At every door Suffolk Legis. Rick Montano knocked on late last month in Central Islip, he asked voters, often in Spanish, "Do you know me?"
Most said they recognized him, but when one young man walking by confessed he did not, Montano said, "Well you do now. I'm Rick Montano and I'm running for the Suffolk County Legislature."
When Montano's Democratic primary challenger, Monica Martinez, knocks on doors in the district, she concedes she is new to local politics. "I'm here to introduce myself," she says, before asking for their vote in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.
Montano and Martinez are fighting a street-to-street battle for the $96,570-a-year job representing Suffolk's 9th legislative district, which covers Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore, and the contest has turned increasingly heated.
The primary is giving the incumbent Montano, 63, who has faced no opponent for eight years, his biggest challenge since he took office a decade ago.
Martinez, 36, sister of the co-chairman of County Executive Steve Bellone's transition team when he took office in 2012, is well-funded and has the support of top Islip Democratic officials and indirect support from other party officials.
Martinez has launched a mail blitz claiming Montano failed to fight the shutdown of an Islip Town pool and has sided with Republicans in opposing Bellone on issues including the closing of the county nursing home and the merger of the county comptroller's and treasurer's office.
"He had 10 years to represent the people, but by working with the Republicans he's kept the community asleep and it's time for the community to wake up and be heard," Martinez said.
Montano says Martinez's attacks are incorrect, that she is unknown in the district and that paid workers funded with party money from outside the community are propping up her campaign.
Montano, whom the Democrats named as their candidate at a party convention in May, says Martinez's candidacy is retribution because he's clashed with Bellone and last year bucked Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer and took on former GOP state Sen. Owen Johnson, whom Schaffer for years tacitly backed. "It's a political conspiracy to try to oust me, but it's not going to work," Montano said.
Gerry Pallotta, Islip Democratic leader, called Montano's claims a "mark of desperation" from a "lackluster" lawmaker.
The son of a former state assemblyman, Montano, of Brentwood, is a former executive director of Suffolk's Human Rights Commission, a former assistant state attorney general and now is in private legal practice. He touts his record on ethics reform and opposing a county homeless shelter in a former hotel at the edge of the district, which has been delinquent on property taxes.
Montano said he opposed Bellone's $23-million sale of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank because the price was far lower than an earlier $36 million deal he had backed. He said he opposed the merger of the treasurer and comptroller because Bellone submitted the plan at the last minute without proper vetting.
Martinez, who came to the United States from El Salvador at age 3, grew up in Brentwood and has been assistant principal at the district's East Middle School for the past three years, and was a teacher in the district for 10 years before that. She says that if elected, she will serve as a committee chairman -- something Montano did not do this year -- and fight for local resource centers to provide after school activities and job training and combat gangs.
Martinez's campaign has spent $87,700 and had $2,515 heading into the final 11 days of the race. Montano has raised $41,500, but he has yet to spend $16,200 left for the final push.
Campaign finance records show that Martinez has received a total of $43,200 from the Islip Democratic Committee, which received money from the Babylon Town Democratic Committee, the Suffolk Democratic Committee and Bellone's re-election committee.
The most recent finance filing, 11 days before the primary, shows Martinez's campaign got $15,200 from the Islip Democrats.
The town party received $35,000 from Bellone's campaign, $25,000 from the county party and $5,000 from Babylon Democrats that still could be used. Schaffer is also Babylon Town supervisor, a post Bellone once held.
In a lawsuit, Montano accuses the Islip Democratic Committee and Bellone's campaign committee of funneling money to Martinez in a "fraudulent scheme to circumvent the state election law." A state Supreme Court justice ruled last month that Montano's complaint first must go to the state Board of Elections. Democratic Party officials say Montano's claims have no merit. The race between Montano and Martinez is hard to gauge because turnout historically has been the lowest of any in the county legislative district, dipping as low as 6.1 percent in primaries.
Muddying matters further, Montano was chosen at the party convention last May as the official party designee, but Pallotta says the Islip party is now backing Martinez.Schaffer, who originally said Montano was the county party's candidate, says he is staying out of the race: "I'm not registered to vote in the district, so it doesn't matter who I'm for. A lot has happened in the last few months and the Islip Committee has spoken . . . It is the most spirited race the district has seen in a long time . . . I'm just letting it play out."