Calcaterra out, but fight continues with GOP lawsuit

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08/26/2010 12:00 AM |

PHOTO COURTESY OF ??
The Suffolk County Democratic Party has selected Jennifer Maertz of Rocky Point (right) to take on incumbent GOP state Senator Kenneth LaValle in the fall. Ms. Maertz had been a campaign worker for Regina Calcaterra (left) the party’s original choice, who was knocked off the ballot for failing to meet state residency requirement.

Democrat Regina Calcaterra’s state Senate candidacy has come to an end, but the legal squabbling over whether her party can field an alternate candidate against GOP incumbent Ken LaValle has just begun.

A hearing is to take place in state Supreme Court today, Thursday, on whether Democrats can replace Ms. Calcaterra with Jennifer Maertz, a Rocky Point attorney who worked on Ms. Calcaterra’s campaign staff. The Democrats and the Working Families Party made the switch last Friday after a state appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that found Ms. Calcaterra ineligible to run. The courts agreed with a claim filed by two Brookhaven Republicans who said Ms. Calcaterra cannot take on Mr. LaValle because she has not lived within the state for the last five consecutive years. Ms. Calcaterra, an attorney who lives in New Suffolk, had a home in Pennsylvania several years ago.

The county GOP now claims the two Calcaterra rulings preclude the Democrats from fielding any candidate. In seeking to have Ms. Maertz tossed off the ballot, too, the GOP claim the courts have invalidated Ms. Calcaterra’s nominating petitions, the legal foundation of every run for political office. Without valid petitions, no one can secure a ballot position.

Democrats counter that the courts ruled on Ms. Calcaterra’s eligibility, not on her petitions, and so that party can follow standard election procedure by filling the vacancy.

The case will be heard before Justice Thomas Whelan in Riverhead.

In a separate move, the Democrats have asked for a clarification from the appellate division of the Second Department regarding its decision against Ms. Calcaterra. The appeals court ruled that the lower court made the correct decision when it invalidated “the designating petitions.” But Democrats argue that the original Aug. 9 decision by Justice John Bivona centered on Ms. Calcaterra’s residency and made no mention of her nominating petitions. (See Ms. Calcaterra’s letter to the editor on page 8.)

The first press release issued by the Maertz campaign called on Mr. LaValle to tell his supporters to end the “sure-to-fail legal action aimed at preventing voters from having a choice this year.”

Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle said Democrats “are talking out of both sides of their mouths,” given that Ms. Maertz unsuccessfully challenged Mr. LaValle’s petitions earlier this summer. In addition to being active in civic groups, Ms. Maertz serves as vice chair of the Brookhaven Democratic Committee.

“The law is the law,” said Mr. LaValle, who is the senator’s cousin. He added that he has known Ms. Calcaterra since the seventh grade and went to high school with her. “They screwed up. It’s their error. We didn’t bring up the issue, [Calverton Democrat] Greg Fischer did, although I’m glad he did.”

The Republicans’ challenge “shows they will do anything to knock her out,” said Suffolk Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer.

“If they think Ken LaValle is so great, why are they working so hard to see that he is unopposed?” Mr. Schaffer said.

He conceded that by entering the race so late and lacking a campaign war chest, Ms. Maertz is definitely the underdog. “But this is a year any incumbent needs to worry,” Mr. Schaffer said. “There’s a very strong feeling out there that people are looking for a change, no matter who the incumbent is. I wouldn’t count anybody out this year.

With control of the state Senate up for grabs, both major parties are fighting particularly hard this year for the Suffolk seats held by Mr. LaValle and Democrat Brian Foley of Blue Point. The Democrats currently hold a slim majority, 32 to 30. Last year the GOP temporarily gained control when two Democrats joined Republicans in a leadership coup.

The GOP controlled the Senate for decades before losing the majority in 2008. Democrats hold a super-majority in the Assembly and that is not expected to change this year. In the gubernatorial contest, Democratic state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo appears to lead Republican Rick Lazio of Nassau, who faces a September primary.

Should the Democrats hold on to the governor’s seat, whoever controls the Senate will either advance or limit the next governor’s agenda.

tkelly@timesreview.com