In the lexicon of tarot, cards used by soothsayers for divination, there are many cards used to describe a person’s lot in life.
If Rich Schaffer, the Suffolk County Democratic Committee chairman, could be represented by any card, it would be the chariot. Schaffer is at the head of the race, with the Democrats taking majority positions in the New York State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, but he’s holding onto the reins of two horses, the moderate and far-left elements of his party, and he said his task is to keep both heading in the same direction.
“My job’s been described as the therapist in chief,” said Schaffer, who is also Town of Babylon supervisor. “I’m always either talking somebody off the ledge or helping them through an issue.”
“My job’s been described as the therapist in chief.”
— Rich Schaffer
In last year’s elections, the Democratic Party won big both in New York state and nationally, securing the state Senate as well as the Assembly, and gaining a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a change of pace for the party, which was beleaguered after its loss during the 2016 elections that saw Donald Trump (R) sent to the White House.
In Suffolk County, many GOP members retained their seats despite hard campaigns from the Dems. Longtime Republican representatives such as state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) kept their seats in Albany, while U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) won out at 51.5 percent against his Democratic challenger Perry Gershon. Still, Schaffer said they have made strides in the county, pointing to the election of state Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) who won out over her GOP rival Dean Murray by 2,996 votes.
Schaffer added that he thinks the next time District 1 is up for grabs, it could swing blue.
Suffolk County “has been blue in the past,” the Democratic committee chairman said.
Specifically, he points to the 35-day government shutdown that was put on hold for three weeks Jan. 25. Schaffer laid the blame for the shutdown at the president’s feet and said his Republican supporters in Congress would take the brunt of the blame.
“What they are doing to people’s livelihoods and their survival is unconscionable,” he said. “A political debate has now turned into almost scorched earth, where people’s lives are at stake.”
On the state level Schaffer said there are, all in all, six Democratic members elected to the state Senate who will represent Long Island, including new members Martinez and James Gaughran (D-Northport).
This is important to the party commissioner, as in other years when the Democrats had majorities in both state houses, his experience was many of those focused on New York City rather than Long Island’s more suburban elements.
The differences between those two subsets of Democrats is something Schaffer said he’s particularly aware of. Nationally, much has been said about the rise of much more left-leaning Democrats, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx). She has been open about progressive ideas such as universal health care, establishing tuition-free colleges and trade schools, and creating a marginal tax system as high as 70 percent, which would mostly affect those in the wealthiest tax brackets. A bill for single-payer health care is currently being circulated in the state Assembly.
“You can’t have Cortez running in East Northport.”
— Rich Schaffer
Schaffer said he was not against policies such as universal health care, but he wanted the discussion to be had up in Albany about how the state was planning to pay for that program.
Schaffer also questioned the viability of a Cortez-like candidate in Suffolk County.
“I mean it’s easy for [Cortez] to speak like she does with the district she comes from, when your main election battle is the primary,” Schaffer said. “When you’re running Suffolk County North Shore and your district is not as friendly registration wise, this gets to if you elect Democrats who support basic Democratic ideas.”
Overall, Schaffer was adamant the best way to win Democratic seats in Suffolk County was to form coalitions, work off core democratic principles and promise to work toward local issues.
“You can’t have Cortez running in East Northport,” he said. “Some people will argue with me that ‘Yes, you can,’ but it has not been my experience out here. That’s not to say we can’t have things on the progressive agenda, but they have to be spoken about in a way that’s going to get you 50 percent plus one.”