How Will the Battle for Long Island Play Out Politically?

Long Island Election 2014

Just a couple of months ago, New York Democrats looked at Long Island’s political landscape and saw much better prospects for making big changes in Albany than they do now. For years, all nine state Senate seats have been in Republican hands—and in those hands they may likely remain, given what’s happened since summer.

With Election Day less than a month away, Long Islanders are just starting to pay attention—if at all—while political candidates are out in full force, hoping to seal the deal, knowing that turnout will be key in this off-year when the White House is not up for grabs.

On the plus side for the Democrats, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is leading his Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, by double digits throughout the state as well as on the Island. But that’s the same margin that two key Democratic candidates for state Senate—Adrienne Esposito in the open 3rd Senate District and Adam Haber in 7th Senate District now occupied by Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola)—are trailing their Republican opponents in the latest Siena College/Newsday/News 12 polls (Click here and here).

New York Senate Democrats had high hopes that Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) would beat Legis. Michael Venditto (R-Massapequa) in the open 8th Senate District until Denenberg abruptly withdrew last month after his former law firm accused him of ripping off a client for $2 million—allegations he has vowed to fight. With Denenberg out of the running, however, the odds of the Democrats gaining a clear majority in the state Senate and consigning Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the Republican Senate co-leader, to permanent minority status appear worse than the New York Jets getting in the playoffs.

And once again, the East End’s embattled Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) is in a fight for his political life, as national Republican and right-wing political groups have begun pouring in millions of dollars into the race to replace him with state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who lost to him in 2008 by 16 percentage points. Two years ago Karl Rove’s super-PAC and others of that ilk shelled out $4 million on an ultimately futile effort by Randy Altschuler to unseat Bishop. How much they’ll spend this time—considering the freedom allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—remains to be seen, if it ever is seen, given the lack of transparency allowed by the controversial ruling on campaign financing.

Interestingly, Zeldin, who has announced he’ll give up his state Senate seat no matter what the outcome is in his Congressional race, is still in the Army Reserves—and the Republican hoping to hold onto that 3rd Senate District for his party, Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci, is in the Navy Reserves. Croci was serving in Afghanistan when a scandal broke over the discovery that an estimated 50,000 tons of toxic debris had been dumped illegally in Roberto Clemente Park. Subsequently, other sites have turned up, sparking an investigation by Suffolk District Attorney Tom Spota.

The contaminated park has already affected the state Senate race for the 3rd district because when Croci first returned from his latest tour of duty, the Republican candidate was Anthony Senft, a Conservative Party member of the Islip Town Board, who’d been the board’s liaison to the parks department. Adrienne Esposito, the Democratic candidate in that race who heads the nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment, had dubbed Senft “Toxic Tony” as news reports started to come out about the scandal that occurred on his watch. But then Senft dropped out, and Croci took his place on the ballot.

Was the issue of the dumping buried? Not so fast, say some.

When Croci became Islip Town supervisor after beating the Democratic incumbent, Phil Nolan, by 343 votes, registered Conservatives had accounted for about 12 percent of the votes he got. Subsequently, Croci removed the town’s long-time commissioner of parks, Greg Dawson, a Republican who has since become Suffolk County parks commissioner, and replaced him with Joe Montuori, a Conservative Party activist, who, according to Newsday, is “a longtime ally” of Suffolk County Conservative Party leader Ed Walsh, who is reportedly under investigation by the FBI.

Nolan, now president of the Suffolk OTB, spoke highly of Dawson. “He’s a parks professional who bled for parks! They pushed him out.”

Croci’s campaign spokeswoman, Christine Geed, insisted that Supervisor Croci had done nothing but insist that the park be cleaned up and those found culpable be brought to justice. “When he returned, he spoke vehemently against those who were responsible,” she told the Press. “He was sickened by that [scandal] and said it publicly.”

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Skelos, spoke strongly in support of Croci’s race. “He’s a great candidate,” Reif said. “He’s a leader, he’s a war hero, he’s just came back from serving overseas, and people are rallying behind him.”

Rich Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman, admitted that running against a popular incumbent like Croci instead of Senft made it harder for Esposito. “We knew that was going to make it a much tougher race,” he told the Press. “One of the things that the poll can’t gauge is the level of grassroots enthusiasm and I think that Adrienne has that, based on her 30-plus years of grassroots organizing on issues that are important to our residents like protecting our environment and clean drinking water.

“But Croci’s got things to answer for,” added Schaffer.

His Suffolk rival, John Jay Lavalle, the Republican county chairman, said the same about Esposito.

“Quite frankly, I think her campaign thus far has been disgraceful because she’s been trying to link him to this scandal but the reality is he had nothing to do with it,” Lavalle told the Press. “He wasn’t even here.”

Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Queens), leader of the State Senate Democrats’ campaign, believes it’s a valid issue to raise.

“Of course it is,” he told the Press. “He either knew about what was going on or left the town in the hands of people who were incompetent to manage it. And so while we appreciate and give him thanks for his service, that does not alleviate him of the responsibility of running the Town of Islip in a proper manner.”

In the other Long Island race that Democrats had pinned their hopes on, the incumbent Republican, Jack Martins, the former Mineola mayor, has a 25-point lead over Adam Haber, a businessman and Roslyn school board member who lost a Democratic primary for county executive to Tom Suozzi last year. The two men were civil to each other at a recent candidates forum in Manhasset sponsored by the League of Women Voters, finding some common ground. But where they differ starkly is on the issue of women’s reproductive rights. Martins is firmly pro-life, and Haber is staunchly pro-choice.

How Martins will fare in his re-election bid is hard to predict, considering that President Obama won 54 percent of the district’s vote, according to a Haber campaign spokesman. But, while Obama is not on the ballot, Gov. Cuomo certainly is, and surveys show him with a 44-point lead over the Republican challenger.

The majority rules

No matter how the Republican gubernatorial candidate does in November, Republicans say that won’t affect their bid to strengthen control of the state Senate.

“We’ve maintained all along through this election cycle that Republicans will have a clear majority,” said Reif. “We expect to pick up seats in other parts of the state. We’re running very strongly upstate, in the Hudson Valley. We expect to have at least 32 seats after November.”

Right now they have 29 of the 62 seats in the upper chamber. They’ve been able to wield control with a power sharing agreement with five Democrats who broke from the party three years ago to form the Independent Democratic Conference. Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic leader, doesn’t think that status quo will be overthrown because neither party will gain a clear majority.

“I think the numbers are going to be too close so I think you’re going to have a coalition in the Senate,” said Schaffer. “I think it’s going to be once again people working with a coalition, whether the Republicans with the IDC or the Democrats with the IDC.”

That prediction is not shared by Gianaris, leader of the State Senate Democrats’ campaign, who scoffed at the idea.

“I think if the Republicans want to celebrate in early October, they’re welcome to it,” he told the Press. “We look forward to celebrating in early November when we’ve won the elections.”

He insisted that the party’s internal polls paint a vastly different picture.

“October Sienna polls are always polling at the low point for our candidates because Republicans have been spending money for over a month and we marshal our resources for the final month,” Gianaris said. “I would not put a lot of weight in a poll that’s conducted at the end of September. Our plan all along is to communicate with voters when they’re paying the most attention and that started about a week ago…. Two years ago Dean Skelos was announcing that they were going to gain three or four seats on the eve of the election and they lost four. His track record is not that great in predicting election results.”

Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, said the election surveys did have a discouraging effect initially.

“People saw that Sienna poll and said, ‘Well, it’s over!’ But it’s not over! Republicans spend early, Democrats spend late,” Tyson told the Press.

As for the prospects of the Democrats gaining the upper hand in the state Senate, she admitted that Denenberg’s abrupt departure in September was “a huge disappointment. It was the surprise of the century for many of us. He was going to win that seat! Mr. Venditto is a really lucky guy.”

Still, Tyson held hopes that an agreement Cuomo made earlier this year at the Working Families Party’s convention that he would commit the handful of members of the Independent Democratic Conference to caucus with the Democrats in the state Senate would make a significant difference.

“We have not heard that that commitment has changed at all,” said Tyson, who is active in the WFP. “So, as long as that stands, I do believe that Democrats will be controlling the Senate.”

Cuomo’s coattails

One of the big unknowns is how much pull Cuomo will have on Democratic voters. He handily won a primary against Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor, but turnout was minimal.

“I think Cuomo will help,” said Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic leader. “I think he’ll help us drive turnout.”

His Republican counterpart took the opposite view. Not only will Cuomo have no coattails, he won’t even be able to help himself to victory, said LaValle.

“As a matter of fact I’m not even certain Gov. Cuomo’s going to win Suffolk County,” LaValle told the Press.

Senate Democrat Gianaris foresaw a different result.

“Cuomo is going to win Long Island going away!” Gianaris told the Press. “And he is the head of our ticket and we expect him to deliver significant benefits for our candidates.”

How that will play out in Nassau, where Ed Mangano, the Republican county executive, has publicly endorsed the Democratic governor, is an open question.

Certainly, supporters of embattled Democratic candidates, like Bishop, hope that having Cuomo on the ticket will carry the day.

Nationally, Democrats are hoping that they won’t lose more ground on Capitol Hill, and what happens in New York is key, some say.

Still, on the East End, the outcome promises to be a nail-biter.

“Look, Tim’s always in a close race, and we know that, and we’re not going to take anything for granted,” said Schaffer. “But I do think that Tim has the edge here because of the work he’s done in the district and because of the way we get our message out to people. I think Zeldin is a far right, Tea Party Republican who’s not right for the district.”

Au contraire, says the GOP’s LaValle.

“Lee Zeldin is going to be the next congressman, mark my words,” said LaValle, who added that the candidate has learned from his mistakes that cost him the first time he went up against Bishop. “I’m very happy with his progress.”

As for the other local Congressional races, no upsets seem to be in the offing.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) appears to be sailing smoothly into the fall election with another term in hand. His opponents, Patricia Maher, an East Meadow Democrat, and William D. Stevenson, a Green Party candidate from Amityville, reportedly raised no money through June 30, and both have zero dollars on hand, compared to the incumbent who is sitting on $2.7 million.

Republicans may have hoped to pick up the seat held by retiring Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) but not anymore since the Democratic candidate is the popular Nassau County district attorney, Kathleen Rice, and her Republican opponent is Bruce Blakeman, the county’s former legislative presiding officers, who does not seem to have gained much traction at all since he entered the race. In the last election cycle, Rice was the only county-wide Democratic candidate to win while Ed Mangano, the Republican Nassau County executive, handily won re-election.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) is facing Grant Lally (R-Lloyd Harbor), who is making his third attempt at running for Congress, having been defeated twice before by the then-Democratic incumbent, Rep. Gary Ackerman. It was his 1994 contest that ultimately cost Lally a $280,000 fine from the Federal Elections Commission for accepting illegal campaign donations.

As the Associated Press reported:

“In one instance, Lawrence Lally gave $116,000 to his son for his campaign and recorded the transaction as a real-estate sale. Lally received another $18,000 from his father, contending it was for the purchase of his Corvette.”

At the time—and even now on the campaign trail when Israel raises the issue—Lally said he signed the agreement to pay the fine because it “was a business decision,” as he told the AP, so he wouldn’t have “to spend a lot of time and a lot of money litigating” with the FEC, which he complained “conducted themselves like gangsters.”

Lally, a lawyer, enters this race having won the Republican primary against Stephen Labate, a Deer Park financial planner, by 11 votes.

Israel, who has $1.7 million on hand compared to Lally’s $17,873, according to the latest filings, is not taking it easy. “I never in my life have taken one single vote for granted,” said Israel, a former Huntington Town board member.

He said he’s drawn a lesson from Lally’s run-in with the FEC in 1998. “This is somebody who is willing to bend, if not break, the rules in pursuit of victory,” Israel told the Press. “I hope he doesn’t resort to those tactics because they didn’t succeed last time and they won’t succeed this time.”

Lally is hoping that he can make the race a referendum on President Barack Obama, whose unpopularity has emboldened Republicans nationwide, putting the U.S. Senate in play, and giving them the chance to make huge gains on Capitol Hill, which Israel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is attempting to block.

“President Obama said his policies are on the ballot,” Lally told the audience at a recent candidates forum in Manhasset sponsored by the League of Women Voters. “If you don’t like them, vote against them. My adversary, Steve Israel, has said there’s no daylight between himself, House Democrats, his team and President Obama. I ask you to take that fact and keep that in mind when you go to vote this year because I believe we need a check on President Obama to make sure that the worst parts of his policies are changed and that he is held to account.”

Asked about Lally’s criticism, Israel scoffed. “Maybe he should have thought about running against President Obama!” he said with a laugh. “I’ve stood up to the president on the issue of tax cuts to the middle class. Mr. Lally blindly and reflexively recites conservative Republican Pary mantras every step of the way.”

What message will resonate with voters on Nov. 4 is a question only they can answer when they go into the voting booth. What will drive them to go to the polls is equally unclear.

“It all comes down to the ground game and who’s inspiring voters more,” said Tyson, the local progressive coalition leader. “It’s not about mail and television. It’s about door to door—and that’s where Democrats succeed.”

But, as she knows all too well, Republicans, especially in Nassau County, can also play that ground game. Who shows up to vote is all that matters in the end.