Republicans deride him as “the accidental senator.” Democrats say he’s the trend of the future.
What they can agree on is this: State Sen. John Brooks is the Democratic incumbent Republicans are making the strongest bid to take out this November.
Elsewhere in the state, Senate Republicans are playing defense, worried about protecting incumbents in a handful of key districts in a bid to hold on to their 32-31 advantage in the chamber. But the race pitting Brooks (D-Seaford) against Republican Jeff Pravato, the mayor of Massapequa Park, differs from the others in that it is the one spot the GOP is playing offense.
“This may be the GOP’s best shot at flipping a Senate seat anywhere in the state,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “If the party is going to retain control of the Senate, this is almost a must win. And since both sides know this, it also may be one of the most competitive races.”
Brooks, a 68-year-old former insurance executive, scored a surprising win over incumbent Republican Michael Venditto in 2016 — prevailing by 314 votes out of about 137,000 cast. He had been viewed as a long shot, but got an enormous boost when Venditto’s father — John Venditto, then the Oyster Bay town supervisor — was indicted on corruption charges just three weeks before Election Day.
Though Michael Venditto wasn’t accused of wrongdoing, the name association was seen widely as the biggest influence on the race. After all, Brooks didn’t have much in the way of campaign funds — he was outspent 5-to-1. Further irking Republicans, the elder Venditto was later acquitted.
“I don’t think there anybody who doubts why (Brooks) won,” said Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island political consultant who generally works with Republicans but who isn’t involved in this race. “Nobody would have expected Venditto to lose if the indictment hadn’t come down.”
Now the question is will the South Shore district revert to its traditional Republican roots or will Brooks prevail through the power of incumbency and talk of a Democratic “blue wave” this fall?
Republicans say Brooks’ 2016 “fluke” victory won’t be repeated.
“He fell into it. Since then, he hasn’t done much for this area,” said Pravato, whose campaign website calls him a “common sense Republican.”
The 49-year-old was born in Rosedale, raised in Farmingdale, earned a bachelor’s degree from C.W. Post (now LIU-Post) and now is a married father of four. He worked on Wall Street for more than 20 years. Besides serving as Massapequa Park mayor (a part-time job), he works full time as Oyster Bay’s deputy commissioner for public works.
Pravato makes the same campaign argument that other Long Island Republicans make against their Senate foes: If Brooks wins and Democrats take the majority, they will be led by New York City Democrats, who form the bulk of the conference.
And every block of state government will be controlled by Democrats. Pravato contends the last time that happened (2009-10), Long Island schools and businesses suffered in the form of less state aid and the creation of the MTA payroll tax.
“We can’t have that again,” Pravato said.
Brooks was a Republican when he was nominated by the Democrats two years ago, but since switched his enrollment. The Seaford resident earned a bachelor’s degree from the New York Institute of Technology, served on the Seaford school board for six years and worked as a volunteer fireman for four decades. He has a son and a granddaughter.
Democrats contend Brooks is positioned solidly to win re-election and that he will be part of a Democratic “blue wave” that will give them the Senate. They say Long Island isn’t the GOP stronghold it used to be. They downplay Republican digs about Brooks winning only because of the Venditto indictment and see a parallel in another Island seat that turned over.
“That was the line they used about Kaminsky,” Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), said, referring to Democrat Todd Kaminsky winning a southwestern Nassau County seat after then-Sen. Dean Skelos, a Republican, was indicted. “That if Skelos hadn’t gone down, Kaminsky wouldn’t have won. Now Kaminsky has established himself” as an entrenched incumbent.
Gianaris, who spearheads the Democrats’ election strategy, argued that Brooks has distinguished himself on “tax relief” by backing numerous proposals, including one to cap the local share of school taxes, and has fought for Island interests and schools.
Strategically, while Republicans are trying to tie Brooks to city Democrats, he’s trying to tie Pravato to President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans — specifically the new tax law that caps federal deductions on local taxes paid.
“We already pay too much in taxes … now Republicans have taken away our local deductions,” reads one Brooks campaign flyer.
Despite being considered a Republican district, Democrats actually have a slight enrollment edge: approximately 85,000 to 74,000. Another 51,000 voters aren’t enrolled in any party and 10,000 are enrolled in minor parties. Nearly 80 percent are Nassau County residents; the rest are in Suffolk County.
Unlike 2016, Brooks has money. He’s raised nearly $250,000 since taking office in 2017 and had $182,000 on hand as of mid-July. Pravato raised $115,000 since joining the race this spring and has $69,000 on hand.
Both sides are promising aggressive ad campaigns as well as extensive door-to-door efforts. And each is talking confidently about winning.
“There never had been in history two Democratic senators from Nassau County and now we have that,” Gianaris said. “The trends are changing.”
Countered Pravato: “We are going to turn this around. We’re going to take this back.”