While Nassau County has been buzzing about the upset victory of the newly crowned County Executive-elect Ed Mangano over incumbent Tom Suozzi, Suffolk’s political waters are just beginning to subside from a tumultuous election season that was fraught with more drama and scandal than an entire season of Desperate Housewives. There were arrests, political battles, allegations, fraud—you name it. Despite the fireworks, much of Long Island missed the histrionics surrounding the elections.
There seems to be an invisible information boundary that exists at Riverhead, the gateway to the North and South Forks. Those living west of this area are from up-island. Traveling east, the towns and communities of wine country and the Hamptons exist unto and amongst themselves. Although the cry of East End revolutionaries to form Peconic County will most likely never be loud enough to actually accomplish such a thing, it might make sense given their insular society. There is a local economy that is very different than anything in Nassau, different issues that face communities, and a Main Street vibe that is all its own. With the small-town feel of these communities comes a political landscape that is painted with familiar brushes and colors. People know people. Sometimes, though, familiarity breeds contempt, and during the election of 2009, the theme was to kill the devil you know and take a chance on the new guy.
“Any incumbent who was running this year was going to get bit by the incumbent bug,” says Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. “If you were an incumbent this year, it was going to be different.”
While much of Nassau laments the loss of its downtowns, on the East End that is where it all happens. Keep your ear to the street and listen to the people talk.
That’s what happened when the East Hampton Independent began to look into the finances of the Town of East Hampton. By the end of their investigation, former Town Budget Officer Tom Hults was in handcuffs and Supervisor William McGintee resigned, awaiting his own day in court after the two allegedly conspired to use money set aside for land preservation to plug budget gaps.
“We knew they were lying about the financial state of the Town,” says Rick Murphy, editor-in-chief of the Independent. “People there would run to the bank when they got their paychecks to cash them before they were out of money.”
Once the paper began to write stories that called McGintee into question, Hollywood East mobilized. Alec Baldwin, star of 30 Rock and an outspoken activist, began a crusade against Murphy and the paper. Baldwin went so far as to establish a political action committee to raise cash for McGintee, who was going to run for re-election.
But Baldwin and the rest of McGintee’s supporters would be stunned to learn that the Independent had it right. An audit released earlier this year by New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found that the town had illegally diverted money from its Community Preservation Fund to pay the bills. The result was Hults’ arrest, McGintee’s resignation and a complete upheaval to Town government.
Political mainstay Ben Zwirn came in to run for McGintee’s seat, but the damage was done. Zwirn was trounced by GOP challenger Bill Wilkinson, and the Town Board is now all Republican.
“McGintee would not have won anyway, even if there were no scandal,” says Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle. “Their attempt to fix a serious fiscal problem by doing something illegal was just plain stupid.”
A few miles west, things were just as interesting and salacious. Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, a Republican, had not had an easy run of things since taking the post in January, 2008. A former councilwoman, Kabot faced bitter party infighting, fending off a primary challenge. As the campaign approached, Councilmember Linda Throne-Holst threw her hat in the ring for the Dems, attacking the Town’s financial status. On Sept. 7, 2009, Throne-Holst and her campaign got a leg up.
While on patrol in Westhampton Beach at 12:25 a.m., a village cop pulled over a car that allegedly crossed a double yellow line as it turned onto Main Street. The driver was Linda Kabot, and she was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Kabot declined to take a breathalyzer and, according to cops, failed field sobriety tests. Kabot said she felt intimidated by the officer and a supervisor who arrived at the scene.
Kabot attempted to speed up the trial with the hope of getting it all done before the Nov. 3 election. Throne-Holst’s campaign smelled blood in the water. Pundits did not see Kabot as having a chance to make it back to the supervisor’s office. Throne-Holst won the day, and will take over for Kabot in January.
“Other people have said peripheral issues and [not the DWI] were the reason I won,” says Throne-Holst, who won with 60 percent of the vote.
Some of Kabot’s detractors have said the soon-to-be-former supervisor is difficult to work with, and her demeanor brought unnecessary strife and grief to the town.
“As has always been the case, there was some bickering within the party,” says LaValle. “But really, the voters were dealing with fiscal issues. This was a tough race.”
Levy says while the DWI incident hurt Kabot, the largest issues on the minds of voters were not personal problems of candidates. In fact, it all boiled down to three little words:
“Taxes, taxes, taxes,” says Levy. “People want to hear less about programs or other services, and more about being able to stay in their homes.”
Although McGintee’s legal problems may have been too big to surpass, Levy points to a 27 percent tax increase that McGintee’s administration put on the voters as the biggest reason the Town Board will be all Republican next year.
Southampton has its share of money problems, too. In the spring, Kabot explained that some residents had been overcharged for police service, and that money would be paid back, but over five years. There were also other pitfalls, including a debt from the town’s general fund to its capital fund of more than $8 million, all things done prior to Kabot taking office. The 2010 budget called for more stress on taxpayers as falling sales tax revenues continued to pummel the town’s coffers.
“That is the story everywhere you go,” says Levy.
West of Southampton, Riverhead Supervisor Phil Cardinale’s supporters thought he would win re-election. In the past four years, Cardinale has been hard at work trying to come up with plans to redevelop the old Grumman property in Calverton. Unfortunately, so have the past four Supervisors, and each has been unsuccessful. While Cardinale worked on the property, Riverhead’s downtown continued to deteriorate.
“Nothing gets done in Riverhead,” says LaValle. “Riverhead’s downtown should be a marquis area. Instead, [Cardinale] is trying to build ski mountains in the middle of the wilderness.”
In the end, the people of Riverhead voted for change, too. Sick of the empty storefronts on Main Street while thousands of cars whizzed by only miles away at the Tanger Outlets, they bet on GOP challenger Sean Walter.
Levy says it comes down to being gutsy, making a choice and sticking with it.
“In this business, indecisiveness spells doom,” says Levy. “Look, follow the lead of Patchogue. They wanted it done and got it done. They wanted workforce housing, they got it done.
“It’s all about leadership,” says Levy. “It is about standing up to special interests. Roll up your sleeves and revitalize the downtown.”
Sometimes, it just takes a fresh set of eyes. Throne-Holst is a relative newcomer to the political game. Her first elected seat is the one she currently holds, town council member, which she won just two years ago. On Jan. 1, 2010, she will take the oath to serve. She is the Accidental Supervisor. As such, she does not get mired in political explanations or buzzwords when looking at the dubious turn of events in Eastern Long Island politics this year. Maybe it is just black and white.
“People everywhere are just looking for a new order of business,” she says.
Tags: Alec Baldwin, Ben Zwirn, Bill Wilkinson, DWI, East End, East Hampton Independent, Hamptons, John Jay LaValle, Linda Kabot, Linda Throne-Holst, North Fork, Peconic County, Phil Cardinale, Rick Murphy, Riverhead, Sean Walter, South Fork, Steve Levy, The Wild Wild East, Tim DiNapoli, Tom Hults, William McGintee