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Suffolk Surrogate's race highlights Bellone-Schaffer rift

Suffolk County Democratic voters soon will get a flood of campaign mailers in the normally obscure judicial race after a political cross-endorsement deal fell apart.

Republican Tara Scully, left, and Democrat Theresa Whelan

Republican Tara Scully, left, and Democrat Theresa Whelan are candidates for Suffolk surrogate judge. Photo Credit: Composite photos: Richard T. Slatery, left; James Escher

Democratic voters in Suffolk County will soon find their mailboxes flooded with campaign mailers in the normally obscure race for Suffolk County Surrogate's judge, which this year features a hard-fought contest between Republican Tara Scully and Democrat Theresa Whelan.

The reason? In the ongoing feud between Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and county Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, the last-minute entrance of Scully, with Bellone's backing, upended a judicial cross-endorsement deal engineered by Schaffer.

The rivalry between Schaffer and Bellone has been an undercurrent in Suffolk County politics over the past five years, as they have maneuvered in proxy wars over candidates and policy. 

Bellone's move in the Surrogate's race represented his most direct challenge yet to Schaffer.

Scully's entry into the Surrogate's race forced Schaffer to abandon his plan to give the Democratic line to Conservative Marian Tinari, a District Court judge who is married to Suffolk Conservative Party chairman Frank Tinari. Instead, Schaffer substituted Whelan, a Democratic Family Court judge, as the party designee. 

Since the switch, Bellone has backed away from involvement in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, aides said.

Jon Kaiman, a deputy county executive and political adviser of Bellone's, said, "Since the candidates have been changed out, the county executive is not endorsing in the primary."

Kaiman, a former North Hempstead Town supervisor, said Bellone, "believes there should be significant reform in the judicial process and how judges are selected. He was frustrated with the original setup. To some extent it is mission accomplished. At this point, he’s taking a step back and evaluating the circumstances.”

Kaiman said Bellone has not thought about whether he'll be active in the general election race. Bellone, through Kaiman, declined to comment for this story.

But Schaffer isn't taking the race for granted. He is so mistrustful that Bellone won't become involved in the race he's pushing ahead with an unprecedented $150,000 primary campaign to elect Whelan.

"I’m always prepared for anything from the Bellone-North Hempstead crew," said Schaffer, referring to the hometown of a number of Bellone staffers who work on his governmental and political team.

Schaffer called Bellone's bid to insert himself into the Surrogate's race, "a really uninformed, ridiculous move."

Bellone and his staff "don't want to pay attention to what they're supposed to do," Schaffer said. "The county executive is elected to pay attention to the government, not the politics of the party."

The primary is the first round in the two-part fight.

No matter who wins the Sept. 13 primary, Scully and Whelan will be on the ballot in November. Scully already has the Republican, Green and Reform Party lines, while Whelan has the Independence Party line.

Conservative Deborah Poulos has the Conservative line, though she could be replaced when party delegates meet in late September to pick Supreme Court nominees. Scully's campaign has challenged Whelan not to accept the Conservative line if it's offered to her. Whelan's campaign declined to respond.

The scramble for the Surrogate's job stems in part from the horse trading between the major and minor parties over endorsements. The minor party ballot lines can mean the difference in a close race. 

Schaffer earlier this year struck a cross-endorsement deal for nine judgeships with Conservatives and Independence Party leaders.

Under that arrangement, the Democratic line for the coveted Surrogate's Court job, with the power to assign lucrative legal work involving guardianships and the processing of wills, would have gone to Tinari, who dropped out after Scully filed her petitions. 

In exchange, four Democratic candidates would have been cross-endorsed by the minor parties for state Supreme Court seats, Schaffer said last week. Through the judgeships, Democrats also likely would have gotten law clerk jobs and secretary jobs in the court system, Schaffer said.

Suffolk Republicans, who were not part of the cross-endorsement deal, originally nominated Damon Hagan, a former Southampton GOP chairman. Hagan declined the nomination after Scully entered the race, and the party now backs Scully.  

Scully, daughter of Bellone Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, made a surprise entry into the race in July, submitting 6,000 signatures on the last day possible to get on both the Democratic and Republican lines.

Bellone at the time released a statement supporting Scully, a former chairwoman of the Suffolk County Women's Bar Association. Scully once ran for District Court but lost narrowly without Conservative Party backing.

Bellone praised Scully for having the “courage to step forward and challenge the status quo." Referring to political party leaders, he said, "The political deal making has gone too far and when it comes to our judiciary, they have crossed the line."

Despite Bellone's stated neutrality in the Democratic primary, Schaffer has prepared a $150,000 budget for the race, with funding for seven separate mailings to primary voters and a social media campaign. It's an unprecedented campaign for a Suffolk judicial race, Schaffer said. All Suffolk Democratic legislators and town leaders have endorsed Whelan.

The first letter from Whelan to Democratic voters began hitting mailboxes two weeks ago.

"With Donald Trump in the White House, we cannot hesitate to act on our beliefs," Whelan, 56, of Wading River, wrote. "You can vote for me, a lifelong Democrat and experienced judge, or my opponent, a proud registered Republican with no judicial experience."

Scully declined to comment for this story. But her spokesman James Walsh said the race is "not about political parties. It's about integrity and defending the judicial selection process that continues to be rigged by political party leaders"

Walsh continued, "The inconvenient truth is six weeks ago, the Democratic Party of Suffolk County gathered signatures to make a Conservative the candidate of the Democratic Party. So attempting now to rally the troops because there’s a Republican in the race rings kind of hollow."

Scully, 41, of Setauket, who has a Port Jefferson practice in elder law, trusts, estates and guardianships, announced her candidacy in a letter to Newsday on July 10. She had worked in Gov. George Pataki's administration and for the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County. 

Scully's most recent state fundraising report shows she spent more than $60,000 collecting signatures on nominating petitions. She loaned her campaign $15,000 and borrowed $30,000 from her father. Scully had her first campaign fundraiser Wednesday.

Whelan, the supervising judge of the Suffolk County Family Court, declined in an interview to discuss the politics of the race, but said she's "looking forward to presenting my credentials" as a judge for over 10 years. She has raised $7,300, according to her campaign finance report.

Schaffer and Bellone, who grew up on the same Babylon street together, began feuding not long after Bellone took office in 2012.

Schaffer said Bellone right off the bat produced a list of individuals he wanted removed from county politics and government, which Schaffer viewed as unnecessarily combative.

For his part, Bellone has expressed frustration that Schaffer is unwilling to change how Suffolk government and politics works. Bellone has expressed particular dissatisfaction with how candidates for office are selected.

Despite the feud with Bellone and Schaffer's resistance to efforts by liberal activists to join the Suffolk County Democratic Committee earlier this year, Schaffer is poised   to win another two-year term as leader at the party's county convention Sept. 27.

Only a handful of the hundreds of Democratic committee members will face primaries next month, after speculation that progressives or Bellone would push for more control of the county party.

Kaiman said Bellone never considered mounting challenges to party committeemen and women at the Suffolk Democratic convention.

John Jay LaValle, the county Republican chairman who's backing Scully, said the Surrogate's race "is going to highlight some of the ongoing problems in our judiciary."

In cross-endorsement deals between Democrats, Conservatives and Independence parties, Democrats have supported "ultraconservative" judges while Conservatives have backed liberal judges, LaValle said.

"There's a lot of frustration in both camps by these unnatural alliances," LaValle said.

SUFFOLK COUNTY SURROGATE'S COURT JUDGE

Salary: $208,000

Term: 10 years

Duties: The Surrogate's Court handles all issues involving wills and the estates of the deceased. The court also handles cases involving unclaimed property of the dead who had no will, as well as guardianships and adoptions.

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