It’s hard to picture now, but just a few years ago Long Island was a veritable fortress of GOP strength. So impenetrable were the Suffolk and Nassau Republican committees that it looked like there would be no change to the Democratic side for a century. Picture a tank, rolling down a street, crushing everything in its path. Or a steamroller flattening out hills and transforming the landscape that took millions of years to build. That is how powerful these organizations were.
Of course, even tanks get old and break down.
Today, walking into Suffolk County Republican Committee headquarters in Bohemia will give the visitor no sense of the strength that the party once had. In fact, it might put the person in mind of a small grassroots group, possibly even a lesser-known third party. The space does not suggest the seat of the former juggernaut. Its doors are thin and cheap. A broken copy machine sits near the front window. One staffer mans the phones, which are ringing now but presumably were not in the past couple of years when Harry Withers ran the party. The computers look old and beyond out-of-date. Atari has nothing on these machines, which hold the files behind the Suffolk County Republican party. The conference room is small and cramped and holds no real history. At least not yet.
The only thing that feels fresh and energized is newly elected Chairman John Jay LaValle. He really isn’t new to politics of course, having held both a seat on the Brookhaven Town Council from 1996 to 2000, when he became the youngest town supervisor in Brookhaven history. He was a bold young politico, rankling some of the old guard while carving out his own legacy. He took a break from the game in 2005. He got out unscathed, unlike many of his colleagues. Now he’s back, and he says it is going to be different.
“In six months, you will not recognize this party from where it is today,” LaValle says. “We will bring this back to where it used to be, where it needs to be, to affect change.”
At 42, he is older and wiser. Before he left office he married his wife, Allison, and the couple had their first son. Now, he has two sons, a few more pounds around the midsection and a lot more gray hair.
“It actually turned gray after I left office,” laughs LaValle. “How does that make sense?”
LaValle does have some luggage. He was a member of the Brookhaven Republicans, in a place called “Crookhaven” by the media and critics. The name was not undeserved. Scandal after scandal rocked the town and the party, the largest of which is still close to LaValle. The mentor of his early days, former town highway worker, New York State Assemblyman and then Suffolk GOP leader John Powell, was convicted of taking bribes and having connection to a truck chop shop. He spent time behind bars for the crimes. He has been out for several years now, and Powell has been dabbling in the old game. In fact, he had a hand in getting LaValle the chairman’s seat.
But LaValle says that Powell is not really involved, and he has not spoken to him since he took the gig on Sept. 23, one day after the committee voted him in at the annual convention. In just two weeks, LaValle will preside over the first election of his career as the Suffolk GOP chairman. The party has lost virtually every major seat it once held in Suffolk County since his days as supervisor.
His GOP lineage is not limited to time spent as an elected official. As a young child, LaValle helped stuff envelopes and prepare mailers for campaigns. His parents were very active in the committee.
“I have every poster we ever did,” says LaValle. “I’ve saved everything.”
When LaValle stepped in, he found the committee $9,000 in debt. In just a few weeks he has erased that debt, and on Oct. 28 he’ll hold his first major fundraiser.
Sitting on the sidelines, LaValle said the loss that really got to him was NYS Sen. Brian Foley (D-Hauppauge), who took the reigns of Brookhaven Town Supervisor after LaValle, defeated longtime Sen. Caesar Trunzo (R-Brentwood) last year. Under the direction of Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk County Democratic Committee have stolen it all.
“I don’t think it’s a question of how good they are, but really how bad we’ve become,” says LaValle.
“We should not have lost any of those [elections],” says LaValle.
His answer to the criticisms of Withers, who inherited a party that still has a little jump in its step before Schaffer turned the tide, is indifferent. “Different person for different times,” he says.
On the eve of his first election as Chairman, LaValle holds no delusions of major upsets.
“I just want to hold the line in this election,” says LaValle. “But next time will be completely different. I think I know what I can do and what needs to be done.”