Nassau County Legis. David Denenberg's decision to plead guilty to federal mail fraud charges is likely to set off a scramble for his seat, in a district in which GOP voters outnumber Democrats.
Denenberg (D-Merrick), who has been charged with felony mail fraud, Thursday told a U.S. District Court judge he will plead guilty Jan. 21. At that point, his legislative seat will become vacant, according to state law.
The county charter requires a special election to be held within 60 days of a legislative vacancy.
Political leaders say it's too early to say who will be nominated to compete in the special election next year to replace Denenberg, a lawmaker who has represented the 19th District since 2000.
Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello and Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs each said Thursday they'd want a candidate in place shortly after the seat becomes vacant.
Mondello said the district is populated by fiercely independent residents who do not always vote according to their party enrollment. "I think we have a good shot," Mondello said of the special election. "I give us a 50-50 chance."
Jacobs said several people he wouldn't identify expressed interest in running. "We would be the underdogs in the race," he said. "It's certainly going to be an uphill battle."
County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, will select a date for special elections to fill the seats vacated by Denenberg and Legis. Michael Venditto (R-Massapequa), who will step down Jan. 1. Venditto beat Denenberg in the 8th State Senate district last month.
The 19th District stretches from Freeport to Seaford, and for much of Denenberg's tenure voter enrollment was closely split between major parties.
But after a GOP-led redistricting process last year, Republicans have an enrollment advantage of 5,658 voters over Democrats, according to Nassau Board of Elections records. The district has 22,355 registered Republicans, 16,697 Democrats and 12,270 voters unaffiliated with any political party.
Denenberg has been one of the county's most vocal and independent lawmakers. He sponsored bills to protect parks and provide funding for sewage treatment plants. He was the lone Democrat to vote in favor of allowing a 2011 ballot referendum on whether to spend up to $400 million to build a new Nassau Coliseum. The referendum failed.
"He brought a lot of knowledge about the environment and infrastructure," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "For the Democrats, he showed they could win in Republican areas if a candidate was obsessively focused on the everyday needs of constituents."
With Legis. Ellen Birnbaum (D-Great Neck) barred from the Democratic caucus after making racially derogatory comments, the minority will be left with only six members after Denenberg's seat becomes vacant. Including Venditto, who is in a heavily Republican district, there are 11 GOP legislators.
"That's extremely difficult, obviously," said Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), of a reduced minority. "Our agenda is different than those of the majority and administration, and having to do that with six members, it limits our ability to generate compromise in many ways."