Political Veteran Rick Montano Roils Islip Democrats With Primary Fight

Rick Montano
Rick Montano

Former Suffolk County Legis. Rick Montano is returning to politics with a vengeance, vowing to make a comeback by running for Islip Town supervisor in a Democratic primary with a slate of town and county candidates that he helped organize—in opposition to the Islip Town Democratic Committee’s picks.

“This is war!” Montano tells the Press. “We have a lot of issues.”

The outcome of this hotly contested race could send ripples through the Democratic Party on Long Island and beyond because it threatens the control of its traditional leadership.

Last Thursday, Montano, a Brentwood attorney and a former Suffolk County Human Rights Commission executive director, reportedly filed more than 2,900 signatures—he only needed 2,000 to qualify—at the Suffolk Board of Elections in Yaphank to get his name on the ballot for the Sept. 10 Democratic primary election. Joining him are Islip town board candidates Miriam Ventura of Central Islip and Donovan Currey of Brentwood; Jorge C. Guadron of Central Islip for town clerk; Nitza Franco of Brentwood for receiver of taxes; and Giovanni Mata of Central Islip, who will challenge Legis. Monica R. Martinez (D-Brentwood).

Martinez beat Montano decisively two years ago in the primary, getting 1,329 votes to his 759 votes, and then went on to unseat him in the general election.

The Islip Democratic Committee submitted 3,000 signatures for its candidates, which includes Thomas Licari of Kismet for supervisor; and Joseph McDermott, mayor of Brightwaters, and Christopher Pulitano of Holbrook for town board.

“We have a fully integrated ticket,” Montano insisted, referring to the candidates from the Islip Democratic Committee as “three white males south of Montauk” Highway.

“We know they made a deal with Angie Carpenter to give her no real opposition,” he said, referring to the current Islip Town supervisor, a Republican. “We want to dispose of these non-candidates and run a real race.”

“Our slate is better,” countered Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer. “It’s representative of all the communities of the town.”

To Schaffer, Montano’s motivation is clearly personal.

“He’s still burned up about his loss in the primary two years ago when he only got 700 votes, which was an embarrassment for a 10-year incumbent.”

Asked if he expected a hard-fought and ugly primary battle, the county chairman responded this way: “Based on Montano’s track record on how hard he works? No… Will it be ugly? Yes, it will be ugly because that’s his standard operating procedure.

“I’ve had a lot of experience with him, and he always tends to focus on the negative,” Schaffer continued. “That’s all he knows. So I expect it to be an ugly campaign, but at the end of the day our ticket will prevail.”

Schaffer speculated that Montano has “spent a lot of time working with the local Islip Republicans, and he’s had a close relationship with the party leaders over there…This just helps them, which is what Montano wants. This isn’t about doing anything in a positive fashion; it’s about doing something in a negative fashion.”

Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle thought Schaffer’s assertion about Montano was “completely outlandish! He’s not doing the Republicans’ work at all. He’s upset with the Democrat Party. We’ve had no contact with Rick Montano.”

Nor did he believe the claim that Islip Town Republican Chairman Frank Tantone and his party have had close contact with Montano.

“That’s bizarre!” exclaimed LaValle. “In fact, they worked very hard against Rick Montano in his effort to try to run for state Senate.”

As for the Democratic county chairman’s claim that Montano is simply running to bolster Supervisor Carpenter’s election chances in November, LaValle scoffed, criticizing the Democratic candidacy of Thomas Licari, a Fire Island resident who has never run for office before.

“The candidate they put up is certainly a lot weaker candidate than Rick Montano,” LaValle said. “So, I don’t know if it’s going to help or hurt Angie Carpenter, but she’s going to be elected on her own merits, regardless of who the Islip Democrat party puts up against her. I think the chairman’s trying to cover up cracks in the foundation of the Democrat Party.”

Reached on vacation after a round on the driving range, Islip Town Republican Chairman Frank Tantone was amused by the opposing Democrats’ sniping.

“It sounds humorous that each side accused the other side of being in cahoots with me!” Tantone told the Press. “It’s also nonsense because we don’t make those kinds of deals… I can assure you that we have no arrangement with either side. It’s not our style.”

On behalf of Carpenter, Tantone added: “We’re confident that we can win against either candidate.”

But the Islip GOP leader did say that there would not be a Republican candidate running against Martinez for her legislative seat. He said the GOP had several candidates in mind but none could pull it off in time for the petition filings deadline last Thursday.

“That’s a tough district for a Republican,” Tantone admitted. “It’s hard to find a candidate; it’s hard to win.”

Taking another swipe at Montano, Schaffer criticized how he had represented his Brentwood district while he served in the county legislature.

“When he was the legislator, it was unrepresented!” Schaffer said with a laugh. “That’s why he got 700 votes… She’s done more work in a year and a half than he did in all of his time…as a county legislator.”

Schaffer expects Martinez to handily win her re-election. “Absolutely!” he said.

Last year, Brentwood was rocked by a toxic dumping scandal that involved Roberto Clemente Park and three other sites in Islip Town after authorities discovered carcinogenic chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, arsenic and asbestos in the estimated 50,000 tons of contaminated soil and debris. In December, six men and four companies were indicted by the Suffolk County district attorney, but all have pleaded not guilty. This week, the county Department of Health released a report based on samples from its monitoring wells near the park that showed “unusual and unexpected” levels of pesticides in the groundwater. The drilling had been in response to legislation sponsored by Martinez.

When the scandal initially broke, then-Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci, a Republican, was serving on active duty in Afghanistan as a member of the Navy Reserve. He returned to town hall with more than a year left as supervisor but instead ran for the state Senate seat vacated by Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who was challenging longtime Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) for the second time. In one of the most expensive Congressional races in the country, Zeldin defeated the incumbent.

Meanwhile, Democrats had pinned their hopes in the state Senate race on Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Before Croci entered the race, Esposito was facing Islip Councilman Anthony Senft, a member of the Conservative Party, whom she dubbed “Toxic Tony” for his alleged ties to the dumping scandal since he served as the town board’s liaison to the parks department and it occurred on his watch. Confronting the more moderate Croci, Esposito had no ammo and lost soundly.

With Croci going to Albany, the Islip Republicans decided to make a spot for Angie Carpenter, the Suffolk County treasurer who was slated to be out of a job in 2018 since a ballot proposition supported by County Executive Steve Bellone to merge the offices of the county treasure and comptroller had passed in November. At the beginning of 2015, she retired as treasurer and took up the post as town supervisor.

Besides the aftermath of the illegal dumping debacle, which had led to Roberto Clemente Park being padlocked all this summer and last, Islip has to deal with the $11.3 million deficit dragging down Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, a town-owned property that has had its own history of scandal and corruption.

With a touch of hubris and self-deprecating humor, Montano, a former federal prosecutor and an assistant New York State attorney general, exclaimed, “Let’s be honest. I’m the most qualified candidate there is!”

Admitting that he has a thorny reputation in some circles (a Newsday editorial reportedly once dubbed him “Bellone’s nemesis in the legislature”), Montano observes that one of the guys on the town party committee’s slate is “a likeable guy. He does closings. I’m a trial attorney. If I was a real estate attorney, I’d be a nice guy, too!”

Montano, 65, had heard that the opposition had been calling him, “El Viejo Lobo,” Spanish for the Old Wolf, but he takes that as a point of pride. “I say I’m still the leader of the pack!”

And comparing himself to his compadres on the ticket, he boasted, “I’ve collected more signatures than the younger guys. I’ve lost 13 pounds; I look great!”

In November 2012, Montano had vied for the seat left open when then-state Sen. Owen Johnson announced that he was finally retiring after four decades in office. With little Democratic Party support, Montano lost by 5 percentage points, or 5,361 votes, to Assemb. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) in this gerrymandered district that favored the Republicans. (Tellingly, in 2014, the Democratic candidate John Alberts was crushed by Boyle 63 percent to 30 percent.)

Montano, who remained in the legislature, had complained that the other side had run a “dirty campaign,” with mailings targeting voters in Wyandanch that he alleged were “racist,” because they cited Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville)—without the African-American legislator’s knowledge or permission—saying that Montano was not a real Democrat because he’d supported one of Gregory’s previous opponents. Gregory’s mother in Wyandanch had gotten this mailing and showed it to her son, now the Suffolk County presiding officer, who later told the Press that he was “appalled” and angry about it. But the damage had been done.

At the time, Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman, said that Boyle’s supporters had outspent Montano by half a million dollars. Couple that advantage with the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, and Montano had a deep gap he couldn’t overcome.

A year later on Nov. 5, the Suffolk Democrats who were gathered at the IBEW Local 25 Hall in Hauppauge reportedly cheered when Schaffer announced that then-political newcomer Monica Martinez had defeated Montano, who had run against her on the Working Families Party line. In a bitter Democratic primary in September, Martinez, the sister of Tony Martinez, the co-chair of Bellone’s transition team in 2011, had knocked Montano off the Democratic ballot. It was the first time since he’d been elected in 2003 that Montano had faced opposition.

According to news reports, the Democratic county convention that May had picked Montano unanimously but later—as a sign of things to come—the Islip Democratic executive committee backed the relative newcomer over the veteran politician, even chipping in more than $69,000 into her coffers, thanks to money from Bellone’s campaign as well as the Suffolk and Babylon Democratic committees, according to Montano.

Montano complained that she was being set up against him because he’d dared to oppose Bellone—and County Executive Steve Levy before him—on issues that mattered to him in the legislature. Martinez reportedly accused him of “absentee leadership” and siding with Republicans in some cases: charges that Montano denied.

Before she took office in the legislature, Martinez had to make a significant career move herself. A vice principal in Brentwood’s East Middle School when she beat Montano, she said she intended to keep both her old job and her new one, potentially earning $215,000 annually. But in December, after complaints about her “double-dipping” were percolating through the community in the aftermath of the election, the school board put her on unpaid administrative leave for two years.

These days, Montano said that what he went through back then was “a political hit against Rick Montano,” and he likened it to a combination of “The Godfather” and “The Terminator.” But now he’s back.

Contends Montano: “They shot. They thought I was dead. But I was only wounded.”

Let the race begin. The primary is eight weeks away.