Ricardo Montano, Democratic candidate for the New York State Senate...

Ricardo Montano, Democratic candidate for the New York State Senate 4th District. (May 18, 2011) Credit: David Pokress

This is the marquee State Senate race on Long Island, pitting a veteran of the Assembly against a veteran of the Suffolk County Legislature for the only Senate seat on the Island without an incumbent.

The vacancy arose because Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon) chose not to run again. The Suffolk Democratic Party chairman, Richard Schaffer, regularly declined to run a real candidate against Johnson, who helped the Town of Babylon to obtain desperately needed deficit financing when Schaffer was supervisor, in the 1990s.

Well before Johnson made his decision known, Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Brentwood) had decided to run against him, whether Schaffer liked it or not. To his credit, Montano collected enough signatures to get on the ballot. When Johnson bowed out of the race, Montano, 62, was the only Democratic candidate.

Johnson's exit also provided an opportunity for Assemb. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore) to run for a seat in a chamber where his party is in the majority, after years of toiling in the Assembly minority. Boyle, 51, has been through the mill of lopsided redistricting. He lost his seat as a result of the redistricting that followed the 2000 census, then won a seat in a special election in 2006. He has been a solid, sensibly conservative legislator, who knows how to work with his Democratic colleagues to get bills passed: He voted for legislation imposing a 2 percent property tax cap, but he argues that the work of cutting taxes won't be done until the state stops imposing unfunded mandates on school districts. Montano's position on that suite of tax issues is essentially the same.

On other issues, from a state version of the federal Dream Act to allow the innocent children of undocumented immigrants to get an education to fair pay for women, their positions are not all that far apart.

Montano has the endorsement of New York State United Teachers, but he says the union did not ask him to push back against the developing teacher evaluation system. Unlike Boyle, who supports charter schools, Montano is skeptical about them as an alternative -- even though a charter school is under discussion for troubled Wyandanch. Montano feels that charters cherry-pick students and drain funding from public schools. That is pretty much NYSUT's position. So Montano will have to find alternate ways to help improve the school district.

What's appealing about Montano is his high level of independence, his intelligence, his long resume in civil rights jobs at the federal and county level, plus service with the state attorney general. He knows the needs of this newly reapportioned district -- especially its most economically challenged areas.

Whether the Republicans retain control of the State Senate or Democrats take over, Montano seems likely to be a reliable burr in the saddle of both parties and someone who could deliver for his district.

Newsday endorses Montano.