For more than two decades, Tony Santino in large measure has been the voice of the Nassau Republican Committee as its spokesman.
Now the county GOP has put forward Santino, 54, to run for town supervisor in Hempstead, Long Island's largest town and the heart of Nassau Republican power.
"It was the most difficult decision I ever had to make as chairman," said Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello, for whom Santino not only has been a spokesman, but his closest adviser, strategist and confidant for the past 28 years. "But becoming supervisor had been his dream for a lot of years."
Santino recalled that when it became clear that current supervisor Kate Murray would run for Nassau district attorney, Mondello told him, "You're up. Start warming up in the bullpen."
Santino has been on the Hempstead Town Board for 22 years and is its senior member. The East Rockaway native won his last election in the 4th District with more than 70 percent of the vote. In his early years as a board member, he ran townwide before a federal court required the town to form local districts.
"He's got an excellent mind and a feel for what people want and need," Mondello said. "And governmentally he knows the things that should be done."
Jay Jacobs, Nassau Democratic chairman, said the party, which will hold its convention May 27 at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, has yet to pick a candidate to challenge Santino. Jacobs said he is talking to Uniondale attorney Laura Gillen, who has run unsuccessfully for county clerk, and Malverne Mayor Patricia Norris-McDonald, wife of NYPD officer Steven McDonald, who was left a quadriplegic after a shooting in 1986.
Jacobs concedes Hempstead is "a tough town" for Democrats to win, but said Santino could suffer fallout from the recent federal corruption charges against former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). "I don't minimize the impact of the Skelos controversy," Jacobs said.
Santino counters that neither he nor Mondello has ever been tarred by scandal.
Santino first went to to work for Mondello, when he was Hempstead supervisor, at age 26 after working in Washington, D.C., for former GOP Rep. Norman Lent. After six years in the town, Santino began working for Mondello at party headquarters and has remained there ever since. He declined to say how much he earns with the party, but he makes $70,000 a year on the town board. He said he would be taking a pay cut in the $160,000-a-year job as supervisor.
Santino had wanted to run for supervisor 12 years ago, but Mondello decided to put forward Murray, then town clerk, even though Santino was a more senior official. Mondello said he chose Murray because she was Irish Catholic and a woman.
It was a time when Democrats controlled the Nassau County Legislature and the county executive's office, and Republicans were dealing with the impact of the federal court order mandating individual districts.
"It was a time of crisis for the Republican Party -- do or die," said Mondello, adding that he could not afford to lose Santino's political talents. "It was the wrong time for Tony to leave Republican headquarters."
Some suggest Santino's run may mean that Mondello, 77, may be getting ready to retire. But the GOP leader of 33 years says he has no plans to step down and already is interviewing for Santino's job.
However, Mondello said he doubts anyone will fully fill Santino's shoes.
"I couldn't duplicate him in a million years," said Mondello. "It got to the point, he knew what I'm thinking and I know what he's thinking. . . . He's the best employee decision I ever made."