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Democratic primary

Scully and Whelan face off in Democratic Primary Sept. 13, but they could meet again in the general election

Theresa Whelan and Tara Scully discuss their Democratic primary race, which takes place Sept. 13, during an exclusive interview at TBR News Media in Setauket Sept. 6. Photos by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr and Alex Petroski

Political races for local judgeships don’t tend to garner much attention, but the 2018 race to preside over Suffolk County’s Surrogate’s Court is breaking the mold.

Judge John Czygier Jr., who currently oversees the county’s Surrogate’s Court, is nearing the mandatory retirement age, leaving a vacancy candidates Tara Scully and Theresa Whelan are competing to fill. The position, which yields a salary in excess of $200,000, carries a 10-year term, and the occupant may serve until age 70. The candidates face off in the Democratic primary Sept. 13 for the party line in the general election.

The situation has drawn criticism far and wide, largely on the practice of cross-party endorsement deals. The candidates sat down Sept. 6 for an exclusive interview with TBR News Media’s editorial staff to set the record straight.

What is Surrogate’s Court?

Surrogate’s Court is responsible for handling all issues involving wills and the estates of people who die. The court also handles guardianship hearings and some adoption cases for children whose parents are deceased. Each of New York state’s 62 counties has one surrogate judge except New York and Kings counties, which have two each. The court’s rulings can involve large amounts of money, making it uniquely susceptible to political patronage.

Scully and Whelan both said they have the utmost respect for Czygier and seek to continue his legacy and practices.

“Surrogate’s Court is there to help families when they can’t really help themselves,” Whelan said. “It has to be fair.”

Scully stressed the importance of having empathy in Surrogate’s Court.

“It’s a sanctuary and it needs to be treated like that,” she said. “People there are dealing with extremely difficult issues.”

Family Court Judge Whelan vies for nod

“I thought that it was important that an actual Democrat represented the Democratic Party in this race.”

— Theresa Whelan

Whelan, 56, a Wading River resident, said she is throwing her hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination because of her qualifications and experience.

“I have the bench experience,” Whelan, a registered Democrat, said. “I thought that it was important that an actual Democrat represented the Democratic Party in this race.”

The nominee took the bench in Suffolk County Family Court in 2008, before becoming the supervising judge in 2016. There, she hears primarily abuse and neglect cases. Her responsibilities include overseeing nine judges and seven support magistrates in two courthouses.

“I have assisted hundreds, if not thousands of children to be successfully reunited with their parents,” Whelan said. “And if that’s not possible, we try to find them another loving option.”

Since 2009, Whelan has led Suffolk County’s Child Welfare Court Improvement Project, an initiative to address court practices when a child is removed from a parent’s care while trying to ensure their safety and well-being.

The nominee said she is an active member of the Suffolk County Bar Association and often lectures for them. She co-chaired Suffolk’s Family Court & Matrimonial Law committee for three years and is a former president of the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association. Whelan’s husband, Thomas, is also a judge, currently serving as a Suffolk County Supreme Court justice.

Despite current calls for an end to party patronage, Whelan said the position she’s running for is not a tool to fix the political system. She hopes to win on her own merits.

“I have support of statewide judges, the chief judge, the administrative judge, the bar association, etc. [in my roll on the Family Court],” the nominee said. “I stand here as my own candidate.”

Scully cites her experience in elder law

Scully, 41, of Setauket, said she’s seeking the Democratic nomination after calls by Newsday and other elected officials to challenge the patronage system affecting this and other judicial races.

A registered Republican, she pointed to her years working in elder law as part of the experience she can bring to the Surrogate’s bench.

“I do recognize I have an uphill battle,” Scully said. “But I love the Surrogate’s Court, and I believe the sanctity of our courts has to be preserved.”

Scully started her career working in the executive chamber of former New York State Gov. George Pataki (R), before serving as counsel in guardianship proceedings for the state’s Appellate Division’s Mental Hygiene Legal Service. Like Whelan, she also is a former president of the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association.

Scully began her Port Jefferson-based practice in 2011 focusing on elder law. She said she has extensive experience in estate planning and administration, asset protection and guardianship proceedings, all of which she said would be important knowledge for Surrogate’s Court. Like Whelan, Scully also has political connections in the family as her father, Peter Scully, has name recognition in Suffolk County. He previously served as the regional chief for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and currently works as one of County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) deputies.

Tara Scully said she often provides free legal representation for indigent seniors, veterans and those with disabilities.

“I have a poor business sense in the amount of pro bono work I take on,” Scully said.

In 2015, Scully ran for Brookhaven Town District Court judge where she said she saw firsthand the way party patronage has entwined itself with politics after turning down a cross-endorsement deal. She lost by 173 votes.

“I was so green I didn’t realize at the point that in many circumstances it was business as usual,” Scully said. “I think a lot of people were upset with me that my gut reaction was revulsion.”

Political backstory

“Cross-endorsement deals are dictating who our judicial choices are, and the voter is unaware an individual without political backing, without a political upbringing or allegiance to political parties is never going to take the bench.”

— Tara Scully

Although judges are expected to set aside their personal beliefs, politics has marred the race, though not necessarily thanks to the candidates themselves. Neither Whelan nor Scully were involved in this race as of early summer. Newsday reported earlier this year District Court Judge Marian Rose Tinari, who is married to Conservative Party chairman, Frank Tinari, and is a Conservative herself, had secured the Democratic Party line in the Surrogate’s Court race as a result of a deal with Suffolk Democratic Party chairman, Rich Schaffer, which was one of many similar deals between Suffolk party bosses.

In June, Newsday ran an editorial in the form of a want ad, calling for a candidate “with a backbone to resist pressure from political bosses,” in response to the cross-endorsement of Tinari. Scully said she sprang into action as a result of the editorial to meet a tight deadline, and garnered enough signatures to run as both a Democrat and Republican. With a primary challenger stepping up to the plate, Tinari withdrew. Democrats then selected Whelan, who called herself a lifelong Democrat, as their candidate.

Scully has argued her decision to enter the Democratic primary — despite being a registered Republican — has provided voters with a more transparent choice than if a Conservative had remained on the Democrat line.

“I think the real point is six weeks ago, eight weeks ago, the Democrat candidate was a Conservative, and Democrats would go in and vote and not have any idea that the individual they’re voting for is not in line with their party philosophies,” Scully said. “Cross-endorsement deals are dictating who our judicial choices are, and the voter is unaware an individual without political backing, without a political upbringing or allegiance to political parties is never going to take the bench.”

Whelan argued that voters are equally in the dark with a Republican in a Democratic primary. If she loses Thursday, there will be one name occupying both major party’s lines come November, as Scully has already been penciled onto the ballot by the Republican Party. Whelan joked when voters enter booths Sept. 13 they’ll simply be deciding between two Irish last names with little knowledge of the politics. She also took issue with Scully portraying herself as “standing up for Democratic principles” on her campaign site.

“If I don’t win the primary, voters don’t have a choice, and I think that’s fair to say,” Whelan said. “I’m presenting myself as a Democratic Party member and the experienced judge, so that Tara and I can actually have a real election on Election Day, and I think that’s what she was trying to accomplish in the beginning.”

This post was updated Sept. 11. This post was updated Sept. 12 to clarify a quote from Whelan.

Perry Gershon thanks volunteers and supporters at his Setauket office June 26 after securing the Democratic Party nomination for Congress in New York’s 1st District. Photo by Alex Petroski

The stage is finally set for what will likely be a fierce campaign leading up to the November midterm elections.

Perry Gershon, a largely self-funded first-time candidate for political office, who spent years as a commercial mortgage lender and a small business owner, defeated four other Democrats aiming to take down incumbent 1st District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) June 26.

Kate Browning speaks to supporters as she waits for election results to come in June 26 in Patchogue. Photo by Rita J. Egan

More than 20,300 1st District voters turned out to vote in the primary, which was open to only those registered as members of the party, as per New York State law. Gershon secured 7,226 votes, beating former Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning, his closest competitor, by about 1,000 votes. Vivian Viloria-Fisher, another former legislator, finished third with 3,314 votes. In 2016, about 12,600 registered Democrats went to the polls on primary day to choose between Anna Throne-Holst and Dave Calone.

“The voters showed that we’re tired of what’s going on in Washington,” Gershon said to a room full of supporters and volunteers at his campaign headquarters in Setauket when it became clear his lead would hold up. He thanked his family and those who worked to help him win the nomination, as well as the other four candidates, who he said ran a clean race with an eye on unifying post-primary all along. “Our elected leaders are not responsive to what people are looking for. People want a new breed, and that’s what I stand for.”

Zeldin, who has been quiet about his potential challengers, wasted no time getting the campaign started on Twitter once Gershon became the presumed victor.

“Park Ave Perry may have bought himself the Democratic Party nomination in NY-1, but our Congressional seat is not for sale,” the incumbent wrote. “NY-1 isn’t electing a far left, Pelosi-loving, NYC Democrat who registered in our district very recently just to run for Congress.”

In an interview after his win, Gershon said he intends to make his campaign about health care, the environment and creating high-wage jobs in the 1st District.

Perry Gershon supporters anxiously await election results at his campaign headquarters in Setauket June 26. Photo by Alex Petroski

“I’m really excited, I feel like people believed in me and I’m so happy for it,” he said.

Many of those believers were people who readily admitted they’d never gotten much involved in politics in the past.

“I’ve seen a lot of people, like at my school, very few people who cared about politics beforehand but after the March for Our Lives, after the result of the Never Again movement, and even after what’s happening at the border right now, far more young people are getting involved,” said Scott Egnor, a Ward Melville High School student who helped organize the youth-led local gun control protests in March. He cited Gershon’s desire to ban assault-style weapons and strengthen background checks as the driving force behind his motivation to volunteer for his campaign. “Even at the office, he still wears his March for Our Lives hat, and I think that spoke to me a lot.”

Browning said in an interview from her watch party in Patchogue she’s not sure what her next move might be in politics, but vowed to support Gershon’s efforts to flip the seat in November.

“It’s about taking out Lee Zeldin, and we all need to regroup and support [Gershon],” she said.

All five candidates told TBR News Media in May they intended to support the primary winner.

Reporting contributed by Rita J. Egan.

Zeldin celebrates his 2016 election night victory in Patchogue. File photo by Alex Petroski

The race for the right to challenge New York’s 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in November will be a five-way battle.

The candidates got enough signatures from voters to qualify to be placed on the ballot for the June 26 Democratic primary ahead of the April 12 deadline. June’s winner will face the two-time incumbent congressman and fervent supporter of President Donald Trump (R) in the general election Nov. 6. New York’s primaries are only open to registered members of the applicable political party.

Kate Browning

Kate Browning. Photo from SCDC

Browning is the former 3rd District Suffolk County legislator, a position she held beginning in 2005 before
being term limited out of office. She was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, before moving to Germany at 19 years old and eventually landing in Shirley with her husband Steve in 1989. The mother of three was a bus driver in the William Floyd School District prior to taking office.

“Our district deserves a representative that is going to fight for working families in Suffolk County,” Browning says in a section of her website entitled “Why I’m running,” while also touting her ability to work across the
political aisle. “I’ve focused on quality of life issues, rehabilitating foreclosed zombie homes and selling them to first-time home buyers, keeping them away from speculators and absentee landlords. And I’ve secured funding for clean water infrastructure to protect our drinking water and our shorelines.”

Elaine DiMasi

Elaine DiMasi. Photo from SCDC

DiMasi, a political newcomer, was a federal contractor for more than 20 years in addition to more than two decades of experience as a project manager and physicist at Brookhaven National Lab. She describes herself as a lifelong environmentalist with firsthand knowledge about the potential to jump-start the local economy while safeguarding the environment through the establishment of clean energy jobs.

“I dare to believe in a government that cares for all its people equally, is responsive to them and their concerns,” she says on her campaign website. “An American future that values equality for its people that opens doors of opportunity for all. An America that leads by example through its laws and practices to ensure the dignity, well-being, and freedom of all people.”

Perry Gershon

Perry Gershon. Photo from SCDC

Gershon wastes no time in his personal bio on his campaign website declaring he is a businessman, and not a career politician, having spent more than 25 years in commercial real estate finance. The first-time runner for office says his decision to leave the private sector and seek political office is a byproduct of outrage at the state of politics in Washington, D.C. He points to his entrepreneurial spirit and ability to build consensus among diverse parties as evidence of his qualifications to represent NY1.

“I’m fed up,” he says on his campaign website as to why he’s running. “It’s time Long Island had a strong voice to fight for high-paying jobs, affordable health care, high-quality education and clean air and water. Rather than stand by as Donald Trump and Washington politicians try to divide us, we can rebuild the middle class.”

Gershon and his wife Lisa have two sons and live on the South Fork.

David Pechefsky

David Pechefsky. Photo from SCDC

Pechefsky has extensive experience in government despite never holding elected office. The 1986 valedictorian at Patchogue-Medford High School has held various positions in government and politics during the last 20 years, including as a longtime staffer for the New York City Council, as well as a consultant for the National Democratic Institute from 2010-13. There, he worked to establish a legislative budget office to serve the Congress of Liberia. He also managed a U.S. government-funded program to strengthen the parliament of Somalia. He’s on leave from his current job as a senior adviser with Generation Citizen, a national nonprofit with the goal of fostering civic engagement.

“I am running for Congress because we need to put in place policies that make our economy work for everyone, not just the wealthy,” he says on his website. “I’ve spent my career working in government here in America and as an adviser to governments around the world and know how government can and should work to make things better for all us.”

Vivian Viloria-Fisher

Vivian Viloria Fisher. Photo from SCDC

Viloria-Fisher was also a Suffolk County legislator, serving the 5th District 13 years beginning in 1999. She was born in the Dominican Republic before moving to New York with her family as a child. She also worked as a Spanish teacher in Three Village school district for 12 years.

“As your representative, I will: fight for a national living wage; support job growth in sustainable energy and medical research industries; reinstate tax deductions for workers and students,” she says on her website, among other legislative priorities.

She touts her work on expanding public transportation services, creating a Welfare-to-Work commission in the county and her support for marriage equality prior to its legalization in New York among her proudest accomplishments.

Check TBR News Media in print and online for coverage of both the primary and general election in the coming weeks and months. All information about the candidates is from the Suffolk County Democratic Committee website or the candidates’ campaign sites.

Setauket native David Calone, left, barely trails former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, right, after Tuesday’s primary election. File photos

Waiting is the hardest part.

The Democratic primary to decide who will face freshman U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in the race for the 1st Congressional District seat in November was June 28, but as of print time on Wednesday, Zeldin’s opponent was still a mystery.

The former town supervisor in Southampton Anna Throne-Holst led Setauket native and former prosecutor and venture capitalist David Calone by just 29 votes when the dust settled on election night. More than a week later, it’s still unclear who will come out on top.

There are about 1,800 absentee ballots that haven’t been counted — roughly 15 percent of the overall vote

The Suffolk County Board of Elections will begin counting the 1,794 absentee ballots cast on Thursday, though a department employee said that process might take several days. The absentee ballots will be counted by a bipartisan team of department employees in addition to representatives from both campaigns at the Board of Elections office in Yaphank.

In emailed statements from their campaigns, both candidates expressed confidence about what the tally will hold after all the votes are counted and thanked their supporters for their hard work to date.

“I’m proud to be in the lead after election night, and am most especially proud of the positive campaign we ran,” Throne-Holst said through a press representative. “I owe a heartfelt debt of gratitude to our thousands of supporters and volunteers, who are invaluable partners in getting our message to voters.”

Calone said he has high hopes thanks to the nearly nonexistent deficit.

“Given that there are about 1,800 absentee ballots that haven’t been counted — roughly 15 percent of the overall vote — no one knows who will end up on top until we count every vote,” Calone said in a statement. “More than anything, I’m grateful to Democrats around the district who volunteered to help my campaign.”

Neither candidate hesitated to turn their sites toward Zeldin.

“I expect to prevail once every vote is counted and I look forward to continuing our campaign to provide a strong contrast to Congressman Lee Zeldin, who is one of Donald Trump’s greatest advocates in Washington,” Calone said.

Throne-Holst also invoked presumptive Republican presidential nominee and businessman Donald Trump in referring to Zeldin.

“I look forward to working with Democrats throughout the district as we focus on our common goal of defeating Lee Zeldin,” she said. “We all know Lee Zeldin is not looking forward to going up against my record, and voters will reject not only his extremist views and votes, but also his enthusiastic embrace of Donald Trump, who is dangerous for both Long Island and the country.”

At the end of the night on June 28, unofficial results showed Throne-Holst with 5,446 votes — 50.09 percent of the vote — and Calone with 5,417 votes — 49.82 percent.

Zeldin unseated six-term former U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D) by a wide margin back in 2014, with a final vote total of 54 percent to 45 percent.

Check back next week for an update and results, should the counting be complete.

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