No music was playing at the Sheraton Long Island ballroom when Suffolk County Treasurer Angie Carpenter took the stage to concede that she’d lost her bid to be the first woman county executive to “that young man [who] has learned a lot,” Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone. The Republican crowd greeted her with a standing ovation, but their enthusiasm could not reverse the result. She was definitely outspent, and probably outhustled despite her effort to appear at almost every civic group, diner and parade in Suffolk County since Labor Day.
Less than two miles away at the IBEW Local 25 Hall in Hauppauge the joint was rocking. The loud speakers blasted Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” as Bellone and a host of his key Democratic Party cohorts swarmed the podium to deafening applause and roars of appreciation.
“Tonight the voters of Suffolk County have given us a huge victory,” Bellone said. In a long thank-you list, he singled out “organized labor” and “the law enforcement community,” whose treatment by the current county executive he deplored as an “absolute disgrace.” Then he thanked Mario Cuomo by mistake, which made Bellone laugh as he said, “Excuse me—I’m having a flashback!” and gave his props to the son, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who’d made two key appearances on Bellone’s behalf.
The unofficial final tally was 56 to 43 percent in favor of Bellone. Carpenter was supposed to benefit from a prevailing Conservative/Republican sentiment in the current electorate, according to Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle, as well as an advantage of 28,000 more registered voters than the Democrats and Working Families Party members combined. The percentage of Suffolk voters who cast their ballots was in the middle-to-high 20s range, slightly higher than normal in an off-year election, according to political observers, which could have been a result of the unseasonably warm weather.
This election became wide-open when Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a former Democrat who switched parties so he could run in the Republican primary for governor last year, took himself out of the county race this March when he cut a secret deal with Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota and turned over his $4 million war chest to Spota for safekeeping because, Levy said, “Questions have been raised concerning fundraising through my political campaign.”
And so what might have been a cakewalk for the incumbent turned into something completely different as the presumed underdog, Bellone, suddenly found himself in a superior position with about $2.6 million to spend against his new Republican opponent, Carpenter, who had more than half a million to use. But a lot of the credit for Bellone’s victory went to his Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer.
“You want to sum up this election in two words? It’s Rich Schaffer,” said Frank MacKay, Independence Party chairman. “Rich Schaffer had the most incredible day a leader could possibly have in a year…[when] Republicans are just slaughtering Democrats all over. He not only held onto his legislature, but elected a new county executive.”
Schaffer told the Press he had a good feeling about the race three weeks ago, when Bellone reported that he’d “clicked” with LIRR commuters who recognized his name. Still, on election night in Hauppauge, Schaffer admitted, “I was a nervous wreck! I haven’t eaten since breakfast!”
The Suffolk Republicans had produced some slick advertising trying to equate Bellone with President Barack Obama. The Suffolk Democrats hoped to capitalize on the popularity of Democratic Gov. Cuomo, and use his appeal to New Yorkers as “a firewall,” Schaffer said.
New York State Republican Chairman Ed Cox put the best possible spin on the election results.
“Everyone’s talking the Republican talk [on cutting taxes],” he told the Press. “From the way Bellone has been running, he’s been talking like a Republican!”
As the next county executive, Bellone comes into office knowing that he faces a dire fiscal situation. This week the Suffolk legislature slammed the budget submitted by Levy as “the worst one” they’d ever seen, claiming that it has a $135 million deficit and faces 710 layoffs. By contrast, the legislature supported a budget that would cut the layoffs to 88 people, draw $22 million from the county’s stabilization reserve fund, raise Suffolk Bus fares from $1.50 to $2 and—this is big—raise police district property taxes by 2 percent, which would still come under the new 2-percent annual tax hike cap. All told, their revenue and savings would generate about $76 million. The kicker: It would only cover half a year. Bellone will have to decide what to do the rest of the way.
Hours before the polls closed on Tuesday, Bellone told the Press he hadn’t had time to read the budget but he supported the two main points: that general fund property taxes would be frozen and that the police tax hike would fall under the cap. The budget process is “not easy when the legislature gets no cooperation from the executive branch,” Bellone said, adding that Levy had submitted a “fake budget” and the legislature was the “only adult in the room protecting the county’s fiscal stability.”
The present county executive apparently has no intention of going quietly into the night, however.
In a statement, Levy said, “My recommended budget was balanced, as confirmed by the rating agencies, and it froze taxes while avoiding an over-reliance on one-shot revenues. The legislature’s post-election budget raises taxes, depletes our reserves and relies on an unprecedented $82 million in one-shots, all of which guarantees a downgrading of our bond rating. My recommended budget included layoffs as a last resort and was pushing to have employees contribute to their health care premiums, as is common in the private sector—but the legislature is seeking no such concession.”
When Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), who’s butted heads with Levy repeatedly over the years, told the crowd at the union hall he will finally have “a true Democrat as a county executive,” they erupted.
Bellone is counting on that spirit of cooperation between the branches of government.
“We will confront the fiscal challenges that we face by growing this economy,” Bellone said. “I believe that we have everything we need in this county to make Suffolk County an economic power house.”
UNCERTAINTY IN NASSAU
Two or three—depending who you ask—Nassau County legislative races are too close to call as of press time and are heading for recounts that may last through Thanksgiving, casting doubt on which party will control the chamber when it will redraws district lines next year to adjust for U.S. Census results.
Democrats and Republicans both found reason to celebrate after the polls closed Tuesday night. GOP leaders believe they have maintained their 11-8 majority in the legislature while Democrats cheered unseating a longtime Republican incumbent and the possibility of recapturing control with a campaign they made a referendum on County Executive Ed Mangano’s proposed layoffs and police precinct closures to balance the troubled budget.
“It’s an affirmation of the cost-cutting, tax-cutting policies of Ed Mangano,” says Tony Santino, the Nassau GOP spokesman, who expects the Republican majority to remain in tact.
Democrats remain hopeful nonetheless.
“The goal is the same: To take back the legislature… and we’re still on target,” says Democrat Eva Pearson, a veteran and therapist who believes she can overcome a 51-vote lead by freshman Legis. Joseph Belesi (R-Farmingdale). Belesi, a retired Nassau police sergeant and ex-union official who lost police union support after voting for Mangano’s budget last month, joked on Election Night that he won in a “landslide.”
“I expect to be a winner,” he tells the Press, pointing to his 2009 upset against his Democratic predecessor. “I’m very confident.”
The race to replace outgoing Minority Leader Diane Yatauro (D-Glen Cove), who is retiring, is undecided by an even smaller margin: a mere 37 votes. Democrat Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, a Glen Cove city councilwoman, cautiously claimed victory—dedicated as her father’s 75th birthday present—while Republican Rob Germino, a Mangano aide also from Glen Cove, maintained a wait-and-see approach.
Hundreds of absentee ballots in both contested races still have through Nov. 14 to arrive in the mail while emergency ballots and affidavits have yet to be tallied, election officials tell the Press. The process takes weeks on average.
“They have a real opportunity to win this,” William Biamonte, the Democratic commissioner at the Nassau County Board of Elections, says of his party.
Although Nassau Republican Party Chairman Joe Mondello declared eight-term Legis. John Ciotti (R-Valley Stream) defeated in remarks at the GOP camp in Westbury on Tuesday night, Ciotti wouldn’t concede.
“We hit a little bump in the road,” Ciotti told supporters, who is currently down by 431 votes. “Don’t count me out just yet.”
Democrats, however, declared attorney and ex-prosecutor Carrie Solages of Elmont the star of their show at Jericho Terrace in Mineola shortly before midnight. Solages said he was ecstatic as he dutifully worked the room after his big unofficial win.
The other 16 incumbent Nassau legislators held onto their seats, including Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), who maintains he is still in charge until he hears otherwise.
“In spite of the fact that the municipal unions threw everything they could at us, and in spite of the fact that the Democrats ran a very dirty, unprincipled campaign filled with negatives and untruths, the people of this county know who has the record, the proven record, of cutting spending and not raising taxes,” Schmitt tells the Press.
“And they have let it be known that that is the way that they feel this county should go. And that is exactly what we’re going to do.”
SUFFOLK’S TIGHT RACES
Back in Suffolk, Democrats cheered Bellone and having maintained the majority in the county legislature, but it was not all song and dance at the party’s camp in Hauppauge. Two Democratic town supervisors are heading for recounts and possible upset while two legislative races are also too close to call, which may whittle down their 12-6 majority in the legislature.
An emotional Democratic Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan refused to concede to Republican challenger Tom Croci, an aide to freshman state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). Nolan is down 419 votes to Croci with an estimated 1,700 absentee ballots outstanding.
“The town has been Republican, I guess they went back to their roots,” said Nolan, who admitted he was disappointed in the outcome in the early returns. He had won the seat in 2006 following decades of GOP rule that ended with his predecessor jailed for corruption.
MacKay, the Independence Party Chairman, credited Nolan’s apparent loss to him not receiving the minor party line, which instead earned Croci more than 1,200 votes.
“No doubt about it,” MacKay says. “We liked Croci very much. We thought he was a great guy, and we liked his whole team. We thought they will be good.”
The Republican has claimed victory but could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Meanwhile on the East End, Democratic Shelter Island Supervisor James Dougherty is trailing Conservative challenger Glenn Waddington, a town councilman, by 61 votes, with an estimated 300 absentee ballots yet to be counted.
“At this point it’s still anybody’s race,” Waddington says. “For the next week at least I’m still the supervisor-elect,” he jokes.
Dougherty is taking the uncertainty in stride and hasn’t conceded. “I think the big winners yesterday were the Shelter Island voters,” he says.
Also heading for weeks of recounts are the races for open seats in county legislative districts 7 and 18, where Democrats hold slim leads in the unofficial tallies.
Democrat Dr. William Spencer of Centerport has a 179 vote lead over Republican Elizabeth Black of Huntington in the 7th district. Democrat Robert Calarco is leading by 103 votes over Republican John Gianott. Both are from Patchogue.
Regardless of the outcome in those races, Democrats will rejoice in replacing the oft-combative current county executive who had turned Republican before scandal nixed his bid for a third term