When friends and foes alike assess Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, now with his first full year in office under his belt, the feeling is almost unanimous, regardless of the politics. “Ed is a great guy. He really is!” says Diane Yatauro (D-Glen Cove), the Democratic minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature.
But the sentiment can come with a caveat.
“Ed Mangano is a nice guy,” says Jay Jacobs, chairman of the New York State and Nassau County Democratic Party.
“He’s just out of his depth.”
“He’s doing a great job,” insists Hempstead Town Councilman Anthony Santino, a spokesman for Nassau County Republican Chairman Joseph Mondello. “He is cleaning up a fiscal mess that he inherited from Tom Suozzi and the Democrats.”
One thing’s for sure, like him or not, he’s got the toughest task he’s ever had, balancing Nassau County’s $2.6 billion budget—larger than 11 states—which is facing a $350 million deficit for the fiscal year 2011. Eyeing him closely is the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), a state watchdog agency that has the power to step in and take over the county’s finances if he fails to close the gap. How he handles this challenge in the weeks ahead could affect the quality of life for almost two million Nassau residents for a long time to come.
“Eddie,” as he’s known in Bethpage where he grew up as the son of a union ironworker, is used to being loved by everybody. But that feeling isn’t universal anymore, especially after he beat the incumbent Democrat, Tom Suozzi, by 386 votes in a closely contested election in 2009. Now he’s got Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, independents, you name it, all on his case.
“He won and fucked up everything,” says a Nassau County political insider. “This is a man who was never used to being disliked. He was in the minority for years and you don’t piss people off when you’re in the minority. When you can’t get anything done, when you can’t kill a contract or you can’t hurt anyone, everyone likes you, and Ed was a really nice guy. I think he really wanted the county executive job but he didn’t want the job. Maybe he really is over his head.”
Once dubbed “a relatively obscure Republican county legislator” by The New York Times, Edward P. Mangano leads one of the richest counties in the nation as it happens to be on the verge of a humiliating takeover by a state oversight agency. The trigger for NIFA to act is if it determines that the county is running a 1 percent deficit, in this case a mere $26 million.
The NIFA board met twice in late December and expressed its concerns that the 1 percent deficit is a “real threat.”
Mangano’s administration has until Jan. 20 to substantiate his claims that “clearly, Nassau County’s budget is balanced.” If NIFA came in, the county executive and the legislature would lose power. NIFA could approve or reject the county’s budget and fiscal plans, control borrowing, impose a wage freeze on public employees, and possibly reopen labor contracts (a contentious point that the unions have their lawyers examining). Residents would only be able to watch and hope for the best as they’re left holding the bag.
People who know him say that Mangano’s the kind of man who if you ran into him at a formal occasion, he might suddenly get you in a headlock, just horsing around, or crack you up with a joke when you’re trying to be serious or start encouraging you to share his passion for classic cars, especially Corvettes. By profession, he’s an intellectual property lawyer, and if the recount in 2009 hadn’t gone his way in an election when only 27 percent of the electorate turned out, he’d probably be practicing law today when the Nassau County Legislature isn’t in session instead of burning the midnight oil in Mineola trying to keep the county afloat. Some political observers say that if Mangano had lost to Suozzi, he was poised to follow Rose Walker’s footsteps onto the Oyster Bay Town council, and bide his time there like a good soldier until Supervisor John Venditto decides to step down.
But Mangano definitely wanted to be county executive. He asked Mondello, the county GOP boss, if he could run against Suozzi in 2005 but the chairman instead picked Greg Peterson, who went down in flames. Finally, Mangano got his chance, but his war chest was $1 million shy of Suozzi’s—about $646,000 to the incumbent’s $1.6 million. Looking back, it’s safe to say he was a long shot. But timing is everything.
His pals say nobody works harder than Mangano, and when he came to office in 2010 he boasted that he was used to getting by on four to five hours’ sleep a night, perhaps a habit instilled from when he worked as a janitor during his high school years to earn enough to pay for college. But these days, as the county’s top elected official, he must wish he could wake up from this nightmare scenario when the fiscal problems loom so large. When he addressed the NIFA board recently in Uniondale, he looked a lot older than his 48 years. He tried to exude confidence, but it’s got to be wearisome.