Democrats in Nassau are facing their most challenging electoral landscape in many years.
This fall, they'll try to hold on to their last levers of county-level power: the district attorney's office and the ability to bargain when the Republican-led county legislature needs a supermajority for borrowing.
To do so, the party will need to fend off longtime Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, the Republican running for district attorney against the office's acting top prosecutor, Democrat Madeline Singas, and beat back the GOP effort to pick off at least one of the Democrats' seven legislative seats.
The Democrats already have little legislative clout and the 12-member GOP majority routinely rejects their bills and requests for hearings. If the GOP picks up one more seat, Democrats will lose the ability to obtain concessions in exchange for providing the 13th vote needed to borrow money, for which the county charter requires a two-thirds majority.
Nassau Democrats are in this position despite an enrollment edge of about 44,000 voters: 361,626 to 317,784, with 210,851 voters unaffiliated with a major political party, according to the county Board of Elections.
And they have little money. The county Democratic Committee has $182,000 on hand while the Nassau GOP has $1.35 million, according to the most recent state election board filings.
"While not as powerful as it once was, the Nassau GOP still has a greater level of organization, can frame the issues and get out the vote," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies.
Uphill fight on turnout
Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works primarily with Republicans, said the Democrats' challenge is to increase turnout in a year with no federal or state elections, and with noncompetitive races in the county's three towns.
"It would be very significant," Dawidziak said of the party losing its 10-year grasp on the district attorney's office.
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant from Manhattan, said, "Democrats have to prove that they can, frankly, hold on."
The GOP also will feel some pressure, he said, because, "They are running a well-known elected official against an unelected, temporary DA. The Republicans have to prove they still have enough muscle to organize turnout and beat someone never elected to anything."
County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs declined to discuss what this next election will mean for his party's future.
"I'll leave to others to judge -- they do that well," Jacobs said. "Those of us who have to be in the battle and raise the money and find the candidates and develop the strategy, we're the ones that have to go out there every day doing the job."
A decade ago, Nassau Democrats were at their peak, after decades in which they had held no countywide elected seats.
Democrat Kathleen Rice in 2005 upset Republican District Attorney Denis Dillon, a 30-year incumbent. Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi and county Comptroller Howard Weitzman, each of whom had taken office in 2002, were re-elected, and the Democrats kept control of the county legislature, which they had taken for the very first time in 1999.
But the slide began in 2009, when Republican Edward Mangano beat Suozzi, Weitzman lost to the GOP's George Maragos and Republican legislators narrowly regained a majority of seats.
The GOP extended its majority in 2013 and again this March, when Republican Steven Rhoads, a lawyer who lives in Bellmore, won a special election for the seat vacated by David Denenberg (D-Merrick), who was convicted of theft.
The district attorney's office remains one of the few Democratic strongholds. Rice held it for nine years before being elected to Congress last year. Singas, her chief deputy, took over in January.
GOP targets key seat
Besides running Murray for district attorney, Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello also is targeting Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) in an effort to claim the party's first legislative supermajority since 1999. DeRiggi-Whitton's district has 19,314 registered Democrats and 13,421 Republicans, the smallest margin of any Democratic district. Nearly 12,000 voters are not enrolled in any major party.
Republican Matthew Connolly, a former Nassau prosecutor from Glen Cove, will face DeRiggi-Whitton in November.
"On paper it's our best shot," Mondello said. "It's tough but we're absolutely going to make a play for the supermajority."
DeRiggi-Whitton said she feels pressure to deny Republicans the 13th legislative vote.
"I feel a little breathing down my neck," she said. "But it can also motivate you. I am fully aware of my position and have been preparing for it."
But as they try to deny the GOP the supermajority and to hold onto the district attorney's seat, county Democrats are experiencing internal divisions.
Jacobs is feuding with Long Beach Democratic chairman Michael Zapson over party operations and with Rice over a politically charged 2013 elections case. Jacobs and Zapson are backing competing slates of candidates for Long Beach City Council, triggering a primary.
"It's not hard to be competitive and to develop candidates and messaging," Zapson said of Jacobs. "But he is doing nothing to win elections. His emphasis is to maintain control of the party."
Jacobs called Zapson "a self-serving leader" who doesn't represent Democratic values.
Jacobs and Rice have also been feuding, since 2013, when Rice declined to file criminal charges against then-Police Commissioner Thomas Dale -- as Jacobs had wanted. Dale ordered officers to arrest a witness in a ballot dispute on an unrelated misdemeanor warrant. The witness, Randy White, was then served with a subpoena in the civil elections case while in police custody.
A key sign of the infighting is the frequency of primaries.
In 2013, Suozzi beat East Hills businessman Adam Haber in a county executive primary; the next year, Rice defeated Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) in a primary for the 4th Congressional District.
In September, former Manhattan prosecutor Michael Scotto will challenge Singas in the district attorney primary. In Long Beach, five Democrats are in the primary for three council seats."We've seen a lot of infighting across the county," said Weitzman, now a consultant to the Town of North Hempstead. "The Republicans seem to have more discipline than we do."
Mondello said GOP candidates are encouraged to be patient when seeking office, biding their time for vacancies. "Democrats have an 'every man for themselves' attitude," he said.
But Jacobs said Nassau politics are cyclical and voters soon will look for alternatives to the entrenched Republicans.
"I think the party in power oversteps, which is what you're seeing now, and the public tires and looks for something new," Jacobs said. "Then we have to be ready to offer that viable alternative."