By Spencer Rumsey
Surly suburbs caught in the crosshairs of politicians’ ambition and hubris. Angry accusations, betrayals, and broken commandments dominate the discussion. Our leaders are found hiding in foxholes, dropping f-bombs, hurling dirt. And that’s just the beginning.
Run for cover—it’s the weirdest election season we’ve ever seen, and it’s happening right before our eyes, because Long Island is where the action is.
Look at this rare confluence of overreaching egos and powerful personae, all clustered here between the East River and the East End. They hold the fate of the Empire State in their sweaty Palm Pilots, BlackBerries and iPhones. Let’s start at the top with the four most influential political parties: The state chairmen of Republican, Democratic, Independence and Conservative lines are all Long Islanders (if you include Brooklyn, as you must if you know your geography). Next, check out the candidates: On the Republican side, Rick Lazio and Steve Levy—who once served together in the Suffolk County Legislature—are now fighting each other to be governor. Bruce Blakeman, the first presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, is hoping to unseat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the upstate Democrat appointed by Gov. David Paterson after Hillary Clinton became President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. On the other side of the county line, two well-known Nassau Democrats are linked to statewide races: incumbent State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli of Great Neck, who wants to keep his job, and Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice of Garden City, who has all but declared her intentions to replace Andrew Cuomo as state attorney general “should an opening for the office occur,” as she recently told Albany’s annual conference of black and Puerto Rican legislators. She has to play coy until Cuomo, who grew up in Queens (also geographically part of Long Island), either comes down from his lofty post pursuing wrongdoers to run for governor or, as his critics put it, climbs out of his foxhole and puts his ass on the firing line.
So how many Long Islanders does it take to unscrew up the mess our state is in? You probably know the problems by heart: the mind-numbing debt of billions of dollars, some of the highest taxes in the union, the crumbling infrastructure, the failing schools, the crushing lack of jobs. You might wonder why anybody would want to take on so many daunting challenges. But they do, and so we must do our part and pay attention to them. Come November, all these Long Island candidates can’t be on the ticket—the state has too many other regions whose players must be fielded—and, of course, they all won’t be, due to the process of elimination, which (let us hope) will be more entertaining than excruciating to watch. But, for now, Westchester, the North Country, the Southern Tier, wherever you go, they’re all stuck in the back—because our people are in the driver’s seat.
“All of a sudden there’s a bunch of top-drawer people from Long Island,” observes Maurice “Mickey” Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “It might be the aquifer, I don’t know. Politics are not unlike professional sports. There’s a farm system, and Long Island has been pretty good at developing people who then move on to higher jobs. For the moment Long Island has produced a bunch of potential stars, so Long Island is in the spotlight. And there’s a lot of people on Long Island and they’ve got a lot of votes, so that matters, too.”
Nassau and Suffolk have a combined population of 2.9 million people, according to the 2008 U.S. Census, making Long Island larger than 20 states. As party leaders know, that number of New Yorkers is quite a base from which to launch a campaign. But the competition for that base can lead to the political equivalent of a traffic jam.
“Can there be too many Long Islanders on the ticket? Sure,” says Carroll. “There can be too many of anything on the ticket, and it can cause trouble. Ticket balance does matter. The Democrats’ big problem is that they’re always nominating half a dozen people from Manhattan. I thought Governor David Paterson was smart in picking Kirsten Gillibrand, an upstate woman. That made sense. You know that the suburbs tend to be Republican, the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and upstate is heavily Republican, but not as heavily as it used to be.”
That message is echoed elsewhere. “I don’t think [the state’s] geography means what it used to mean,” says Anthony Santino, a member of the Town of Hempstead board and an influential Nassau County Republican. “It’s message, it’s money, and it’s the right candidates. Yes, the base is very important, and candidates need Long Island. But we live in an Internet world now. Something that happens in Buffalo is known instantly on Long Island.”
That’s one big reason for the changing tides, but not the only one. Says Jim Morgo, former Suffolk County chief deputy executive and a long-time Democrat, “It’s not so much upstate or downstate, but the kind of area you represent: city, suburban or rural. And the suburbs are getting to be more and more important, not only in New York State, but nationally. If someone gets all of Long Island in an election, that would be enough, but that’s not going to happen. It’s a good base but you would need more to win.”
Indeed, it seems that Long Island itself is looking for leadership, and that leadership might not come from LI politicians who have not necessarily done a great job at home. “People are in a surly mood, and they’re more surly in the suburbs because they’re not used to the kind of troubles they’re facing,” says Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a former Newsday columnist. “They’re feeling the pinch of taxes relatively more than before because the value of their homes is down and their incomes aren’t growing. And nobody can tell them they’re out of the woods yet.”