Brian Muellers, a Democrat vying for the Nassau County Legislature, knows he's among the fortunate few.
With all 19 seats up for grabs, Democratic Party leaders have decided that Muellers' bid for the 18th District is one of a handful they could win. So while many of his fellow Dems make do with little more than advice from county headquarters, the Glen Cove chemist has gotten help with fundraising and expensive strategies like mass mailings. By the time his campaign against GOP incumbent John Canning is over, Muellers expects to have spent about $40,000a nifty sum for a rookie candidate. "They really have to watch their resources," he says, "and so resources are going into these campaigns."
Nassau Dems know they can't afford to waste the opportunity they've been given this year by Republicans, who have piloted the county into a $300 million deficit and themselves onto the shoals of voter disgust. But the Dems also know they can't afford to muster a substantial fight in every race. They've instead set their sights on adding two legislative seats to the five they already hold, which would allow them to break the GOP's veto-proof majority and finally have some say in financial decisions.
That may be smart politicking, but it's tough medicine for underdogs like Teresa Butler. The Levittown Democrat, widely considered a smart though unpolished candidate, has little chance to beat GOP incumbent Dennis Dunne, a bumbler who recently told Newsday his constituents were "clueless." Operating out of her house with a few volunteers, Butler has mostly been on her own. "In this area, there really hasn't been much of an organized Democratic structure," she says. "I want people to see there is a choice."
Here's a look at the legislative candidates the Nassau Democrats are betting on this year.
Favorite (adopted) son
JOE SCANNELL wasn't even a party member when Democratic boss Tom DiNapoli tapped him to run against GOP incumbent Thomas Glynn in the 5th District.
But DiNapoli saw something he liked in the assistant district attorney from Baldwin, not least of all the chance to take back a formerly Democratic seat with a loyal neophyte.
And longtime Republican Scannell saw something he liked in DiNapoli, namely a chance to try for public office immediately rather than wait for permission from the GOP silverbacks. "Because I wasn't part of the system, I wouldn't have had the opportunity," Scannell says. "I would have had to join the Republican club and pay a lot of money, and maybe in 10 or 15 years I could have run."
Scannell spouts this season's standard Democratic line about the need for fiscal responsibility and says his track record of community service proves he's sincere. Plus, his name looks real neat on those posters.
Known for his smarts, Democratic challenger BRIAN MUELLERS cut his political teeth as a volunteer in Glen Cove Mayor Tom Suozzi's campaigns. In return, Suozzi has loaned his advice and influence to Muellers, who is running a tough fight against incumbent John Canning.
To his credit, Muellers demonstrates a firm grasp of the issues, speaking with equal ease about the cost of the county's patronage payroll and the scandalous expense of the Benefit Plan Administrators health-insurance fiasco. Muellers even claims the support of some still-anonymous Republican mayors. The numbers may also work in Muellers' favor, since the district's 19,000 Republicans could be offset by the 20,000 voters who are registered Democrats, Independents or blanks. "Theoretically, you can win this district without getting any Republican votes," he says.
The bigger they come
If there's a race in which DiNapoli can't bear to roll over, it's the one against Presiding Officer Bruce Blakeman. Not only is Blakeman the highest-profile GOP legislator, but he looked vulnerable last year when he lost Nassau by 30,000 votes in a failed attempt to unseat State Comptroller Carl McCall.
Enter the Democratic challenger for the Blakeman's 7th District, JEFF TOBACK. The Oceanside lawyer stands a chance, since the district's 15,000 Democrats and 10,000 blanks could send the 17,000 Republicans backing. Toback says he wants to restore accountability and financial stability to county government. Even if he loses, a tight finish would send a message to the GOP. "Everyone knows who Blakeman is, and everyone knows he's sitting up there right next to Tom Gulotta, and everyone knows he's the No. 2 man in Nassau government, and everyone know it's his fault," Toback says. "I'm going to take out the biggest one."
He's got game
With $37,000 and a full-time staff of 10, DAVID DENENBERG launched a campaign that Democratic headquarters couldn't ignore.
Denenberg, a Merrick attorney gunning for Ed Ward's 19th District seat on the South Shore, pledges to use his legislative salary to open a local office where constituents could meet with him and voice their concerns. Denenberg speaks forcefully about Nassau's need to reassess all property and ditch the use of expensive outside lawyers. "Personal-services contracts have just got to end, period," he says.
That kind of blunt talk has earned him the Independence, Green and Working Families lines, in addition to his Democratic backing. Their combined support could push him over the top in a district where Democrats trailed by about 3,000 votes in the last legislative election. Groups like Working Families "know that I'm basically in their corner," Denenberg says. "I'm more conservative, but they know I'm a straight shooter. Where we differ, I'll say we differ."
He's got numbers
A miserably split ticket in 1997 cost the Democrats the 1st District seat, which by the numbers they should have won handily. This time, PATRICK WILLIAMS of Uniondale has taken sole control of the left-wing, running against GOP incumbent Darlene Harris on the Democratic, Liberal and Working Families lines.
Williams, a banker, says he'll guard the well-being of constituents by pushing for fair property tax assessments and job training programs. "I'm more interested in representing the interests of the people than the interests of the party," he says.
That might explain why Working Families activist Bernard Smith says the Dems ignored Williams until the grassroots party kick-started his campaign. "Only after we got Patrick Williams going and showed he was the best candidate did the Democratic Party respond," Smith says. "They were Johnny-come-latelies."
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