Conservative Islip town board member Anthony Senft dropped out of the race for State Senate Monday, and GOP leaders say Islip Supervisor Tom Croci, just back from a yearlong Navy Reserve stint in Afghanistan, is their first choice to replace him.
Senft filed papers at the Suffolk Board of Elections to withdraw from the 3rd Senate District race, after months of negative publicity over the dumping of toxic debris at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood. Senft, though not personally implicated in the scandal, had been the town board's parks liaison on the issue until Croci's return.
Senft said the park issue has made it "exceedingly difficult" to focus on the key state issues of jobs, taxes and education. "I have stepped out so a new candidate can focus on those issues and the parks issue will no longer be a distraction," he said, adding he will continue to work to "remediate the park and get it back in shape for all our residents."
In a surprise move, Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle also pulled out of the county comptroller race, so he can oversee the GOP campaign in the 3rd Senate District -- a seat crucial to Senate Republicans seeking to hold the majority. "I thought I could do both, but then reality set in with the majority on the line," LaValle said. "Suffolk County, on my watch, will not be the reason we don't have a GOP majority in the State Senate."
The Independence Party, meanwhile, gave its comptroller endorsement to Democrat James Gaughran, chairman of the Suffolk Water Authority, after its own nominee, Teresa Bogardt, dropped out. Gaughran said he was relieved by LaValle's departure, saying he "would have been a very formidable candidate."
Before Senft and LaValle declined their nominations, elections officials said Monday that Republicans on Friday had inadvertently filed acceptances for both candidacies. LaValle called it an "oversight" and said he did not authorize the filing of the papers, which had been filled out at the party's May 21 convention. He said candidates were free to change their minds up until Monday's deadline.
However, State Sen. Michael Gianaris, chairman of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee, said they will "challenge the legality" of Senft's switch, claiming nonparty members are "locked in" once they accept another party's ballot line.
LaValle said the GOP is "trying to draft" Croci for the Senate race, citing his military service and his strong stand on the dumping scandal. LaValle said he had lunch with the supervisor Monday and Croci was "interested" and "excited" about a potential run, although he has not made a final decision.
Croci did not return calls for comment.
A three-member Republican committee to fill vacancies has until Friday to name Senft's Senate replacement. If Croci balks, LaValle said they will consider former Islip town board member Pamela Greene. Republican sources also say Brookhaven Receiver of Taxes Louis Marcoccia is the leading contender to replace LaValle for the GOP comptroller nod.
Two contenders in a Democratic primary for the Senate seat assailed the switch. Mike Fricchione, a spokesman for environmentalist Adrienne Esposito, said, "It doesn't matter if it's Senft or Croci on the ballot. Both . . . are responsible for the disgraceful toxic dumping that happened on their watch."
"It seems like he's serving himself rather than the public," Democratic candidate Joseph Fritz said of Croci. "He's not even seasoned as a supervisor. It comes across as opportunistic to want to change so fast."