Jay Schneiderman may not be able to see Massachusetts from his East End office, but he certainly feels its political impact.
Tuesday's surprise victory of Scott Brown - a little-known Massachusetts state senator who won the U.S. Senate seat once held by Democrat Ted Kennedy - thrilled Schneiderman, a registered Independence Party member who's served in the Suffolk County Legislature for the past six years. He says Brown's campaign, as a Republican stressing his independent streak, is rippling across Long Island.
"His [Brown's] message was about independence and what was best for the people," said Schneiderman, who often votes with the Democrats in the county legislature.
"In East Hampton, we have more people who are blanks [not registered with any political party] than those who are registered as Democrats or as Republicans," said Schneiderman, who had gotten elected town supervisor as an Independence Party candidate. "Most people consider themselves independent."
Throughout New York State, there are more than 400,000 people like Schneiderman formally registered with the Independence Party, including 32,000 in Suffolk, the county with the largest number of Independence Party members, records show. But more significantly, there are about 2.2 million registered voters statewide who are not affiliated with any specific party, but who often refer to themselves as 'independents.' Like the Massachusetts Senate race, those Republicans or Democrats who can appeal to these "blanks" - as they appear on the voter enrollment forms - are often the winners, particularly in a close race.
"The margin of victory [in Brown's Massachusetts win] is clearly the independents," said Frank MacKay, chairman of the state Independence Party and its Suffolk chapter. He said about a dozen Long Island incumbents have won with the Independence Party endorsement - including a Nassau County judge allied with the Republicans, and two Suffolk County legislators, Schneiderman and Jack Eddington of Patchogue, whose main affiliation is as Independents.
MacKay said the appeal to unaffiliated independent voters is particularly important these days with a weak economy, high unemployment and large public discontent with the direction of national, state and local government.
But Nassau GOP leader Joseph Mondello likened Brown's win to last fall's upset win by Republican Edward Mangano in the Nassau County Executive race against incumbent Democrat Tom Suozzi. "We stayed on one message - taxes, taxes, and taxes," Mondello said.
Suffolk County Democratic Party chairman Richard Schaffer said the Massachusetts upset is a reminder to him "to keep our party more moderate" and to emphasize improving the economy and gaining more jobs.
State GOP chairman Ed Cox said that recent protests by independent groups such as the Tea Party are "just the tip of the iceberg" in underlining voter unhappiness. "They represent visibly a lot of good people who are distressed and they showed up to vote for Mangano in Nassau County and for Brown in Massachusetts," he said.