By Karl Grossman
On Independence Day last year, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman dropped a voter registration form into the mailbox in front of the post office in his hometown of Montauk, changing his party enrollment from Republican to the Independence Party. And that, conventional political wisdom had it, would be the end of Mr. Schneiderman.
Indeed, one GOP politician declared: “Put a fork in him because he’s done.”
Well, something unusual happened along the political way. On Election Day, Mr. Schneiderman will be running for re-election not just on the ticket of the Independence Party but as the candidate of the Republican, Democratic, Conservative and Working Families Parties. Indeed, he’ll be on the ballot the week after next—unopposed.
“All the pundits said my political career was over, that I committed political suicide,” reflected Mr. Schneiderman at his legislative office in Sag Harbor last week.
He said he changed his enrollment “to feel more authentic,” that he had “a real issue with the direction that the national Republican Party was moving in” with George W. Bush as president.
“I hoped I would survive. I thought most people would respect my independence, that most people consider themselves independent. I hoped I would secure a major party line. But I was prepared to run without one. It would have been the fight of my life,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to end.”
How did Mr. Schneiderman manage to not only survive but prosper politically?
His legislative district is principally composed of Southampton and East Hampton towns. Southampton’s then GOP leader, Marcus Stinchi, and some other Republican committee members, “gave me a very difficult time.” They “put me through hell.” But “the Democratic Party in Southampton said we would like to work with you.” Mr. Stinchi and his supporters were left conceding he would end up running on the Democratic line, too, and “he’s going to win.” Mr. Stinchi “realized he couldn’t get rid of me.” If they could “keep me on a third party line” the thinking was the GOP could put up a candidate who could “beat me and punish me for leaving the party. Once it was clear that they were not going to defeat me with one of their candidates,” the town GOP endorsed him.
In East Hampton the situation was the reverse of Southampton. “The East Hampton Democratic Party was not on board.” Some Democrats were still upset over Mr. Schneiderman’s 1999 win, running on the GOP ticket, against the late Cathy Lester for East Hampton town supervisor. And, in East Hampton, “the Republicans liked me. They were happy with me as supervisor.” And, because “I was a blank when I was supervisor, they had seen me then as an independent on the Republican line.” So his switching to the Independence Party “wasn’t a big jump.”
Mr. Schneiderman did face a Democratic primary challenge by George O. Guldi, who he defeated for the legislative seat in 2003, but he overwhelmed (by 1,054 to 134 votes) Mr. Guldi, who ran while under indictment on multiple fraud charges.
Mr. Schneiderman mused that “switching parties can be a disaster” for an elected official. He pointed to what happened to Congressman Mike Forbes of Quogue when he switched from Republican to the Democratic Party. “The Conventional wisdom is that you anger your old base and the new base may not accept you.” That’s what happened to Mr. Forbes who, after bolting from the GOP, lost the Democratic candidacy in a primary in 2000.
But changing to the Independence Party is not “going to the other side; it’s going to the middle.” And the “the beauty of the Independence Party” is that both major parties now often “need it to make the margin” for victory. Major party leaders don’t want to annoy the Independence Party. “So this was a different pathway and it succeeded.” He likes the Independence Party in that it has “no platform other than it wants its candidates to be independent and do the best for the people they would represent.”
As for his future, Mr. Schneiderman noted that after his next two-year term, he could run two more times for the Suffolk Legislature before the panel’s six-term limit kicks in. With a background in education, he said he might then be interested in getting into “school administration…And, if I stayed in government, I think there will be choices ahead…I’m taking it day by day.”
Meanwhile, with the switch earlier this month of State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor, also from Republican to the Independence Party, Mr. Schneiderman appears to have set a precedent.