Suffolk Conservatives may have been buffeted by the loss of former party chairman Edward Walsh to a federal corruption conviction last year as well as a fractious party convention and court battle over his successor.
But coming into this campaign season, the minor party remains the tail that wags the dog.
That’s because the Suffolk Conservative ballot line, which draws 10 percent to 12 percent of the county vote, in a seesaw election can be the crucial margin of victory for either major party.
Only last week, the Conservatives’ clout was on display.
Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle at the last minute backed Conservative Tom Gargiulo for State Assembly while Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer declared he would sit out the race. Two weeks ago, the minor party also took the lead in screening nearly a dozen possible candidates from all parties for the powerful Suffolk district attorney post.
On Sunday, a half dozen Republican contenders for county sheriff also will go before Conservatives. They include State Sen. Philip Boyle of Bay Shore, Suffolk County Legis. Rob Trotta of Fort Salonga, and Assemb. Al Graf of Holbrook.
Three-term sheriff Vincent DeMarco, a Conservative, says he is seeking re-election, and is holding a fundraiser Thursday. He did not return calls about whether he will appear at the Sunday screening. Sources say DeMarco has been interviewed for a U.S. marshal’s job in the administration of President Donald Trump.
Doubts about DeMarco’s future arose in November when the Conservative executive committee unanimously expressed no interest in renominating him after his trial testimony against Walsh for illegally taking $200,000 in pay while he was golfing, gambling or politicking. LaValle and Schaffer publicly back DeMarco, who was cross-endorsed in the past, but would be relieved if he departs.
Despite backing Gargiulo for Assembly, LaValle finds his ties to Conservatives are frayed. LaValle is allied closely with Richard Johannesen, a former Conservative official who was part of a group that tried to unseat Frank Tinari as the party’s new chairman.
Conservatives also blame LaValle for the firing of party secretary Michael Torres from a $105,000-a-year job at the county Board of Elections. Torres’ axing, which has resulted in a federal lawsuit, came days after Conservatives in 2015 backed Democrat Stephen Ukeiley for District Court judge over Republican Tara Scully. As part of the deal, Torres’ father-in-law, Howard Heckman, got Democratic backing to run for State Supreme Court.
LaValle says common GOP-Conservative views on issues outweigh the problems.
“I think things will work out,” he said. “We have to elect like-minded people to change the direction of Suffolk County.”
While Conservatives usually align with Republicans, the minor party at times has backed Democrats, and not only in judicial races. DeMarco first won sheriff in 2005 when Democrats and the Independence Party backed him over GOP incumbent Alfred Tisch.
Interestingly, no Democrats will be at Sunday’s sheriff screening. Some say Democrats are more interested in the district attorney’s race and would let Conservatives pick the sheriff candidate if they back Schaffer’s DA choice.
Schaffer said he would like to talk to the minor party about upcoming races. “I think Conservatives want to work with a party that represents the middle class and knows how to win elections,” he said.
While most GOP contenders have law enforcement backgrounds, a wild card is Boyle, the 23-year state lawmaker, who may have the closest ties to the minor parties. His wife, Victoria, is former Islip leader of the Independence Party. Boyle also employs Walsh’s wife, Patricia, as a Senate case worker, at $80,233 a year. Before Walsh’s conviction last year, she made $55,211 annually.
Tinari said Sunday’s screening is just a start. “We’ve not made a decision on any candidate,” he said. “Right now, anything’s possible.”