Nassau Dems Should Learn From the Losers

November 6, 2001

By Mark J. Grossman

The day after Election Day is when newspapers often report the political obituaries of defeated candidates and officeholders.

But today is different. Because today’s paper reports the obituary of a political organization as we have known it — the Nassau County GOP.

Call me a skeptic, but it wasn’t so long ago that even a staunch Democrat like me would have never believed I’d see this day. The Nassau Republican Party had everything going for it. Wealthy constituents. A large and loyal voter enrollment base. And government that offered a full array of services at a very affordable tax rate.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to the 2001 elections. It’s a story that has been retold countless times in the press. For more than a decade, County Executive Tom Gulotta and the GOP majority on the old Board of Supervisors and then the county legislature spent and borrowed like drunken sailors. All the while, holding the county tax rate stable to help ensure their re-election.

And it worked. Until now. And for Tom Suozzi, timing meant everything.

Democratic county executive candidate Lew Yevoli warned of the impeding budget shortfalls in 1997. And Ben Zwirn warned of budget shell games as far back as 1993. But back then, no one really cared. Taxes were stable. Services were growing. Life was good.

Plus, the Democratic Party was marginalized at the polls and structurally in disarray. No one took it seriously.

But that’s all changed. And as Nassau Democrats will soon learn, victory has its rewards as well as its responsibilities.

Suffolk Democrats know this all too well. They enjoyed one fleeting year in 1988 when they controlled both the executive and legislative top spots, only to have it slip away as the economy took a nosedive, forcing taxes up and services down. With Democratic County Executive Patrick Halpin and Presiding Officer Sondra Bachety, tensions ran high between the executive and legislative branches and they rarely, if ever, worked together toward common solutions.

That’s the challenge facing county executive-elect Tom Suozzi and the Democratic-controlled legislature. They’ve got to put aside the traditional “executive vs. legislature” turf positions and find practical solutions to Nassau’s fiscal problems. They have to support each other as Nassau County government makes some unpleasant decisions to balance its budget and eliminate debt.

And they have to help heal the political wounds from the primary election where, ironically, the prime architect of the Democratic comeback — Assemb. Tom DiNapoli — was defeated at the polls, and his lieutenant, Larry Aaronson, was removed as county chair.

If they can do that successfully, Democrats can conceivably be in office for many years to come. But if they stumble, voters may simply go back to their GOP roots.

Yesterday’s election also means opportunity for Democrats on the state and national level. The Nassau GOP traditionally has been the tail that wagged the dog of the state and national Republican parties. It could be counted on for a rousing “get out the vote” rally, or a potent fund-raising stop for state and national candidates. It could be counted on by GOP Senate, gubernatorial, comptroller, and attorney general candidates to help offset the strong Democratic vote from the City of New York. And it could be counted on as a farm system for statewide candidates, such as former Hempstead supervisor and later U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato.

All that’s changed, putting Nassau Democrats in the position now of “delivering” for a statewide ticket, a critical challenge and opportunity as George Pataki, the last statewide Republican officeholder, stands for re-election next year against one of two powerhouse Democrats: State Comptroller H. Carl McCall or former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

It will likely be a bruising primary, and Suozzi should resist the temptation to endorse Cuomo, whose father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, endorsed him in his primary against DiNapoli. In their first year of real power, the last thing Nassau Democrats need is participation in a divisive primary battle, especially since they are now positioned to play an important leadership role in the party’s 2002 campaign.

In fact, it’s unity, discipline and focus that made the Nassau GOP the great political power it once was. It’s a lesson Nassau Democrats can learn from the once great Nassau GOP machine. It always kept its eye on the prize.

Mark J. Grossman is president of a Holtsville public relations firm whose clients include the New York State Democratic Party. The opinions expressed are his own.

Mark J. Grossman, Nassau Dems Should Learn From the Losers.
Newsday, 11-06-2001, pp A37.