Jesse Garcia was elected Suffolk County Republican chairman Wednesday night, saying the GOP is “poised for resurrection” to win back county government by relying on grassroots committee members from each town.
Garcia's election came in an hourlong special convention before an overflow crowd at the small Islip GOP headquarters in Bay Shore. It was, in part, a pep rally, where 200 party faithful filled the seats, choked the aisle and flowed out the door.
“Our committee people … are first among equals. They are on the front lines and tell us what’s going on,” said Garcia in his acceptance speech. “Wherever a Republican is elected, they would not be there if not for the work that you do…we are electing more and more Republicans every year and we are going to keep doing it in 2019.”
Garcia, GOP chairman in Brookhaven Town for the past 12 years, replaces John Jay LaValle, who stepped down last month after a decade as county chairman. Garcia will retain his town GOP post and will have to run for a full two-year term as Suffolk leader after the June 25 primaries.
Garcia was accompanied by his wife, Diane, and son J. Alex, at the convention Wednesday night. His speech was interrupted several times with applause, and he received a standing ovation at the end of it.
“I am a pragmatic, tenacious campaigner and believe elections are won door to door,” he said, adding “I believe in building bridges and building coalitions,” alluding to working with minor parties.
He said Republicans will succeed this year because “we have a leader who is driving our county into debt and driving business away.”
Garcia also introduced Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy, who is running for county executive in November. Kennedy praised Garcia and promised “to put together a county government that responds and will right a failing ship, because right now we have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.”
In a county GOP often affected by shifting alliances among town leaders, Garcia will be the first county chairman in two decades to hold both the town and county leadership roles. The last to do that was the late John Powell, who resigned in 1998 when he faced federal corruption charges on which he was convicted. The only other GOP leader to hold both roles was W. Kingsland Macy in the 1940s and '50s.
“Jesse is very capable,” said Smithtown GOP chairman Bill Ellis. “He has learned the business well, has a good demeanor and is someone who can work with all 10 town leaders, which at times can be difficult.”
A three-decade political veteran, Garcia worked as a GOP campaign manager, Brookhaven Town chief of staff and an aide to former GOP Rep. Felix Grucci before taking over as Brookhaven Town leader. He has worked since 2003 as a $138,138-a-year GOP Hispanic outreach coordinator at the Suffolk County Board of Elections.
Garcia’s biggest challenges include raising funds for a county GOP organization whose coffers are bare, and reviving relationships with minor parties LaValle had clashed with in recent years.
Republicans also have fallen behind Democrats in voter enrollment, 327,607 to 304,199.
As Brookhaven Republican chairman, Garcia recaptured control of the town board and the town supervisor and highway superintendent positions after the party had lost control in 2005 in the wake of corruption scandals.
Republicans, meanwhile, regained the 1st Congressional District seat with the election of Lee Zeldin. They also won back the county legislative seat held for 12 years by Democrat Kate Browning, with the election of Rudolph Sunderman, Mastic’s fire chief.
However, Garcia was unable to hold onto the open 3rd District State Senate seat won last year by Democrat Monica Martinez.