Throughout his career, Suffolk Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer has been practical to a fault.
But grass-roots progressives, celebrating last week at the upset special election victory by Assemb.-elect Christine Pellegrino, cited that fault in accusing Schaffer of being missing in action.
It was a race in which Republicans put up Conservative Tom Gargiulo, who works part time in Babylon, where Schaffer is supervisor. Gargiulo said during candidate screenings that he had Schaffer’s tacit support.
“Millions of Americans are scared of losing their health insurance and their rights,” said Bill Lipton, state Working Families Party director. “The progressive movement is fired up and winning. Working families want . . . leaders to stand up and defend us from Trump, not make deals or stand on the sidelines.”
Schaffer, who talked to Lipton a day after the 9th District election, said he was surprised by Lipton’s reaction.
“When people win they are usually happy, not angry,” Schaffer said. “They did a good job in this race but I told him we are going to have to work very hard next year to get her re-elected.”
Schaffer said he had to stand aside in the Assembly race because he could be called as a witness in a possible state election board lawsuit over New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s funneling money to Democratic State Senate candidates through county party committees.
Schaffer refused what would have been an illegal $100,000 donation from New York United Teachers that was earmarked to a specific Senate candidate. Critics call the rationale a smoke screen, but Schaffer said, “I know they minimize it, but I have my law license to protect.”
On a practical level, Schaffer had little reason to invest in the race. Republicans have a 12,000 voter enrollment edge in the district. And Assembly Democrats already hold an overwhelming majority and did not spend heavily on the race.
But complicating the situation is County Executive Steve Bellone, whose relations with Schaffer remain strained and who supported Pellegrino.
Earlier this month, Suffolk County Police Commissioner and district attorney candidate Timothy Sini skirted Schaffer to get the Working Families ballot line on his own. But Bellone downplayed any adverse impact on Schaffer due to his absence from the 9th District contest.
Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, who backed Pellegrino, said the race “created some difficulties” for Schaffer “and stretched some friendships. But Rich’s job is to craft the best scenario for the largest number of wins in November.”
Democrats have a slight enrollment edge in Nassau and Suffolk.
But Jacobs said Schaffer has a harder time because about 20 percent of unaligned voters in Suffolk lean Republican, compared with 7 percent in Nassau. “Rich needs to form alliances and craft different strategies to win,” Jacobs said.
Schaffer has made clear that his top priority this year is the race for Suffolk district attorney, in which for the first time in 28 years there will be no incumbent.
While the possibility of a Republican-Democratic cross-endorsement has stalled, Schaffer has been in talks for months with Conservative and Independence Party leaders to get their support for the Democrats’ district attorney candidate and in other key races.
Backers say Schaffer, who headed Democratic Party phone banks at age 13 when Republicans held a 2-to-1 enrollment edge in Suffolk, has led his party to control of the county legislature and county executive’s office.
Even Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who works mainly for Republicans, said Schaffer’s discipline has paid off.
“Rich Schaffer is brilliant at concentrating resources in places that are more important, and he doesn’t waste them in places that are hard to win,” Dawidziak said.