New York Republicans are looking to win this fall’s race to succeed termed-out Democratic incumbent Steve Bellone as executive of Suffolk County, and Newsday’s Vera Chinese reports that some party members are still hoping that former Rep. Lee Zeldin will campaign to lead this populous Long Island community.
Zeldin, who carried the county 59-41 last November in his unsuccessful quest to oust Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, responded with a statement very similar to the one he supplied to The New York Times when it asked him about his interest in taking on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: “Since Election Day, I have fielded many calls from people with their thoughts of various positions in government they would like me to pursue and I am very grateful to everyone for their passionate outreach,” said Zeldin. “But I don’t have any update on that front to announce at this time.”
There’s no other word on how likely he is to run, though longtime political observer Lawrence Levy tells Chinese, “Republicans and even some Democrats are waiting for Lee Zeldin to make up his mind.” Several other local Republicans, though, explicitly said they were thinking about running to replace Bellone:
- County Legislator Trish Bergin.
- Brookhaven Town Councilman Neil Foley.
- County Comptroller John Kennedy.
- County Legislator Kevin McCaffrey.
- Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine.
On the Democratic side, venture capitalist Dave Calone has had the field to himself since July and enjoys the backing of powerful county chair Rich Schaffer and several prominent party leaders; Calone also says he now has $1.7 million on hand. Calone previously competed in the 2016 primary to take on Zeldin in the 1st District but lost to Anna Throne-Holst in a 51-49 squeaker; Zeldin went on to easily turn back Throne-Holst 58-42.
Suffolk County, a community of 1.5 million people that takes up the eastern half of Long Island, has long been competitive turf, though Republicans have done well here in recent years. Donald Trump’s 51-45 victory in 2016 made him the first Republican presidential nominee to carry the county since 1992: Trump four years later took it 49.30-49.27―a tiny 232-vote margin that still made it the largest county in America to back the GOP ticket.
Local Republicans had a strong 2021, a year where they did everything to portray their opponents as weak on crime. Republican prosecutor Ray Tierney overcame a huge fundraising disadvantage to unseat Democratic District Attorney Timothy Sini 55-45: Tierney had campaigned on his opposition to bail reform, which Sini also said he opposed. The GOP also took control of the Suffolk County Legislature for the first time since 2005. Zeldin and the rest of the 2022 Republican statewide ticket went on to each carry the county even as they lost their respective races.
Democrats, meanwhile, have won every race for county executive from 2003 on, though they haven’t enjoyed an unbroken string of control during that time. Executive Steve Levy defected to the GOP in 2010 to run for governor, though he failed to even make the ballot. Bellone took back this post for his party the next year, and he earned his third and final term in 2019 by beating Kennedy 56-43.
Party primaries will take place in June, though the candidates for countywide office here are usually selected months before. Suffolk County GOP Jesse Garcia says his organization will interview candidates later in the month while local Conservative Party Chairman Mike Torres says his organization, which usually allies with the GOP, will likely pick its contender in early February.
Any candidate who is endorsed by both the county GOP and conservative party rarely has anything to worry about in the primary, though things don’t always go according to plan. In 2017, for instance, both groups threw their support behind state Sen. Phil Boyle’s bid for sheriff, but he lost the GOP nod to Larry Zacarese in a 55-45 shocker. “This has been the epitome of an outsider grass-roots campaign against a big machine,” said Zacarese, who was an assistant police chief for Stony Brook University. Zacarese, though, himself lost in a tight November upset to Democrat Errol Toulon.