Accidental Republican

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By Karl Grossman

The switch of Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman from an enrolled Republican to a member of the Independence Party has been big political news this summer on eastern Long Island. As a Republican, Mr. Schneiderman has had a firm grip on the seat. Indeed, last year, Democrats, seeing a race against Mr. Schneiderman as hopeless, put up less-than-token resistance, a candidate who didn’t campaign.

Without a major party line, can Mr. Schneiderman run for re-election next year for legislator and win? Party loyalty has long been important in the Suffolk Republican organization and Suffolk Republican Chairman Harry Withers, infuriated by the Schneiderman move, is less than interested in providing the GOP line to Mr. Schneiderman as an Independence Party member.

Mr. Withers says Mr. Schneiderman will have to “count on” Frank MacKay, chairman of the Independence Party in Suffolk and the state, “to deliver a major party for him now.” And, he adds, “we have people chomping at the bit to be a legislator from that district—and it’s a very good chance that the candidate would come from Southampton Town.” There’s been discussion of former Southampton Town Supervisor Patrick “Skip” Heaney or Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi running for the county legislative seat.

But might Mr. MacKay, who has been all over the political board in getting and giving endorsements, ultimately cut a deal with the GOP for Mr. Schneiderman?

And what about Mr. Schneiderman getting Democratic endorsement?

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy—who would have a big voice in such a decision—has been caustic about Mr. Schneiderman’s switch. “His indecisive nature is illustrated once again in not knowing where he wants to lie on the political spectrum,” said Mr. Levy. Of his running on the Independence and Democratic lines, Democrat Levy said: “I’m not a fan of his style because you cannot rely on him because he vacillates so much. I want allies with a strong inner core.” However, Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer takes a more flexible stance.

Could Mr. Schneiderman run on the Independence Party line alone and win? It’s possible in the district which includes Southampton, East Hampton and part of Brookhaven Town.

 “I’ve gotten more praise than criticism,” Mr. Schneiderman was saying last week. “I think I tapped into the public subconscious of voting for individuals not a party. People may love to vote for someone who is an independent.”

“I feel liberated,” he declared. “I’ve always wanted to represent people first. That can be hard to do in a world of partisan politics.”

All along Mr. Schneiderman has been an accidental Republican. When he first got into government as an appointed member of the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals, he was an enrolled Democrat, he noted. He then became “a blank”—enrolled in no political party. As East Hampton town supervisor, “I remained a blank,” running as a Republican but only enrolling Republican in 2003. That’s when he decided to run for county legislator and enrolled as a Republican because, he said, of concerns of being challenged the GOP nod in a Republican primary.

His background was not that of a typical GOPer. It includes being a project coordinator for the Ralph Nader-inspired environmental and consumer activist group NYPIRG , and doing relief work in Central America. “I’ve always thought of myself as an independent,” he emphasizes.

As a legislator, his emphasis has been on trying to restrict pesticide use in Suffolk and encouraging affordable housing. He has become close with the legislature’s Democratic majority leader, Jon Cooper, who is Barak Obama’s Long Island chairman—and might ascend political heights if Mr. Obama is elected president. Meanwhile, Mr. Schneiderman has been in the GOP camp, simmering in outrage over President Bush and the national Republican Party. 

On the horseshoe-shaped legislative table, Mr. Schneiderman sits next to Edward Romaine, a GOPer who just happens to have been his seventh-grade social studies teacher when Mr. Schneiderman was growing up in Hauppauge. Mr. Romaine recalls his former student as “very bright, very inquisitive,” and said last week of his switch: “I think Jay will be Jay regardless of what party he belongs to. The guy is an independent-minded guy.”

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