How Long Island judges win races before they start

When longtime Conservative Marian Tinari ran for Huntington District Court last fall, she didn’t just have the backing of her party. She was also endorsed by the Republicans. And the Democrats. And the Independence and Reform parties.

All that harmony was orchestrated by the man who is no doubt her biggest supporter — her husband, Frank Tinari, the new leader of the Suffolk Conservative Party.

The multiparty support for Marian Tinari was so formidable that no one bothered to oppose her. In getting the cross-endorsements, she was not unusual in Suffolk County, where one in four judicial candidates has been backed by both Republicans and Democrats in the past 10 years, all victors in races that were won before they started.

But the sheer number of parties supporting her, despite their stark conflicts in judicial philosophy, as well as her husband’s involvement, make her election a vivid example not only of how completely party leaders dominate Long Island elections, but how that dominance reaches into the courts.

That troubles legal scholars who have long criticized the state’s judicial selection process. “It’s unseemly, it’s unbecoming; but it’s legal and business as usual for New York judgeships,” said James Sample, a Hofstra University law professor who has studied judicial selection.

In Nassau, where judicial races are more competitive, about 10 percent of the judicial candidates in the past 10 years were cross-endorsed by the major parties. But election records show that cross- endorsements have increased in both counties in recent years: From 1996 through 2005, just one judicial candidate in Nassau and 31 in Suffolk were cross-endorsed by the major parties. In the past 10 years, 25 candidates in Nassau and 63 in Suffolk were cross-endorsed by the major parties.

The reason for that is clear, leaders say. With cross-endorsements almost always guaranteeing election, candidates don’t have to spend money on political advertising and leaders don’t have to enlist party volunteers to get out the vote.

“It’s much easier,” said Toni Tepe, Huntington Republican leader.

State law makes it illegal to give a party line in exchange for something of value, but trading party lines without an explicit quid pro quo is not, legal experts said.

Even within these bounds, though, the practice is one of the most questionable examples of the political horse trading that has become routine on Long Island. It can become as involved as draft-day maneuvering in the NFL, with deals extending over years and involving parties as disparate as the Conservatives and the organized-labor-oriented Working Families. In Suffolk, cross-endorsements have included top office holders, such as District Attorney Thomas Spota and Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, but their effect on the judicial elections is particularly pronounced.

This year, the political parties have already agreed on cross-endorsements of all four of Suffolk’s higher court judgeships — one County and three Family — up in November.

“It flies in the face of everything we believe when we walk into the voting booth.” – Jennifer Thompson

While leaders of minor parties have defended cross-endorsements as just about their only way of electing qualified loyalists to the bench, some law professors and critics of New York’s unusual system of judicial selection say that comes at too high a price: It leaves the public with little real choice in selecting judges who make critical decisions affecting businesses, families and the potential for serious charges of criminal wrongdoing. Because judicial candidates are barred from expressing their political views or campaigning, endorsement by a single party can provide a strong indication to voters about where a candidate stands, while cross-endorsements offer a confusing picture.

“It flies in the face of everything we believe when we walk into the voting booth,” said Jennifer Thompson, a conservative Republican who lost her first bid for Huntington Town Board last year after cross-party negotiations involving Tinari’s judgeship and the town board seats.

“When they see somebody’s name on a party line, that represents something to them on a philosophical basis,” she said. “The average voter just doesn’t know.”

Just how judges get on the bench on Long Island is a question federal investigators have posed to Frank Tinari’s predecessor, Edward Walsh, who was convicted March 31 on federal charges of wage theft and wire fraud. Although Walsh was prosecuted for doing political work — and gambling and golfing — while he was supposed to be doing his job as a deputy county sheriff, his lawyers maintain that the real reason federal attorneys pursued a case against him was in part his influence over the selection of judges.

As leader of the largest county Conservative Party in the state, Walsh’s backing could make the critical difference in a judicial election, bringing in up to 30 percent of the vote. Walsh’s lawyer, William Wexler, said in an interview that he had no information to give prosecutors.

Frank Tinari succeeded Walsh as leader of the Suffolk Conservative Party, which bars felons from the office. An attorney who has been involved with the party for 30 years, Tinari makes no apologies for using his political influence to help his wife get a judgeship.

“Marian has been an active Conservative since 1988 and has worked for the party,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think she should be penalized if she’s qualified to be a judge by the mere fact that she’s married to me.”

Before becoming a judge, Marian Tinari worked as a court attorney referee, law clerk and an assistant district attorney. The Suffolk Bar Association found her qualified.

Asked about her cross-endorsements, Marian Tinari released a statement through a court spokeswoman: “I was very humbled and appreciative when all political parties supported my candidacy for Suffolk County District Court Judge.”

The Toll

New York is one of just seven states that allow fusion voting, which permits candidates to run on multiple party lines. The practice is a reform that was introduced decades ago to give minor parties more of a voice and to break the stranglehold of Manhattan’s Tammany Hall machine. But over time, leaders of both minor and major parties have traded party lines with little regard for political philosophy, and the major parties have occasionally come together to block the influence of smaller parties.

“It would be like a card game.”– John Cochrane

“It would be like a card game,” said former Suffolk Republican leader John Cochrane.

When Nassau District Court Judge Anna Anzalone ran for state Supreme Court in 2014, the Nassau County Bar Association failed to find her qualified — a rare determination for a sitting judge. Nonetheless, both the Nassau Republicans and Democrats endorsed her.

Although she is a Republican, in endorsing her GOP leader Joseph Mondello violated his long-standing agreement not to back candidates the bar association failed to approve. At the time, Republican officials called the association’s decision partisan. Mondello said that while he would have liked bar association approval, “if . . . games are going to be played, you have to adjust your sails.”

John McEntee, who was then bar association president, defended the screening committee’s rating. In a letter to Newsday at the time, he pointed out that the committee was bipartisan and wrote that it found “by an overwhelming margin” that Anzalone “lacked the qualifications and experience necessary” for Supreme Court. Under association rules, the committee’s specific findings are kept confidential.

After her election, she asked that the Suffolk Bar Association review her qualifications because she was seeking to extend her term beyond the mandatory retirement age of 70. In May 2015, that association found her qualified.

Anzalone did not respond to calls for comment.

Despite the debate over her qualifications, Anzalone had something that would appeal to any party leader: the support of the New York State Laborers Political Action Committee, which was controlled by her husband, George Truicko. The PAC, which has contributed to the Nassau GOP consistently over the years, gave handsomely to the party in 2014, with $24,050 coming before her nomination and $12,500 right after her election.

“… if you come to me and say you want to run for an office, I would say to you, can you raise a certain amount of money?” – Jay Jacobs

The effect of the cross-endorsement was powerful. Anzalone was one of six Supreme Court candidates cross-endorsed by the major parties. All six were elected to the bench. Three others, including two who ran on a single party line, were shut out.

The ability to raise money for a party, as Anzalone’s husband had done, is an important consideration when selecting judicial candidates, party leaders say.

“There is an expectation in every single office if you come to me and say you want to run for an office, I would say to you, can you raise a certain amount of money?” said Nassau Democratic leader Jay Jacobs.

In 2014, every single Nassau Democratic candidate for higher court — Supreme, County and Family — generated at least $50,000 in donations for the party’s county committee. And four District Court candidates each raised at least $17,500 for the county party, according to a Newsday review of hundreds of campaign filings.

Under state judicial ethics rules, contributions made by judicial candidates must be used for specific campaign expenses. Contributions made in a lump sum, unconnected to expenses, particularly before a candidate is nominated, are prohibited to prevent the appearance of buying a nomination. A judge violating the rules could be subject to discipline.

“In New York, many lawyers are desperate to become judges and will do almost anything for the party leaders, who can, in turn, make that dream their judicial reality.” – James Sample

Jacobs said that the contributions went primarily to a coordinated judicial campaign, which he said was legal. “We’re straight up about it,” he said. “Once those judges reach the bench, it’s hands-off from the Democratic Party.

Although records don’t show the same level of contributions in 2015, Jacobs said he might solicit them this year if there are contested judicial races.

“In New York, many lawyers are desperate to become judges and will do almost anything for the party leaders, who can, in turn, make that dream their judicial reality,” Hofstra’s Sample said.

“And the problem with that is that legal acumen has almost nothing to do with who becomes a judge.”

Former Republican leader Cochrane agreed. “It is not because they are particularly brilliant or have credentials,” he said, making the point that success in law school or the courts is far from a primary consideration. “You don’t go to school, you don’t earn marks; you earn it through the political process.”

The Tinari Deal

The political discussions that laid the groundwork for Marian Tinari’s seat on the 3rd District Court, which covers cases in the Town of Huntington, provide a window into the making of a judge. It all began in January 2014, with various accounts portraying negotiations involving five party leaders, four judgeships, two town board seats, a county executive and a vote by the county legislature.

Making the extent of the maneuverings all the more improbable was that, as much as the judgeship may have meant to Tinari, it meant relatively little to the political leaders, other than her husband. A District Court judgeship comes with a $156,200 salary and a six-year term and can be a stepping stone to higher courts. But it has no patronage jobs and little court work to hand out. It is a lower court that primarily handles misdemeanors and lesser offenses, as well as landlord-tenant disputes.

“You don’t want to put an idiot in just because they’re a lawyer,” said Huntington Democratic leader Mary Collins, who rued the fact that when someone becomes a judge, the party loses a valuable worker. “Once a person’s on the bench, they’re lost because they’re precluded from doing anything for the party.”

Nonetheless, a judgeship can be a way to reward a loyal party volunteer or can be a useful chit in cross-party deal making.

Against this background, in early 2014, Frank Tinari, who is also the Huntington Conservative leader, approached Tepe, the town Republican leader. She said he proposed a full slate of District Court cross-endorsements that included the incumbents, Republican Steve Hackeling and Conservative Paul Hensley, as well as Democrat James Matthews for the seat from which the Conservative John Andrew Kay was retiring. Matthews is Tinari’s former law partner.

Journey to becoming a judge

Credit: Roderick Eyer

Marian Tinari was not part of that package, but rumors had begun to circulate that another District Court judgeship would open up, something that would emerge in a telling way months down the line.

Frank Tinari’s proposition ran into problems because Tepe assumed a negotiating position that other political leaders take: Once a judgeship is held by a person from a particular party, it stays with that party.

Tepe said she reminded Tinari of an earlier deal they made: She had agreed to back Kay in 2010, as long as the seat returned to the Republicans once he retired. Tepe said she wanted that judgeship back.

Tinari denied that he had agreed to that, she said. Their talks broke down.

Tinari, whose party seldom wins a political race on its own but can draw thousands of votes to a judicial candidate, turned to Collins, the town Democratic leader, despite their parties’ differences in philosophy. They quickly cut an unusual deal: Conservatives would back two Democrats for District Court in exchange for Democrats backing one Conservative in 2014 and another Conservative in 2015, Collins said.

It was agile maneuvering — in fact, too agile for some Conservatives. The two Democrats the Conservatives agreed to back, Matthews and Patricia Grant Flynn, also accepted the line of the left-leaning Working Families Party, something staunchly opposed by the state Conservative Party leadership.

“I do have a problem with the Conservative Party participating in cross-endorsements with the Working Families Party,” state Conservative chairman Michael Long said in an interview. “They represent a philosophy that is alien to everything the Conservative Party believes.”

Tinari said the Democrats got the Working Families line after the Conservative endorsement.

For Matthews and Flynn, the Conservative line proved to be a key cross-endorsement in the November election. It provided the margin of victory for Matthews and significantly boosted Flynn.

Until now, Marian Tinari’s name had not surfaced officially in connection with a judgeship, but shortly after the election the long-rumored judicial retirement finally emerged. District Court Judge G. Ann Spelman announced she was leaving the bench.

That’s when the commitment by the Democrats to endorse an unnamed candidate of the Conservative Party’s choosing crystallized into their endorsement of Marian Tinari.

Collins said that under the deal she struck with Tinari that won Conservative endorsement for Democrats Matthews and Flynn, the Democrats were committed to endorsing a Conservative for the next District Court opening. The deal was made easier, she said, because no Democratic lawyers were interested in the judgeship. Marian Tinari was, and she became the candidate.

Frank Tinari said Spelman’s retirement came without warning but that he was happy to propose his wife as her replacement. “Did I help to try and put the nomination together? Yes, as soon as we found out that it became available by Gigi Spelman stepping down,” he said.

Both Tepe and Collins, however, said there had been rumors of Spelman’s retirement for months. Spelman and her husband, Randolph, who served on the town Conservative executive committee with Tinari, did not return calls for comment.

Because Spelman retired before her term was completed, officials had to appoint someone to take her seat on the bench until an election for a full term took place the following November. Collins gave Suffolk Democratic leader Richard Schaffer just one name for that seat: not that of a Democrat, but Marian Tinari.

Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone forwarded her name to the county legislature, which in March 2015 unanimously approved her.

She would still have to stand for election, but the appointment gave her the advantage of incumbency.

In politics, though, a simple advantage is not always enough. There was one more deal waiting to be made.

Final Stage

In 2015, judgeships were far removed from the concern of Huntington Democrats, who were focused on retaining control of the five-person town board. They held a 4-1 edge. Two seats were up, and four candidates were running for them.

While every party has an executive committee, longtime observers of Long Island politics have noted how for decades strong leaders have influenced party positions and endorsements.

Frank Petrone, the Democratic Huntington supervisor, asked Frank Tinari to back both Democratic candidates. Tepe, who hoped to make Republican inroads, wanted him to endorse a Republican and a friendly incumbent, who is a member of the Independence Party.

Tinari, in effect split the difference.

The reason for that, according to Petrone, was obvious: “I think he needed to keep everyone happy.”

Tinari wanted both the Republicans and Democrats to back his wife in her run for District Court, Petrone said, and while the Democrats had supported her appointment there was no guarantee they would endorse her electoral bid.

“An appointment is one thing; to run for a seat is another,” Petrone explained.

Tepe recalled, “Tinari said to me, ‘The Conservatives are willing to endorse one person. Choose who you want.’”

Tinari said he did not recall telling her she could pick whom she wanted, something that would have put a political card on the table without allowing the Conservative executive committee to evaluate candidates on their merits.

Whatever the circumstances, Tepe faced a tough decision. Incumbent Gene Cook had been a friend to Republicans on the board and was popular with voters, even though he was a member of the Independence Party. Jennifer Thompson, who serves on the Northport school board, was a newcomer to Huntington town politics, but Tepe liked her a lot.

But when Thompson appeared before a Conservative screening committee, she said she got a cool reception. Tinari asked most of the questions and took an adversarial approach, she remembered, recalling that she “got the distinct impression that I was not welcome.”

Tinari said the Conservative executive committee did not find her qualified. “We didn’t think that she was a good candidate,” he said.

In the end, Tepe went with Cook, the incumbent. The Republicans also endorsed Marian Tinari for the judgeship. Tepe had known and liked Marian Tinari for years and came from the same side of the political spectrum. “There basically was no reason for us not to be supportive at this point,” Tepe said.

In what was barely a cherry on the cake, Tinari also received the endorsements of two much smaller parties, the Reform and Independence.

Huntington Independence Party leader Kenneth Bayne said there was nothing complicated about why his party endorsed Marian Tinari. He, like a spokesman for the Reform Party, said she was the only one who asked for the endorsement and that she was qualified.

Spokesmen for the Independence and Reform Parties said that Tinari was the only candidate who sought their backing for District Court and they found her qualified.

That would seem to be the end of a long political story, but it wasn’t. One of the charms of cross-endorsements is that withholding one can have as much impact as bestowing one, something Thompson — who didn’t get the Conservative Party nod — found out the hard way.

Sometime around July, Tepe learned that the Conservatives were running their own candidate for the other town board seat, a move that could only hurt Thompson by siphoning votes from her. And that’s exactly what happened.

The Conservatives’ Town Board candidate, Michael Helfer, an attorney who had no listed campaign committee, got 2,827 votes — the critical margin of difference. Her opponent, Democratic incumbent Susan Berland, beat Thompson by just 1,212 votes.

“Had I had the Conservative line,” Thompson said, “I would have won my race.”

Tinari, running on five party lines with no opposition, swept to easy victory and a full six-year term with 24,468 votes. Thanks to cross-endorsements, the longtime Conservative drew the plurality of them — 11,090 — on the line of her party’s longtime antagonist: the Democratic Party.