Vincent Messina, a veteran Republican elections lawyer, is running unopposed for...

Vincent Messina, a veteran Republican elections lawyer, is running unopposed for Suffolk County Surrogate's Court in November. Credit: James Escher

Vincent Messina, the Suffolk County Bar Association president and a veteran Republican election lawyer, will run unopposed in November for Suffolk County Surrogate's Court to replace Surrogate's Judge Theresa Whelan, who stepped down because of illness.

Messina will have the backing of the Republican and Conservative parties on the November ballot. Democrats have not nominated a candidate.

Messina is seeking a 10-year term.

The surrogate's judge oversees wills and estates, as well as adoptions and care of those who are incapacitated.

The judge has the power to assign lucrative guardianships and other legal work.

“It is an extra-extraordinary opportunity,” Messina told Newsday. “That area of the law has been part of my practice for a very long time. It's a great honor to have been asked to run.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, criticized the lack of ballot options.

“Voters once again have been denied any choice," Bellone said in a statement Tuesday night.

"Our current method for selecting Judges is an insult and must be replaced with a system designed to produce a truly independent judiciary, something that is critical to our democracy,“ Bellone said.

Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer responded that Bellone has "been saying that for years and has never done anything to get the state to change the laws. All he knows how to do is criticize.”

Messina, 60, of Holbrook, is a former Islip Town attorney.

His Sayville law firm, Messina Perillo Hill, has been hired by state Republicans, Suffolk County and Brookhaven Town to serve as counsel in the redrawing of election districts.

Messina also represented the Suffolk County Conservative Party in its fight with a dissident faction that opposed the 2016 reelection bid of Frank Tinari as county Conservative chairman.

“Anyone that has come in contact with Vincent Messina will describe him as one of the brightest legal minds in the state — someone that practices with integrity, transparency and fairness,” Suffolk GOP chairman Jesse Garcia told Newsday. 

The surrogate campaign this year contrasts sharply with the race in 2018, when backlash to a cross-endorsement deal for the post touched off a contentious fight.

Republican Tara Scully entered the race on the last possible day, upending a deal to cross-endorse Conservative Marian Tinari negotiated by Schaffer and Republican and Conservative party leaders.

Tinari, the wife of Frank Tinari, withdrew from the race and Scully lost to Whelan in a Democratic primary and in the general election.

Schaffer said no Democrat came forward to run this year given the short period of time since Whelan's resignation on June 30.

“The combination of such a short time period and the fact that he [Messina] is a reputable lawyer — most lawyers in the county know him to be very fair, objective and qualified — that wasn't a race that we were going to focus on,” Schaffer told Newsday.

Whelan, a Democrat, has been suffering from a serious illness, according to her husband, state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan.

Whelan said his wife, a former Supreme Court clerk and Family Court judge, took steps to modernize the Surrogate's Court, including institution of an alternative dispute resolution program to help participants avoid going to trial.

“She brought some of that Supreme Court knowledge and Family Court knowledge to the Surrogate's Court to try to make things a little quicker and move things faster,” Thomas Whelan told Newsday.

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