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Special election Tuesday for former Denenberg seat on Nassau County Legislature

Democrat Rita Kestenbaum, 56, of Bellmore, faces Republican

Democrat Rita Kestenbaum, 56, of Bellmore, faces Republican Steven Rhoads, 46, also of Bellmore, in a special election Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in Nassau County's 19th Legislative District. Credit: Steve Pfost, Danielle Finkelstein

A special election Tuesday for the vacancy in Nassau County's 19th Legislative District pits a Democratic gun law activist who served on the Hempstead Town Board against a Republican who works as a personal injury attorney and serves as a captain in the Wantagh Fire Department.

On the campaign trail, Democrat Rita Kestenbaum, 56, of Bellmore, has touted her advocacy for victims of superstorm Sandy, which devastated the South Shore in 2012.

Republican Steven Rhoads, 46, also of Bellmore, has focused his campaign on holding down property taxes, which he says will prevent young people and seniors from fleeing the region.

The seat has been vacant since last month when the district's longtime legislator, Democrat David Denenberg of Merrick, resigned after pleading guilty to felony mail fraud. He faces sentencing in May.

The district has 22,355 registered Republicans, 16,697 Democrats and 12,270 voters unaffiliated with any party, according to the county elections board. It includes Bellmore, Freeport, Merrick, North Bellmore, North Merrick, Seaford and Wantagh.

Rhoads, a lawyer at Grey & Grey in Farmingdale, said holding the line on property taxes and addressing the high cost of living in Nassau are the key issues in his campaign.

"It's a message that resonates because it affects so many people's life experiences," Rhoads said. "It's a struggle for so many families to make Nassau their home."

Rhoads said he wants to use tax incentives from the county's Industrial Development Agency to persuade health care and pharmaceutical companies to relocate to Nassau.

Rhoads, who ran unsuccessfully against Denenberg in 2005 and 2013, has been deputy bureau chief at the Nassau County attorney's office. He has been on the county's Open Space & Parks Advisory Committee since 2006.

Kestenbaum served on the Hempstead Town Board from 1999 to 2000.

She became a gun control activist after her daughter, Carol, a sophomore at Arizona State University in Tempe, and a friend were murdered in 2007 after returning to their off-campus home from a birthday party. The women were killed by Arizona State student Joshua Mendel, who then took his own life. Police said Carol had advised a friend to stop dating Mendel.

Kestenbaum runs a nonprofit foundation she started in her daughter's memory to assist troubled youths.

Kestenbaum said she wants to hold down property taxes, fix the county's property tax assessment system and help home and business owners impacted by Sandy get reimbursements they're due from the state and private insurance companies.

"It's about time that people in this district got the money they are owed," said Kestenbaum, who said her home sustained about $100,000 in damage in the storm. "This is something we all went through together."

Rhoads, who lives near Kestenbaum, said his home sustained about $15,000 in damage from Sandy.

Kestenbaum is backed by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and former Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, of Mineola. Rhoads is endorsed by the Nassau Police Benevolent Association and the Sheriff's Corrections Officer Benevolent Association.

Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello called Rhoads a "pragmatic and practical" candidate who is "highly thought of in the community."

The party, he said, has sent out mailings, made automated telephone calls and put up lawn signs to support Rhoads.

But Mondello said he expects a close race because the district has a history of supporting Democrats. "I give us a 50-50 chance," he said.

Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs called Kestenbaum the underdog because of the GOP's enrollment advantage. But he said if voters look past party affiliation and focus on the issues, Kestenbaum should be able to win.

"Rita has deep roots in the community," Jacobs said. "She's an articulate, tough, straight-shooting candidate."

Democrats largely sat on the sidelines in last month's special election in the 12th District, in which the GOP candidate James Kennedy easily defeated Democrat Joseph Stufano.

But they are active in the 19th District race. The party has sent out 12 pieces of campaign mail and made hundreds of calls to voters, Jacobs said. Nonetheless, turnout is expected to be low, between 4 percent and 6 percent, he said.

Kestenbaum has raised $5,709 to date, said her campaign spokesman Andrew Mulvey.

Rhoads has raised $6,500, including $2,500 from the Wantagh GOP Committee and $1,000 from Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), according to state Board of Elections records.

The winner of the special election will serve through the end of the year and can seek a full term in November.

Republicans hold an 11-7 advantage in the legislature.

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