With the surprise victory of Christine Pellegrino in the special election for Assembly District 9 on Strong Island earlier this week, the pundits are already pointing to it as an example of dissatisfaction with the presidency of Donald Trump. While there is likely a lot of truth to that, there is also a local backstory than enabled a serious Democratic candidate to emerge in a district where Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by more than 10,000 voters.

Insiders say earlier this year, all eyes were on who Nassau County Democratic Chair Jay Jacobs and Sufflok County Democratic Chair Richard Schaffer would choose to run for the seat previously held by Republican Assemblyman Joe Saladino, who left to become Oyster Bay Town Supervisor. The district straddles both counties, so both chairs get to play kingmaker. Initially Dems didn’t hold out too much hope for this race, and that didn’t necessarily matter too much to Democratic party leaders, one of whom sniped “there is nothing less powerful than a Republican Assemblyman.”

Jacobs and Schaffer chose Ben Lavender, who was 24 years old and lived with his parents. But according to sources Schaffer was busy behind the scenes working on a deal with Conservative and Republican Party Leaders for various patronage appointments. One of those involved installing Thomas Gargiullo as Tax Receiver for the town of Babylon. Gargiulo was serving as Vice Chair for the Conservative Party of Babylon. The problem was, the town already had a Tax Receiver, Corinne DiSomma, who had been out of the office temporarily caring for a sick relative. Gargiulo, according to sources, walked into the local government office in January and declared himself the new Tax Receiver in front of those who worked there. People familiar with the situation say Schaffer had promised Gargiulo the job behind closed doors, and Gargiulo “wasn’t aware of the fact” that he wasn’t supposed to make it public yet. DiSomma meanwhile, was very unhappy and fired off emails to Schaffer declaring what happened was “criminal” among other things. Needless to say, she had no plans to resign.

With the possible deal falling apart, Gargiulo was approached about running for the open Assembly seat. Sensing opportunity Jacobs, along with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, decided Pellegrino, a lifelong teacher and activist, should get the nod to run instead of Lavender. She was a much better candidate. NYSUT and Working Families quickly came on board and they were able to tap into suburban voter fear over the unsteady leadership in Washington.

But here is the funny thing. Schaffer did nothing. Wouldn’t even endorse Pellegrino. Explained that he couldn’t get involved due to the investigation into the 2014 Senate races that put Mayor Bill de Blasio briefly in the crosshairs. No charges were ever filed in that case by either the Manhattan DA or the US Attorney, and clearance letters were sent out by both offices. But even after that, Schaffer maintained he still couldn’t get involved because the matter was still under investigation by the enforcement division of the State Board of Elections.

This is the same argument the Schaffer camp continues to make, calling any accusation he endorsed Gargiulo “false.” Schaffer doesn’t mince words when he begins, “I’ll say it for the 124th time..” that he is a witness in the Risa Sugarman inquiry and has been instructed by his Attorney not to speak to NYSUT or involve himself in any way with state races. Schaffer maintains he is “thrilled” Pellegrino won, although he acknowledges having a longstanding relationship with Gargiulo, whom he has known for 30 years.

By the same reasoning, Schaffer also failed to endorse John Brooks, the only Democrat to win a new seat on Long Island last Fall after years of promises by State Democrats that Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket would usher in a new era of Democratic dominance in the suburbs that would hold for a generation or more ( in case you missed it, that actually didn’t happen ).

So did Schaffer do more than just sit on his hands in Pellegrino race or was he actively supporting his old friend Gargiulo, the Republican? Hard to say. But one story I was told seems to speak volumes. When NYSUT did screening interviews with both Assembly candidates about a possible endorsement, Gargiulo is alleged to have blurted out to his interviewers, “Schaffer is endorsing me.”

I mean, c’mon, Tom. Didn’t you learn the first time?

I wasn’t in the room where it happened, so I cannot guarantee you it went down exactly like that ( and it was NYSUT, so the fix was likely in for the Democrat anyway ) but you gotta admit; that’s kind of hilarious.