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Politics

North Shore residents line the corner of Routes 347 and 112 in Port Jefferson Station Nov. 7 in response to the removal of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Photo by Alex Petroski

They say all politics is local.

The national drama of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the potential ties between President Donald Trump’s (R) 2016 campaign and Russian interference in the election experienced an escalation of tensions Nov. 7, one day after the midterm elections, and the response could be heard as far from Washington D.C. as Port Jefferson Station.

Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) resigned that day in a letter that stated the president requested he do so.

As a result, the left-leaning political action group MoveOn organized nationwide protests called Nobody is Above the Law — Mueller Protection Rapid Response to take place across the country Nov. 7 at 5 p.m. A few dozen protestors congregated at the corner of Routes 112 and 347 to make their voices heard and send a message to Washington. The local activist organization North Country Peace Group acted to mobilize North Shore residents in the aftermath of the news.

“[Trump] firing Sessions and everything that he’s been doing since he’s been in the White House is my impetus to get out here,” Ellie Kahana, of Stony Brook, said. “He’s obviously going to try and get rid of Mueller and conceal whatever Mueller is finding out.”

Sessions’ position at the top of the U.S. Department of Justice would ordinarily make him the person in charge of a special counsel investigation, though he recused himself from that investigation to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because he campaigned with Trump during 2016. Sessions’ potential removal was long viewed as a signal by his opponents that Trump may be moving to undermine Mueller’s probe or even fire him altogether.

When asked by White House pool reporters if acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, whom Trump appointed, was installed to harm the investigation, Trump called it a “stupid question.” While Trump has referred to the investigation as a “witch hunt” repeatedly on Twitter and in interviews, he has yet to take any steps to conceal its eventual findings or cut off its funding.

“I knew this would happen, in fact I thought it would happen at midnight,” said Lisa Karelis, of East Setauket.

Karelis said the Democrats seizing of the U.S. House of Representatives on election night creating the possibility of increased scrutiny triggered Trump’s urgency for a new attorney general. She added Whitaker’s public statements opposing the expanding scope of the Mueller probe prior to his appointment made it clear what the president hoped to accomplish by naming Whitaker acting attorney general.

Members of U.S. Congress and from both political parties have suggested legislation be advanced to prevent removal of the special counsel. The bill has yet to gain enough support to be delivered to Trump’s desk for signature.

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As I sit here, writing my column on election eve, I can feel — or imagine I can feel — the nervousness of a nation on the threshold of the unknown. More than perhaps any other midterm election, this one has come to epitomize the turbulent and contradictory forces pulsating within America today. One thing is certain, however. The day after the election, we will still be living with those same forces: racism, income inequality, foreign affairs and the role today of the Constitution written more than two centuries ago.

Seemingly just in time, although he explains that he started the book two years before President Trump was elected, Joseph J. Ellis has written about these same subjects by sharing the conflicting viewpoints of a quartet of our most admired Founding Fathers. Remarkably they concern these same issues, and hence Ellis states in “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us” that he is writing about “ongoing conversations between past and present.” He even labels chapters “then” and “now” lest the specific themes of his dialogues and how they relate to today are not clear. Our Founding Fathers not only argued among themselves, they argue across more than 240 years, speaking to us in the present — and in a way reassuring us that the dialoguing is not ruinous but rather an asset of our democracy.

So much for our current concern about a divided country.

The four founders are Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington and James Madison. Ellis describes Jefferson’s contemptible views on race as he grew older, insisting as he did that the two races could not live together and that blacks could never be equal to whites. This after a younger Jefferson wrote that “all men were created equal,” and denounced slavery. But as we know, he benefited from many slaves at Monticello in Virginia and sired multiple children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Certainly he struggled with the whole issue of race but did little to try to ameliorate the problem. He might have banned the spread of slavery to the Louisiana Purchase that he so brilliantly acquired in 1803, or sold some of it to compensate slave owners for freeing their slaves or even have provided a safe haven for freed slaves to live there. He did none of that.

In their final 14 years through 1826, Jefferson and Adams exchanged letters regularly, arguing not only for their time but consciously for future Americans to be able to read their deliberations. Jefferson held a romantic notion that economic and social equality — not between the races, however — would come to be the natural order of American life. Adams realistically insisted that “as long as property exists, it will accumulate in individuals and families … the snowball will grow as it rolls.” Adams believed that government had a role in preventing the accumulation of wealth and power by American oligarchs. The Gilded Age of the late 1800s proved Adams right, as the unbridled freedom to pursue wealth essentially ensured the triumph of inequality. So has our own age. We have an endemic, widening gulf. What should be the role of government at this juncture in our democracy?

Madison — who orchestrated the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the ratification, wrote many of The Federalist Papers and drafted the Bill of Rights — changed dramatically from a staunchly held belief in federal supremacy to one in which states and the federal government shared sovereignty, thus allowing future residents to interpret the Constitution according to a changing world.

Washington famously warned against foreign adventuring in countries of little threat to the United States. It was almost as if he could see Afghanistan and Iraq over the horizon.

Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several books about our early history, believes that history helps us understand the present. We can see the same arguments going back and forth that somehow sound an optimistic chord.

And what does he see as the ultimate fix? A great crisis would certainly unite us, he suggests, perhaps even that of evacuation of the coasts with rising seas. He also thinks mandatory national service would help, not necessarily from the military aspect but toward some form of public good.

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Election Day may be over, but the work has just begun.

Political races are not just about the outcomes. Consistent engagement is needed to make actual change once campaigning is over. The momentum we have seen from our community needs to be kept up by members of both political parties, regardless of the 2018 midterm results.

Political engagement starts with voting, but continues with having conversations with elected officials, attending meetings and keeping an eye on meeting agendas. Let the officials know where you stand on critical issues and how you want them to vote while in office to continue to receive your support. Make a call, send an email or set an appointment to meet your state assemblymember, congressional representative or town councilperson at his or her office. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and let your officials know what’s on your mind.

Another key part of civic engagement is having conversations with the people you encounter in everyday life, whether you agree with them or not, and even joining civic associations.

There is no denying that there has been an air of growing divisiveness during the last few years in our country. Conversations across the aisle are needed more than ever.

Those discussions aren’t happening amid disagreements about gun control, health care, taxes and more. Conversations quickly become so heated people who were once friends, or at least cordial acquaintances, avoid each other in supermarkets or delete and block each other on social media rather than talking it through.

We encourage you to take the first steps in saying the chasm forming in this country is unacceptable. Painting swastikas on election signs is unacceptable. Comedians joking about a U.S. congressman with an eye patch saying, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever,” is just not appropriate. Openly promoting racism and encouraging violence goes against fundamental human rights and American principles.

With two years left until the next presidential election, and campaigns warming up already, it’s time to radically change the tone of the nation’s political discourse before it’s too late. People from different political parties can meet up, have intelligent conversations and come to an agreement. Or, simply agree to disagree and respect each other. There used to be a baseline acceptance that differing opinions were just that, and not an indication of evil motives.

Not satisfied with election results or your elected representative? Start demanding political party leaders seek candidates who have fresh, new ideas supported by concrete plans and the knowledge, confidence and energy to get things done, but do it constructively and with an open mind.

Neither party should take anything for granted, nor should President Donald Trump (R). After a turbulent first couple of years, there is serious work that needs to be done to unite our country to get it moving forward, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Will we be better than our political leaders this year?

For starters, will we get out and vote? It is one of our most important civic duties and responsibilities. Not to sound like a pedantic parent, but people risked their lives long ago so that we could become One Nation Under God. If we don’t vote, are we sending a message to our politicians that we are indifferent until something doesn’t go our way?

How can we possibly complain about the people in Albany or Washington in our representative democracy if we didn’t bother to interrupt our busy schedule to elect people who will make decisions for us?

This election isn’t about any one person, and it shouldn’t be. This isn’t a referendum on anyone other than us.

We have to make informed choices, but, even that is not enough. This year, it seems especially important to vote for the strong, courageous and thoughtful individual.

At this point, we have come down to two parties. It’s the Democrats, who say “no” to everything, and the Republicans, who, in unison, say “yes.” Our politicians shouldn’t be on two diametrically opposed teams — this country is filled with people from every team and walk of life.

It’s stunning how unified both parties are. That doesn’t seem especially valuable to the country. After all, shouldn’t Democrats know a good idea when they see it, and shouldn’t Republicans stop something they don’t think will work?

We are a country of rugged individuals. Our system of national and state governments started when people wanted more freedom from taxes, religious persecution and class systems with relatively limited mobility.

How much freedom are we exercising if we vote “all blue” or “all red,” without knowing the candidates, their positions or their ability to differentiate themselves from their party by making their own choices?

The parties have become caricatures of themselves. They are no longer a collection of ideas coming together, compromising and protecting a wide range of people: They seem to exist for their own sakes and for a specific subset of their party.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if a Democrat promised to support some Republican platforms or ideas? Wouldn’t it be refreshing for a Republican to propose something that ran contrary to their hierarchy?

Where are the men and women with big ideas, who can irritate their own party while gaining reluctant appreciation from the other side of the aisle? Since when did everyone in Washington feel like they had to be the Montagues and the Capulets in “Romeo and Juliet”?

Were Shakespeare alive today, I suspect he would have had a field day with the bickering, finger-pointing and bipolar world of politics.

If we vote along party lines, does it really matter what name is attached to the ticket? If we do, are we sending a message that we’d like our representatives to do the same thing?

Maybe, especially for this election, we should scrap the entire notion of party affiliation. After all, we’re better than a mob. Some time between now and the election, we all should get to know the candidates. If we have a chance to speak with them, we should ask them if they’re going to fall in line with other members of their party or if they’re going to think for themselves. We shouldn’t have to elect a party with each choice at the ballot. Instead, we should elect an individual who thinks for him or herself the way we do.

We should show our politicians how it’s done, by making informed choices and then asking them to do the same.

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Partisanship is a distressing topic these days. We are a divided country on so many issues, and savvy candidates in the upcoming elections try to sooth that aggravation by offering to reach across the aisle to get the nation’s business done. But here is an age-old question that is simply unbridgeable: Which are smarter, dogs or cats?

Now many of us have heard of Chaser, a border collie from Spartanburg, S.C., who understood 1,022 nouns. His owner was John Pilley, a scientist who studied canine cognition and trained his pet as part of his work. There was also a border collie named Rico who could identify 200 items. These dogs helped us reach the conclusion that dogs were extraordinarily intelligent and certainly smarter than cats. But had their partisanship colored the verdict of remarkable canine smarts on the part of owner-scientists?

Currently there seems to be a study for every question, and this one is no exception. Stephen Lea, an emeritus professor in the psychology department of the University of Exeter in Devon, England, along with Britta Osthaus, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, England, conducted one such study, according to a recent Laura Holson article in The New York Times. The results are published in the journal Learning & Behavior. In the interests of full disclosure, Lea confessed that he was a cat person. Nonetheless the scientists tried to impartially compare dog cognition with three similar groups: carnivores, social hunters and domestic animals. Among those selected were wolves, cats, chimpanzees, dolphins, horses and pigeons.

Here is what they found.

Dogs cannot use tools, unlike dolphins, New Caledonian crows and chimpanzees, which according to The Times, can harness plant stems to fish for termites. Homing pigeons are trained to fly home over great distances, and probably would be more trustworthy to travel on a 1,000-mile errand than a dog, Lea believes. Domestic animals, like horses, can also impress with their learned tasks and tricks. Dogs seem smart in part, Lea said, “because they like to be trained.” The same cannot always be said for cats.

In my dog-owning years, some 45 all together, I’ve loved and enjoyed the company of three golden retrievers and one royal (the largest) standard poodle. From this small sample, I would conclude that the poodle was the smartest. When I would sit on the sofa and read the newspaper, he would hop up on the cushion next to me, sitting upright as people and that breed do, and peer over my shoulder. I swear I think he was reading the paper, much as paperless people used to do to their paper-toting seatmates on subways before the arrival of the smartphone.

So all right, I am a bit partisan.

The conclusion that Lea’s study reaches is that dogs “are not smarter than they are supposed to be, given what they are.”

Clive Wynne, director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University in Tempe and a dog lover, recognizes merit in Lea’s study. He explains that Lea is not putting dogs down but rather putting them in their proper context. What Wynne touts about dogs is their outstanding capacity for affection.

Cats, I feel, are more aloof. So while Lea concludes that dogs are not particularly extraordinary, I would say that by being so affectionate toward humans, they have created the best possible lives for themselves. I once had a plumber working in my house who, eyeing my dog asleep on a pillow, told me, “In the next life I want to return as an American dog.”

Now if that doesn’t show superior intelligence on the part of dogs and their ability to earn that kind of existence, I’m not sure what could reveal a higher IQ. Certainly our elected officials are not nearly so endearing.

have a few questions for the newly minted Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

What did you learn through this process?

You will be judging legal cases from people from all walks of life, working together with the eight other Supreme Court justices to decide on cases that will determine the law of the land for everyone.

What’s it like to be the accused? In some cases, the accused will be as angry and defensive and frustrated as you were. How will you understand the legal issues of their cases? How will you consider the legal questions and how will you consider the implications for them?

Will you understand the fury some people might feel through the legal process? Will you appreciate their position, even as you use the law to guide your decision-making process?

Maybe not because you, after all, didn’t go through a trial. Well, you certainly didn’t go through a judicial trial. You endured an ordeal, you experienced a political maelstrom and you became a divisive figure, suffering through accusations you found abhorrent.

People prejudged you because of the claims women made about your behavior from years ago.

Will you be able to appreciate the implications of your decisions on the people awaiting them?

Will a process that you found impossibly difficult make you better at your job? Will you grow from this experience, the way people who take an impossible organic chemistry class where they have to memorize and learn structures, concepts and stoichiometry become better students?

People rarely ask for the suffering and hardship that comes during any process. It’s what makes movies about road trips so compelling: People have to overcome or surmount obstacles along the way to get closer to the destination — or the truth.

Will you learn about yourself and gain a new perspective on the country and all of its citizens now that you’ve made that trip?

In many jobs, we ask people to go beyond what might be their natural responses to people or circumstances. Firefighters race toward a burning building when they may want to run toward safety. The same holds true with the police, who enter unknown and potentially dangerous circumstances.

Doctors can’t look at a wound and screech, “Yuck, that’s so disgusting, get that away from me.”

In many jobs, we need to overcome our visceral responses, doing what’s asked and ignoring other parts of our experience because that’s what’s required.

In your case, the country asks you to make the best judgment for everyone, even the Democrats or those who might accuse others of sexual assault.

Will you be able to step out of a reflexive response that’s all too human to make decisions that affect the lives of everyone?

Taking a step away from Judge Kavanaugh, what have we all learned? We know the country is divided and we know people are prepared to find evidence to support whatever conclusions they have already drawn.

Can we become more judicial instead of prejudicial? Can we act the way we all hope Judge Kavanaugh will behave?

The downside of the instantaneous world in which we live is that we expect instant results. We want food as soon as we order it and we want to speak with everyone and anyone whenever we feel the urge, even if we’re driving, standing in a line or watching a movie.

Maybe what we’ll learn is that the judicial process requires time, effort and consideration. Perhaps we can be thankful that the fact-finding, questions and appeals process that accompanies trials will bring out enough information to render a verdict consistent with the law — not a political or any other personal belief.

With Washington leading the way, we have become a divided nation, bickering, fighting, shouting and disagreeing as if we’re at a competing pep rally.

What are we to do?

Perhaps we need metaphors to turn the thermostat down.

To start with the obvious, perhaps we are a nation of onions. No, we don’t give everyone bad breath and, no, we don’t cause gas. We have layers, as Shrek so famously described in his eponymous movie. The surface, which everyone sees, has a layer of anger and frustration, but peel back a few of those layers and we’re filled with sympathy, empathy and concern for our friends and neighbors who, like us, are pursuing the American Dream.

Sticking with the food metaphor, perhaps we’re a kitchen stocked with incredible ingredients trucked in from all over the country. You may never have been to Idaho, but I can assure you that the simple potato in that state is remarkable for its flavor and texture.

While we have all these wonderful ingredients, perhaps we have a kitchen filled with too many cooks, who are changing recipes and oven temperatures so often that the food we’re baking will inevitably be unrecognizable and either vastly overcooked or undercooked.

Then again, perhaps we’re an enormous cruise ship in the middle of a vast ocean. We’re slowly turning but, because we’re such a huge vessel, we move and change direction at a rate that’s hard to perceive, especially when landmarks are either too far away or are masked by an enveloping fog.

Perhaps we’ve become a collection of angry bees, buzzing loudly, perceiving threats from everywhere and everyone — even inside our own honey-producing hive. Are we truly threatened from within and without, facing insurrection among the ranks of other bees, or are we surrounded by majestic purple mountains? Are we creating such cacophony that we can’t hear the birds singing around us?

We may be a batch of apples, looking suspiciously at the other fruit in the bin, wondering if any of us have turned bad, threatening the entire bunch.

Maybe we’re on a roller-coaster ride, racing up and down, screaming and shouting as we circle tracks that we fear might need repair, hoping to return to where we were so we can regain our equanimity on solid ground again.

Maybe we’ve become a boulder gathering size and momentum as it plunges down a hill. Our anger and frustration propel us forward, even as we ignore the kinds of moments and people who could, and should, unify a country. Have you been to a sporting event lately? I’m not thinking of the athletes as unifying forces.

I’m talking about the salutes to members of the military that often occur during the seventh-inning stretch in a baseball game or during a stoppage in the action in the middle of a hockey game. People throughout the stadium — those who think Trump is either a superstar or an imploding supernova — stand and cheer together, thanking these humble men and women for the sacrifice and service to our country.

Those heroes among us are the few who might do the impossible, catching the boulder or slowing it down as it cuts a path of emotional destruction through an outraged nation.

Then again, maybe the best metaphor to keep in mind amid the finger-pointing and criticism and self-doubt is the document that got us this far: the Constitution. It is the enduring net that protects the country and its citizens, even when we seem to be shadow boxing against each other on a high wire at the top of a circus tent.

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When voters head to booths Thursday to participate in several statewide primaries, it is unlikely that the race for a judicial seat presiding over Suffolk County’s Surrogate’s Court will be at the top of their minds. We understand. The governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general races are likely what will drive primary voters to the polls, and deservedly so, as those are high-profile positions with juicy political implications for those who track things like the shifting nuclei of both parties.

So for those who haven’t paid close attention to what’s going on in a judicial race for a court most people probably never heard of, there’s a few things we think voters should know.

Tara Scully and Theresa Whelan are set to square off in the Democratic primary Sept. 13. Scully, a registered Republican, has already gotten the nod to secure that party line in the general election, meaning if she wins the Democratic primary, her name will appear next to both major political parties come November. Whelan, on the other hand, is an actual Democrat, though Newsday has reported that based on a deal cut by party bosses, if she wins the primary she’ll also be granted the Conservative Party line in the general election. Have we lost you yet? To summarize, on November’s general election ballot either a Republican will have both major lines or a Democrat will be listed as both a Democrat and a Conservative.

To try to get to the bottom of this mess, we invited the candidates in for a discussion with the TBR News Media editorial staff Sept. 6. While we are not endorsing a candidate, we have some thoughts we’d like to share anyway.

We admire what Scully did — stepping up and answering a call for a candidate unshackled by predetermined deals. She was able to earn enough petition signatures in a short window of time to run on both major party lines. However, if the result is she is representing both Democrats and Republicans on the ballot in November, it’s difficult to argue that voters still have a fair choice.

And while Whelan is a Democrat seeking a nod from her own party, rewarding backroom dealing designed to circumvent the will of voters is not a practice that should be encouraged either.

Having said all of that, after being in a room with the candidates for an hour, a few things became very clear. Both candidates are running with their hearts in the right place. They each expressed a desire to preside over a court that requires a touch of empathy and compassion, with fairness being of the utmost importance and politics divorced from the job. We also love to see political races featuring two accomplished and qualified women. Each has served as president of the Women’s Bar Association in addition to a litany of other impressive resume lines. Both seem to realize as well that they are essentially — no pun intended — surrogates having the political baggage marring this race imposed upon them. The discussion was respectful, truthful and honest, and each expressed that she had nothing bad to say about the other personally.

Regardless of the outcome of this race, we hope what voters glean from it is yet another reminder that citizen vigilance is not just important for a healthy democracy, but in reality, it’s the only thing keeping it alive. Research candidates. Figure out what these people stand for before you enter a voting booth or be prepared to live with the consequences.

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.

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With less than two weeks to go before New York State’s primaries, we’ve been ramping up our coverage of the 2018 elections at TBR News Media. One thing has become abundantly clear: There are a seemingly endless number of hurdles for who can run, their campaigns and how to vote.

In Shoreham, Rocky Point Fire Chief Mike Yacubich has fought to stay on the ballot after citizens in the state’s 2nd Assembly District challenged his petitions to be the Republican candidate to run for the seat. Their objections were based on the fact that he and his son share the same name — and that there was no distinguishing middle initial indicated on the forms — which they argued could have led to confusion for voters.

In Northport, Democratic hopeful Michael Marcantonio was found ineligible to run for the state’s 12th Assembly District after it was brought to the court’s attention he cast his vote in North Carolina in 2014. At the time, he was a law student at Duke University and didn’t realize judges may rule that ballot severed his five-year residency in New York, which is the time required to run for political office.

In Huntington, Republican candidates have petitioned to create a “Stop LIPA” ballot line for the Nov. 6 elections. Their opponents have filed objections. It has raised questions about when Stop LIPA became a legitimate third party and cast doubts on which elected officials are rallying against the utility’s attempt to get the taxes lowered on its Northport plant, an issue we see as local and party-less.

Throughout the summer, we’ve seen voter drives encouraging teenagers to register before heading off to college. The process of simply obtaining an absentee ballot requires completing a preliminary application that needs to be hand delivered to the Suffolk County Board of Elections Yaphank office or snail mailed at least seven days in advance, and casting an absentee ballot then requires a second trip to the post office. Also, being required to work during polling hours is not listed as a valid reason for obtaining an absentee ballot.

Our state laws regarding how to run for office and how to cast a vote need to be simplified. The process needs to be streamlined and modernized. Our failure to do so hurts both Democrats and Republicans, it knows no party lines. Rather, it collectively silences the voices of aspiring politicians looking to make a difference, employees working long hours to make ends meet and uninformed youth who find too many barriers between them and the polling booths.

First, information on how to run for office and eligibility needs to be made clear and more easily available to the public. A fundamental concept to our democracy is that anyone can run for office — but they have to know how and what to do.

In New York state, anyone with a valid driver’s license can register to vote online and change their party affiliation. Given this is possible, we fail to see any reason why a request for an absentee ballot should not also be fileable via email or an online form on Suffolk County Board of Elections’ website with an electronic confirmation given.

With the technology available today, it’s hard to believe we’re locked into pen-and-paper forms and snail mail to register political candidates for elections and to vote if temporarily out of state. It’s time we re-examine these methods. Participating in democracy should be getting easier, not more difficult.

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