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Suffolk Closeup: Faithfully leading the Dems of Suffolk

“I’ve been doing this since I was 12,” Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer was saying the other day about his involvement in Suffolk politics.

Now 57, Mr. Schaffer has been the Suffolk Democratic chairman since 2000. As county Democratic leader, “I especially love the generational stuff — getting young people into politics,” he said.

It’s kind of full-circle for Rich.

He’s a former member of the Suffolk County Legislature, elected at age 22. On the Legislature he charted an independent course; indeed, informed independence has been a hallmark of Mr. Schaffer’s route in politics and government.

He’s been Babylon Town supervisor for more than 18 years. After two series of terms, he’s the longest-serving supervisor in Babylon history. And this year he’s running for re-election.

“I’m a homebody, most comfortable staying local,” says Mr. Schaffer of North Babylon. “I love doing the supervisor’s job. I kind of love doing both, being supervisor and county Democratic chair.”

And, also, he’s chairman of the Suffolk County Supervisors’ Association.

I’ve known Rich for decades. He’s always been, and still is, a self-effacing, open and available guy. For example, he lists not only his office phone but his cell number on the Town of Babylon website for constituents to call.

How many government officials do that?

He was speaking the other day by Zoom to the East Hampton-based group “Reachout and Rebuild,” a grassroots group of activists, as it describes itself. Explaining how he began in Suffolk politics at 12, he said it was because “Tom Downey’s brother [Jeffrey] and I were good friends.” Mr. Downey had gone on to be elected to the House of Representatives after a stint as a Suffolk County legislator.

Mr. Schaffer subsequently worked for Babylon Town Supervisor Tom Fallon and the town’s Deputy Supervisor Pat Halpin, who became supervisor, and Town Board member Sondra Bachety, who became a county legislator and the first woman presiding officer of the Legislature.

Mr. Schaffer graduated as a political science major from SUNY Albany, where he further learned applied politics as its student association president. He attended Brooklyn Law School. But then “in the middle of law school” he was asked to run for the Suffolk Legislature.

And he won in 1987, a victory that led to his losing his law school scholarship, he noted. He had to finish up as an evening student and thus was not entitled to a scholarship.

On the Legislature, his independent bent included working closely with Legislator Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor then a Republican, both environmentally- and reform-minded.

This independent quality continues. For example, although Steve Bellone is the Democrat currently in Suffolk government’s top county job — county executive — Mr. Schaffer has firmly broken with him. This has included in recent times Mr. Schaffer corresponding with other Democratic chairs throughout New York warning them about Mr. Bellone who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He’s told them that Mr. Bellone is “not statewide candidate material.”

Rich left the county Legislature in 1992 to be Babylon supervisor through 2001 and returned as supervisor in 2011. In recent elections he’s received 70 percent of the vote.

He sees Suffolk as a “purple” county with Donald Trump winning here in 2020 by only 232 votes compared to 51,440 in 2016, and Democrats having successes in a variety of contests over the years. He also notes changing demographics are advantageous to Democrats.

His efforts to get young people “more involved” in the Democratic Party includes promoting “Young Democrats” clubs and getting young people on the executive board of the Suffolk Democratic Committee.

He’s encouraged minority candidates. Under his leadership, Errol Toulon, now Suffolk sheriff, became the first African-American in a countywide elected post, and DuWayne Gregory, the first African-American to be presiding officer of the Legislature.