By Leah Chiappino
As reported by TBR News Media, April 13, the Huntington Town Board will have two open seats in November, with Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D) and Councilman Eugene Cook (R) deciding not to run for reelection.
The Huntington Republican Committee has nominated two candidates: attorney Theresa Mari, and town director of labor relations, Brooke Lupinacci.
Democrats have put forward Don McKay, deputy commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, and Jen Hebert, program director of Kerber’s Farm School and former Huntington school board president.
TBR News Media spoke to Mari and Hebert for the April 13 edition, and subsequently had the opportunity to sit down with McKay and Lupinacci to discuss their thoughts on the election, their background and what motivated them to run.
Running on the Democratic ticket, McKay was born and raised in Eaton’s Neck, prior to moving to Dix Hills 24 years ago.
Always interested in current events, he decided to pursue a career in journalism, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications in 1987 from Bethany College in West Virginia.
“I started reading Newsday since I could read,” he said, noting he served on his high school paper as a photographer, further fueling his passion for the industry.
After graduation he worked as an admissions officer for Bethany for a year, before returning to Huntington to launch his journalism career as newspaper reporter for the North Shore News Group in Smithtown, covering the towns of Islip, Brookhaven and Huntington.
“You just learn so much,” he said of his time in journalism. “It’s really one of the best jobs to prepare you for your future.”
Two years later, he was hired as the government reporter for The Saratogian, a daily newspaper in Saratoga Springs, through a college friend who took over as sports editor. After four years there, McKay returned to Long Island to run The Huntington News.
McKay said several local topics he wrote about as a newspaper reporter still remain unresolved.
“It’s affordable housing, it’s taxes, it’s public safety, it’s quality of life, maintaining Huntington’s outstanding quality of life, and it’s protecting the environment, our bays and harbors to preserve and protect our marine environment,” he said. “So a lot of issues back then remain constant today.”
McKay, who worked as a commercial fisherman on the weekends while working as a journalist, said the transition out of the profession came when he was getting married, and a reporter’s salary became unsustainable. Still wanting to serve, he said getting into town government was the perfect fit. He served as a legislative aide to then Huntington Councilman Steve Israel (D), and joined the staff of former Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) as the town’s public information officer.
“I’ve always enjoyed public service,” McKay said. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people, resolving issues, resolving community issues, neighborhood issues, helping people get through issues of concern.”
In 2006, he was appointed director of Parks and Recreation for the town, overseeing the expansion of Veterans Park in East Northport, Manor Field Park in Huntington Station, Breezy Park in Huntington Station and an expansion of the Dix Hills Ice Rink.
In February 2018, McKay was appointed deputy commissioner of the Suffolk parks department where he oversees 50,000 acres of parkland, 14 major active parks and more. If elected, he said he would likely step down from the county due to ethics laws.
High taxes are among McKay’s motivation to run.
“I just think that this current administration and Town Board is not being responsive to the community’s needs,” he said. “I feel that I can bring a new perspective.”
The new Republican candidate said she is a lifelong Huntington resident, whose family has lived in the area for generations.
Originally a journalism major at NYU, she decided to go to law school after being inspired by a media law course she took.
“I had a phenomenal professor,” she said. “I was totally intrigued by the law and I wanted to write about cases and legal proceedings. It was at that time that I decided that maybe I could have a better edge in my journalistic writing, if I went to law school to get a legal background.”
Then, Lupinacci took an oral advocacy course at Touro Law Center, inspiring her to delve fully into the legal profession.
Her first job out of law school was as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, working on misdemeanor level offenses, such as graffiti infractions, assault, bias crimes and vehicle traffic violations. She then joined the county’s Domestic Violence Unit, before focusing on white collar crimes, such as embezzlement, fraud, home improvement scams, welfare fraud and money laundering.
“I really did enjoy my time in white-collar crime because it was more than just a one witness-type case, or ‘he said, she said’ type thing, if you will,” she said “ It was a real challenge intellectually, because I got to work with forensic auditors and I had a specialized team of detectives when I was prosecuting prevailing wage cases.”
When Lupinacci had her first son in 2015, she decided to leave the county District Attorney’s Office to become a Huntington Town assistant attorney. Mentors also told her that after a decade as a prosecutor, it would be a good time to step down.
“Being a Huntington resident, I thought it would be great to be working for the town that I grew up in,” she said.
Throughout her time with the town Attorney’s Office, Lupinacci helped prosecute zombie homes, hoarder properties and squatter houses, and served as counsel to the town’s elected officials, departments and staff, her campaign said. She said she enjoyed appearing in District Court and, since she loves to write, drafting legislation.
Lupinacci now serves as town director of labor relations in the Office of Personnel, with responsibilities including negotiating collective bargaining agreements, handling complaints and managing recruitment.
“It’s very fulfilling,” she said. “I find that I’ve so far have been able to, I think, make connections between management and the employees. I’ve also been able to help the department heads in building their departments, and establishing some new titles while working with the Suffolk County department of civil service. And it’s really been great.”
For Lupinacci, public service at an elected level was the next logical step in her career.
“I think that I’ll build on the great things that have already been started,” she said. “I know the people in Town Hall that make the wheels turn.”
One issue she said motivated her to run, was Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) proposal to build 800,000 new homes over the next decade, which requires municipalities to rezone around train stations.
“I definitely plan to stand ground on and protect Huntington from overdevelopment and some of the initiatives that Hochul seems to be trying to put upon us,” Lupinacci said. “Local control is important. We here know our counties better than those that are far removed in Albany.”