State Senate Republicans, who used the unpopular MTA payroll tax to oust Democrats Brian X. Foley of Blue Point and Craig Johnson of Port Washington two years ago, see no reason to change the game plan this year.
Looking to keep the seat of the retiring Owen Johnson, 83, the GOP is circulating details of a 2010 vote of Suffolk Legis. Ricardo Montano of Brentwood -- the Democrats' contender for the seat -- opposing Suffolk's joining the lawsuit that recently upended the controversial MTA tax. Senate GOP operatives stress that Montano was the lone county lawmaker to oppose the bipartisan resolution.
Assemb. Philip Boyle (R-Brightwaters), GOP candidate for Johnson's seat, said, "It made me scratch my head why Rick could oppose a lawsuit against the unfair and unconstitutional MTA tax which every other Republican and Democrat voted for. It begs the question why?"
Montano calls it "a bogus issue" and "a stale one to boot." He says he always opposed the MTA tax and his vote was simply to avoid squandering limited county funds on a lawsuit that already had been filed by a businessman and was moving forward.
Montano provided a transcript of the legislative debate. "I just want to put on the record, it is very clear that everyone in Suffolk County is against the MTA tax," Montano said then. But he added, "There are plenty of parties there. I don't want to do litigation simply because we want to make a public statement."
But John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, accused Montano of opposing the measure to ingratiate himself with Senate Democrats who backed the tax because of his interest in a future Senate run. "I know Rick is trying to rationalize his vote," he said. "But he picked a side and it wasn't the side of the taxpayers." Montano called LaValle's claim "an irresponsible charge," and said he was not even considering a Senate run in 2010.
Boyle said he plans to keep his campaign positive, but added, "Our votes are fair game."
Montano backers see the strafing as a sign of GOP concern.
"I think Republicans are running scared," said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), chairman of the Democratic Senate campaign committee. "They are seeing the same data we are seeing -- that Rick has a tremendous chance of winning and they are mischaracterizing his position on a settled issue to mislead voters."
The 4th District is the only open State Senate seat on Long Island. It is crucial to both sides statewide in the battle for control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 33-29 edge. Johnson has held the seat since 1972, aided in recent years by the tacit backing of Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman and also Babylon Town supervisor.
After redistricting, the once heavily Republican GOP seat now stretches along the South Shore from Lindenhurst to Holbrook. It has 62,108 registered Democrats, 60,146 Republicans and 44,022 voters not aligned with any party.
Senate Democrats say a heavy presidential turnout and the district's minority population, about 30 percent of the total, will help Montano in the Nov. 6 general election.
But Senate Republicans have a huge cash advantage over Senate Democrats: $4.7 million to $718,000. Montano has raised $90,000 on his own to Boyle's $10,000.
Schaffer has officially endorsed Montano, but neither he nor Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appear intent on overturning GOP control of the State Senate.
However, even some Republicans questioned the potential impact of the MTA tax now.
"Generals are often faulted for refighting the last war," said Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk deputy county executive. "This may be a case where the GOP is using World War II tactics, when we're fighting in the Persian Gulf."