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Suffolk Democrats name Whelan to run for Suffolk surrogate judge

Theresa Whelan, supervising judge of Family Court, in

Theresa Whelan, supervising judge of Family Court, in Hauppauge on May 22, 2017. Credit: James Escher

The exit of Tinari — who was the keystone to a nine-judge cross-endorsement deal among the Democratic, Conservative and the Independence parties — sets up a party primary where Republican Tara Scully will have to run against the veteran Democrat.

Suffolk Republicans assured Scully a place on the November ballot Thursday, by naming her to replace the GOP’s original surrogate nominee, Damon Hagan. That could put her into a position to have both major-party ballot lines if she wins the Democratic primary.

Whelan, 56, of Wading River, has been a family court judge for the past decade and earlier spent more than 17 years as law clerk for several state Supreme Court justices in Nassau and Suffolk. And she, like Scully, has served as former president of the Suffolk Women’s Bar Association.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, disclosed the selection in an email sent out Wednesday morning to about 1,100 committee members, elected officials and candidates. “Judge Whelan is facing a primary from a lifelong Republican who has never served on the bench . . . and has a long track record of supporting Republican candidates and causes,” Schaffer said.

Whelan declined to comment on the politics surrounding the race, but said she “looked forward to presenting my credentials, reputation and dedication to Democratic voters.”

Scully “is appreciative of the designation,” said James Walsh, who late Thursday became her official campaign spokesman. “The race is not about political parties, it's about the integrity of the surrogate's court and keeping it free of political influence.”

But Schaffer said the GOP move to anoint Scully as their candidate, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s endorsement of the daughter of one of his top deputies, proves the county executive and Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle “are in cahoots” on her candidacy. “They don’t want any competition or give voters any choice, and that was always their plan,” he said.

LaValle countered that Schaffer only turned to Whelan after “desperately begging” six other judges to run and being rebuffed. He also called “laughable” claims he and Bellone are working together. “There’s been no discussions whatsoever,” he said, adding Schaffer is only trying “cover his tracks” over the fractured cross-endorsement deal.

“If Rich cared about Democratic principles, he wouldn’t have sold his party line to a Conservative in the first place,” LaValle said, adding, “This is nothing but musical chairs and I’m pretty sure Rich will be left without a chair when the music stops.”

Scully, 41, of Setauket, whose practice centers on trusts, estates and elder law, last week filed 6,000 signatures to qualify for the Democratic and GOP primaries. She said she was running to give voters a choice and to “change the political climate” in the county. Her surprise candidacy surfaced after the three-way pact that included Tinari, wife of Suffolk Conservative chairman Frank Tinari, and eight other judicial candidates in those parties.

Whelan is the scion of a prominent Democratic family — her mother, Joan Bryant, is a former deputy Suffolk elections commissioner and was a major party fundraiser for the late party chair Dominic Baranello.

She is also married to state Supreme Court Judge Thomas Whelan, an ally of state and Suffolk Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay, whose party Wednesday endorsed her for surrogate. Conservatives named Conservative Family Court Judge Deborah Poulos Thursday as their candidate to replace Tinari.

Bellone’s endorsement of Republican Scully was unchanged by Whelan’s entry into the race. His spokesman, Jason Elan, said, “It remains to be seen whether simply rearranging the names is part of the same backroom deal-making that so many find offensive and contrary to the public trust.”

Meanwhile, nine elected Democratic women demanded that Scully fire Joseph Latini, who had served as her campaign spokesman, because of his “outrageous and unacceptable” anti-woman and anti-union Facebook entries. The critics include two state assemblywomen, three Suffolk legislators and four town officials.

Among his posts included a picture of Jan. 21 women’s march in Port Jefferson Station protesting President Donald Trump’s policies with the statement: “Want to know who the low class women are in Suffolk County? Go to route 112. They are having a convention.”

Responding to the criticism, Walsh said Latini is a campaign volunteer who helped on petitions and not a paid staffer, even though press calls were earlier referred to him. “If you look on Facebook, you are going to find things there,” he said, saying Scully was unaware of those postings.

Walsh could not say whether Latini would remain a volunteer.

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