John Jay LaValle, after a decade at the helm of the Suffolk Republican Party, said Tuesday he will step down as party chairman March 18 to create a smooth transition for a new leader to run campaigns for county executive and other local offices this fall.
LaValle said he decided several months ago not to seek re-election as party leader but made his move after state legislative Democrats expedited the campaign schedule.
He said he sent an email letter to all 10 town leaders a day after the party named its county executive and legislative candidates Monday, “so that we can have continuity for races that we can win and will win.”
“It’s been a good run. We’re a helluva a lot better off now than when I got here,” said LaValle. “I never expected to be here this long, and I’m looking forward to some interesting challenges and opportunities in the future.”
LaValle declined to disclose his plans. But several party officials said they believed LaValle will have a role in President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, perhaps as a media surrogate as he did four years ago or with a group involved in independent political expenditures.
LaValle also has been mentioned as a possible state GOP leader. But he said he only would consider it if a vacancy occurred, and noted that GOP Chairman Edward Cox has indicated he plans to run again.
LaValle’s departure as Suffolk leader is likely to set off intense wrangling to succeed him.
GOP town chairs including Brookhaven’s Jesse Garcia, Toni Tepe of Huntington and Smithtown’s Bill Ellis all have expressed potential interest. Babylon Republican chief Anthony Pancella, Suffolk Off Track Betting Corp. vice president, also has expressed possibl interest, but could not be reached for comment.
During LaValle’s tenure, the Suffolk GOP reclaimed the first congressional district seat with the victory of Rep. Lee Zeldin of Shirley.
The GOP also won back Brookhaven and Islip towns. State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) became state Senate Majority Leader, although he lost the post after the Democratic tsunami last fall.
But Lavalle said the high point was his 2016 work on behalf of Trump’s presidential run.
“To participate directly in the election of a president, that’s the Super Bowl of politics,” LaValle said.
But Republicans, who once had a dominating 2-1 edge in voter enrollment in Suffolk, lag narrowly behind Democrats by 22,600 voters -- 333,005 to 310,405. And Democrats have controlled the county Legislature for the past 12 years.
LaValle also has had battles with Suffolk Conservatives. That led to the minor party’s alliances with Democrats that helped elect Timothy Sini as a Democratic district attorney, Errol Toulon Jr. as the county’s first African American sheriff and Theresa Whelan, Suffolk’s first Democratic Surrogate Judge in a century.
LaValle said he “took issue with Conservatives backing Democrats and I won’t be held hostage by any party.”
But Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, referring to LaValle’s battles with Conservatives, deadpanned, “I’m sad to see him go.”