only spent about $28,000 on the Islip primaries, but that keeping county Democrats competitive is largely up to him.

"It's part of my job to put our best foot forward and not leave anything to chance," he said.

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