Suffolk Democrats Could Score Big in ’99

January 13, 1999

By Mark J. Grossman.

More than any other time in recent memory, cracks — big cracks
— are showing in the Republican Party’s armor on Long Island: The 1998 losses of Alfonse D’Amato and Bruce Blakeman. The stunning arrest of Suffolk GOP chairman John Powell. The broadly unpopular impeachment votes by House members Michael Forbes and Rick Lazio. Combine this with President Bill Clinton’s record-high approval ratings, and you have the makings of a banner 1999 for Nassau-Suffolk Democrats.

The opening salvo — perhaps a litmus test for the Nov. 2 elections — will take place Tuesday with a special election to fill the now vacant Suffolk County Fifth District legislative seat in Brookhaven Town — home, ironically, to John Powell and to the top elected official, County Executive Bob Gaffney. And just to throw an interesting wild card into the mix, it will be taking place just as the U.S. Senate convenes its impeachment trial.

The Suffolk Republican Party is clearly hungry for this seat. It needs a win to help recover from the aggressive, but losing, races Republicans mounted against incumbent Democratic Assembly members Steve Englebright — a former Fifth District legislator — Debra Mazzarelli and Paul Harenberg. In addition, Gaffney is up for re-election this year and the troops need to see some positive momentum.

The Democrats want to show that the national and statewide
Democratic tide has reached Long Island. And, indeed, it likely will.
The Fifth District post, thought by most to be a Democratic “safe
seat,” is widely viewed as one for Democrats to lose. However, the reality is that the stakes are largely symbolic. While the winning party will gain bragging rights for chalking up the first win of ’99, the reality is that the county legislature rules by coalition and the outcome of this election will likely have no real effect on the current balance of power, especially now that a presiding officer has been elected.

The Democrats have a lot working in their favor here. The people
in this affluent North Shore district, home to many doctors and professors employed at the State University at Stony Brook, are concerned about matters such as the environment and overdevelopment, issues that Democrats have championed over the years. Democrats have held the district since 1984, when Englebright was elected. He was succeeded by fellow Democrat Nora Bredes (whose resignation Nov. 2 to move upstate opened the seat). The overlapping Assembly district has a long history of Democratic representation and Democratic town board candidates — myself included — who haven’t won a townwide seat in nearly two decades but consistently beat Republican incumbents in this district. So, despite a significant Republican enrollment edge, the Fifth is now widely considered a “Democratic” seat.

Republicans will benefit from the timing of this election. Stony
Brook students — whose proclivity for Democratic candidates has
often made the winning diffence in the area — will just be returning from intersession on election day. So, the challenge to Democrats is whether they can effectively marshall the troops on a day when students will be refocusing on school with the start of a semester.

The Democrats’ choice of nonpolitician Vivian Fisher makes sense.
Chosen from a group of high-quality candidates, Fisher was hastily
plucked from obscurity last year to run for a town board seat after
the 11th-hour bailout by the party’s convention nominee. Fisher, a local high school teacher, was impressive on the campaign trail, waging a very respectable battle. And, while she lost the race, she won in her home legislative district — the Fifth. She’ll face a formidable challenge from Port Jefferson village trustee Barbara Ransome, a businesswoman who is also the local Chamber of Commerce president. Geography, however, is working against Ransome; the seat has historically been held by someone from the more populous Three Villages community.

But the biggest thing Democrats have working in their favor is the simple fact that this is a “special” election. The Suffolk party has had an extraordinary track record in these non-November specials, focusing its resources from throughout the county when a special balloting needs to be won.

That’s how Bredes got the seat in 1992. With a 30-day campaign window, specials have a way of leveling the playing field for
Long Island Democrats, who are often outspent by Republicans. With limited opportunity to spend and limited venues to buy, money
differences are less of a factor.

Interestingly, these special elections probably provide the best real-world illustration of why we so desperately need campaign finance reform. It proves that when presented with a fair fight, insurgent parties do have an opportunity to get their message to voters and win.

But Democrats will need to do more than just win to prove that the Republicans’ mis-steps forecast good things for 1999. They’ll need to win big. And based on the revolutionary political happenings of the past two months, the timing and political climate just might be right for that to happen.

Mark J. Grossman was former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s Long Island regional director. He now heads Grossman Strategies, a public relations firm, among whose clients is the state Democratic Party.

Mark J. Grossman, Suffolk Democrats Could Score Big in ’99.
Newsday, 01-13-1999, pp A41.