- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

ROCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y. (AP) - New York Senate leader Dean Skelos may be fighting for his political life in the wake of public corruption charges, but many folks back in his Long Island hometown are more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

They describe him as a “pillar of the community” and “good guy.” One Vietnam veteran walking into a barber shop this week was even more effusive: “If I have to go back to combat, I want him next to me. He’s that type of guy.”

Skelos, who was born, raised and still lives in Rockville Centre, a middle-class village in southeastern Nassau County, insisted he won’t resign after he and his son Adam pleaded not guilty to federal charges.

“I have never received more positive comments from people in my district,” the Republican leader told reporters. “They know me, they know I’m honest.”

The white-haired, 67-year-old Skelos has represented the area in the state Senate since 1984 after serving two earlier terms in the state Assembly. An attorney, Skelos is known as a shrewd negotiator and a frequent ally to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. He has easily won re-election, often defeating opponents by 2-1 margins.

The local athletic field is named for him, and a Skelos campaign sign posted outside his district office across the street from the Long Island Rail Road station was edited to declare: “We Support You, Thank You For Your Service to Our Community.”

Skelos is the seventh top lawmaker to face criminal charges in the past six years, an infamous litany that has also included bribery and kickback charges against longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

For now, Skelos is still in office, though support for the veteran lawmaker appears to be eroding. Fifteen Republican senators signed a statement of support for Skelos on Wednesday, but 16 other GOP senators were noticeably missing. Several Republican leaders from around the state - including some senators and the Suffolk County GOP chairman - have said he should resign his top position.

Democrats walked out of the state Senate on Wednesday after their effort to force a vote on removing Skelos from the top spot failed. They are expected to try again next week.

On Thursday, the Long Island daily newspaper Newsday called for Skelos to relinquish his leadership post but remain in office, as Silver has already done.

In a 43-page federal complaint, Skelos is accused of using his influence to generate income for his son. Among the charges is that Skelos pressured Nassau County officials to award a $12 million storm water project to an Arizona company Adam Skelos represented.

A spokeswoman for the county Public Works department said the company, AbTech Industries, is currently in the design phase of the project, which is expected to be completed in the next few months. Meanwhile, the acting county district attorney has initiated a “comprehensive review of Nassau County contracting practices,” and Democrats in the county legislature are calling for public hearings.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a fellow Republican who testified before a grand jury in the case, said in a terse statement: “The complaint speaks for itself.”

Most voters on the streets of Rockville Centre who agreed to talk about Skelos this week were taking a supportive, albeit wait-and-see approach.

“I don’t think Dean Skelos should be condemned before all the details come out,” said Donna Fiorelli, a Malverne attorney. “And in the end, if it’s determined he did use his position improperly then I believe he should be punished for it.”

Retired Marine Joseph Martello, who wanted Skelos by his side in combat, said Skelos is one of the few politicians he has seen knocking on doors in his neighborhood, interested in constituent concerns.

“I honestly believe that he’s a straight-up guy,” he said, but conceded that if the allegations are proven, “it would hurt me a lot.”

U.S. Rep. Peter King, the best-known Long Island Republican, was cautious about predicting what Skelos may do.

“What Dean has going for him is he is personally popular,” King said. “That means a lot. Some guys, people jump on right away. I haven’t heard anyone badmouth Dean.”

Lawrence Levy, a longtime political columnist for Newsday who now heads the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, called Skelos “the proverbial pillar of the community.”

Levy noted Skelos “has been a part of the political, civic and social life of his village, and the rest of Long Island for a very long time. For now he enjoys a lot of support in the community, regardless of the news articles and the criminal complaint.”

___

Associated Press writer David Klepper in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this story.


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