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Sam Gonzalez, Maria Vidal face off in Suffolk legislature special election

Gonzalez, a Democrat, and Vidal, a Republican, are running in Tuesday's special election to fill the vacant seat in the Suffolk County Legislature's Ninth District.

Suffolk County Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer, seen Nov.

Suffolk County Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer, seen Nov. 8, 2018, said one of the challenges of the election will be getting people out to vote. Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman

Both contenders in the March 19 special election to fill Suffolk's 9th Legislative District seat once held by state Sen. Monica Martinez tout their past experience in arguing they have the best credentials for the job.

Democrat Sam Gonzalez points to his years as a labor leader — the last five as president of the 1,200-member IBEW Local 1430 in Westchester County — and his experience dealing with problems facing working people.

“I’ve been a union guy for more than 30 years,” said Gonzalez, 57, of Brentwood. “The experience I have in negotiating contracts and improving peoples' salaries and working conditions will help me move the community forward.”

Republican Maria Vidal, 49, a manager for the nonprofit advocacy group Pronto, says she has closer ties to the community due to her experience dealing with local problems. She also cites her background as a first-generation immigrant from El Salvador who came to the United States in 1988 to escape oppression.

“As an immigrant, I understand their situation and problems and I want to be their voice,” said Vidal of North Bay Shore.

Tuesday’s special election will fill the vacant seat in the 9th District, which includes North Bay Shore, Central Islip and Brentwood. It is one of two legislative districts in Suffolk where minority candidates have the best chance of winning seats.

Both campaigns said they expect light turnout — 5 percent to 10 percent — because of the timing of vote.

The district has 20,954 registered Democrats, 4,511 Republicans and 8,967 voters who are not aligned with any political party.

Because of the lopsided Democratic enrollment, Republicans have put up their own candidate only once since 2003. That was in 2017, when Martinez defeated Republican Hugh King with nearly 81 percent of the vote.

But Andy Wittman, Vidal’s campaign manager, said Vidal's personal story makes her a viable contender.

“This is not about Republican or Democrat," said Wittman. "Maria, as an immigrant, has the best ability to connect with the largest voting bloc of the district, which is 70 percent Hispanic — many of them from Central and South America,” Wittman said.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), minority caucus leader, said Vidal “is an incredibly special person and her story, which started in El Salvador, is heroic and inspiring. She … faced violence and hardship that really built in her a tremendous character."

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said Gonzalez's “community roots, his involvement helping people and knowledge of the issues make him the superior candidate and a natural to replace Monica.” The challenge is to turn out the party’s own supporters to vote, Schaffer said.

Both candidates say they want to fight for funds for downtown revitalization, improve local parks and programs for youth, deal with the illegal drug problem and combat gangs such as MS-13.

“If we have programs in the schools, for kids, they won’t be going on the street,” said Gonzalez.

He said he also wants to improve enforcement so there’s no more dumping like what occurred at the Roberto Clemente Park. In 2014, Suffolk officials discovered that more than 40,000 tons of contaminated construction debris had been illegally dumped on the park’s soccer fields and in a drainage basin.

“I’ve got a big mouth — I don’t consider myself a politician, but a public advocate,” Gonzalez said.

Vidal said she wants to cut red tape to help speed up redevelopment of dilapidated housing and increase the number of bilingual police officers to improve relations with the community.

Republicans originally had put up Vidal’s husband, Manuel, a 20-year county public works foreman to run in the contest. He dropped out of the race within days out of concern there was "no guarantee” he could get a leave of absence from his job or that he wouldn't be transferred if elected, Maria Vidal said.

She said she decided to run because “party affiliation should not be the benchmark used to determine the most qualified candidate.”

Jason Elan, a country spokesman, said in a statement, "The County has limited personnel and cannot afford its employees to take a leave of absence to pursue other career opportunities." 

As of his 11-day pre-election campaign finance filing, Gonzalez had raised $20,089 — not counting $5,100 he returned to Heartland Town Square developer Gerald Wolkoff — and spent $2,485. Democrats in their last campaign finance filing also reported spending $19,940 on Gonzalez’s campaign.

Gonzalez said he expects to send a total of three campaign mailings to district residents.

Vidal has raised $5,250 and spent $3,851, Wittman said Vidal is sending out one mailing to about 5,000 voters.

No matter the outcome of Tuesday’s election, a rematch is already in the making, as Gonzalez and Vidal have been nominated by their parties to run for a full term in November.

Conservative Party member Anne Wiggins, of Central Islip, also is on the special election ballot but is not campaigning actively.

SAM GONZALEZ

Democrat

Age: 57

Home: Brentwood

Education/career: Attended Boricua College; graduate of the New York State AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University; president of IBEW Local 1430 president since 2014; 36-year labor organizer; candidate for Islip Town Board, 2018; Democratic primary candidate for state Assembly, 2012

Family: Married with two children

MARIA VIDAL

Republican

Age: 49

Home: North Bay Shore

Education/career: Attended Suffolk County Community College; certification as a nursing assistant from Stony Brook University; program director for Pronto, a nonprofit group, since 2014

Family: Married with two children

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