A dark horse sees the light

When Jon Cooper began his underdog campaign this year for Suffolk County's 18th Legislative District, he figured he could raise enough money, attract a dedicated core of volunteers and nail down an extensive platform based on protecting the environment and trimming government waste. Cooper, a Huntington Democrat and business executive, never dreamed that his biggest boost would come from the rival party.

Then, in late September, Republican incumbent Stephen Hackeling dropped out of the race to vie instead for a Supreme Court judgeship. That cleared the way for Huntington GOP boss Anthony Mastroianni to stand his dutiful deputy, Ken Stubbolo, against the hard-charging Cooper. Stubbolo's primary qualifications appear to be lockstep loyalty and a failed bid for Huntington Town Board four years ago.

Cooper remains diplomatic about his good fortune, but he can't help sounding pleased to have gone from battling the powerful presiding officer to trying to outgun a longtime party hack. With a weak opponent and a district that has about 18,000 registered Republicans, 14,000 Democrats and 16,000 blanks, the 44-year-old Cooper has reason to be hopeful. "It really does look like we have a chance to pull this off," he says.

Stubbolo's candidacy has been so unpopular that Cooper now draws some of his strongest support from Republicans who've broken ranks. Casting himself as both a progressive thinker and the closest replacement for the moderate Hackeling, Cooper has raised some $35,000, added the Working Families and Green party lines and taken over Hackeling's place on the Independence row.

Cooper faced a much different situation when he first announced his intention to run. "I'm sure no one thought I had a chance to win," he says. "It was difficult for me even to get some organizations to return a phone call."

This is Cooper's second try for the Legislature. In 1997, he made a strong showing but lost to Hackeling by a little more than 10 percent of the vote. Few had expected Cooper to win, and he received scant support from Suffolk's Democratic brass. "Literally, four days before the election I had my first meeting with a political consultant," he says.

Now, though, Democrats believe he has a fighting chance, and their backing has enabled him to build a campaign staff that operates nearly around the clock.

When Cooper heads into neighborhoods, an aide walks along with him and takes notes at each house so the candidate can write a personalized follow-up letter. Cooper also has a snazzy Web page, www.cooper1999.com, that includes snippets of him speaking and pictures of him with his domestic partner, Rob, and their five children. He expects most people won't care that he's a committed family man sharing a household with another committed family man, and as a result, he says, most people don't. "Last time, it wasn't that much of an issue," he says. "This year, it's completely off the radar screen."

Cooper's Web site also presents buckets of information about his priorities, which range from continuing the push to preserve open space to establishing community policing and reforming campaign-finance law.

He has taken up the rallying cry of Democrats across Long Island this year, arguing that officials can lower the property tax if they'll just cut the fat. Unlike many of his colleagues, Cooper, CEO of Spectronics, a manufacturing firm in Westbury, dives into details. Take, for example, a Web item in which he proposes that companies compete for the right to put snack machines in publicly owned spaces. "Rates for vending machines on county property are currently based on the square footage the machines take up, rather than the volume of goods sold," the Web page reads. "Even worse, most contracts expired long ago and no new bids have been issued to foster competition."

Talk like that could put voters to sleep, but Cooper promises he wouldn't be a dull legislator. "I'm going to shake up the Legislature," he says, "like it's never been shaken before."

 
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