When Suffolk Democrats held their spring dinner last week, party chairman Richard Schaffer took the time to introduce all candidates facing election this fall. Yet he failed to mention the one Democratic nominee, who is facing a special election for State Assembly in just 44 days: Christine Pellegrino.
Schaffer said he did not know Pellegrino was there, until he later saw her campaign literature on tables. “If I had known, I would have introduced her,” he said.
Pellegrino, 47, a teacher for nearly a quarter century who has battled the Common Core curriculum and led her local Opt Out movement, took no offense at the lapse, saying she left early for other campaign stops.
“My schedule is so busy,” said Pellegrino, of West Islip. “I’m staying focused on winning my race.”
While Pellegrino’s the Democratic nominee, Schaffer has taken the unusual step of recusing himself from the race. He says that is because he is a possible witness in a probe of a $100,000 teacher union donation in 2014 that he refused to accept because it was improperly earmarked for a specific candidate.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has ended his inquiry, which centered primarily on Mayor Bill de Blasio. Schaffer said the State Board of Elections may pursue the case, but the board declined to comment on its intentions.
Odder still, Conservative Tom Gargiulo, 59, who also has the GOP and Independence Party lines in the Assembly race, works as a part-time youth center monitor in Babylon Town, where Schaffer also is supervisor.
Schaffer is wooing Conservatives for a possible cross-endorsement for a county district attorney candidate, but says his neutrality in the Assembly race isn’t connected to those efforts.
“It’s outrageous that the chairman of the Democratic Party acts that way with Democratic candidates,” said Rick Montano, a former Suffolk legislator who had a similar issue with Schaffer as a State Senate nominee in 2012. “Schaffer makes deals for himself, not to protect the party.”
Republicans say Gargiulo has a strong edge in the 9th Assembly District that straddles the Nassau-Suffolk line.
The 9th has 38,893 GOP registered voters, 26,627 Democrats and 23,897 not aligned with any party. Former GOP Assemb. Joseph Saladino, who just left to become Oyster Bay supervisor, won last year with 68.7 percent, while President Donald Trump got 59.5 percent in the district.
But special elections, held when the public does not customarily vote, often draw as little as 5 to 10 percent turnout. And the May 23 contest will be the first time Democrats and others upset with Trump can show their displeasure.
Pellegrino believes she has an army of support from Opt Out parents. And she has the backing of New York United Teachers, which can spend money and bring out votes that can help in a small turnout race.
Pellegrino said: “It’s not just the Opt Out movement that’s energized. I’m getting grass-roots support from a broad-based coalition who have serious concerns.”
Gargiulo, a retired BOCES teacher and longtime coach in local school districts, says he also opposes Common Core and will press for funding to fight heroin and opioid abuse. Although Gargiulo, of Babylon Village, lost bids for town board in 2005 and 2011, he said he believes his community ties will help in the Suffolk part of the district. He also hopes support from officials including Saladino and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) will help him in Nassau.
Gargiulo said he will attend town Democrats’ April 20 fundraiser.
“She has the Democratic endorsement,” Gargiulo said of Pellegrino, “but Richie’s a good friend and I think a lot of Democrats support me.”
Schaffer said that if Pellegrino and Gargiulo both show up, he will introduce each. As for his vote, he said, “That’s between me and the machine.”