Leaving on a Jet Plane
When Croci took office, he moved Eric Hofmeister, who had filled in for eight months as Islip supervisor after McGowan had resigned, from his job at the airport where he’d been deputy commissioner and made him the town’s head of its Resource Recovery Agency, which manages Islip’s solid waste system. The newly opened No. 2 spot at the airport fanned speculation that Croci was going to pay off his backers with a political appointment. Croci put that theory to rest—at least temporarily—when he brought in Hennessey from British Airways this week. But the echoes of the recent campaign when Rizzuto’s upward career path from ground career to airport manager was called into question haven’t died down.
“People care about the airport,” says a well-connected Suffolk political insider with experience in county government who asked not to be named. “They were scratching their heads in the campaign wondering why Croci was going after Rizzuto. She’s a real professional, a competent person, the best manager the airport’s ever had in my lifetime…. You don’t want morons and political hacks running MacArthur.”
This Republican, not an Islip resident, expressed the concern that others outside the town shared with this reporter that Tantone and Suffolk Conservative Party Chairman Ed Walsh were exerting too much pressure on the newly elected Supervisor Croci to get their people hired by the town.
“Everywhere when a new regime takes over, they bring in people they’re confident in and they trust,” says Walsh. “I mean [Suffolk County Executive] Steve Bellone is bringing in a lot of Democrats in Suffolk County. That’s just the way it works.”
Business leaders agree.
“You want to have the best talent you could possibly muster to administer these airports. They are too important to be administered by people with no credentials,” says Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island.
Others weren’t convinced.
“The airport should not be political! It should be hands-off,” says an elected Suffolk official with ties to Islip, who asked not to be identified. “If Croci moves on Rizzuto, I think that would be a big mistake for him. I think he’s realized now that he shouldn’t get dragged into this stuff because he’s too young, he’s too sharp, he’s got to be thinking to himself: ‘Do I really need to be identified as a hack?’”
Indeed, Supervisor Croci would not let Commissioner Rizzuto speak to this reporter on the record, nor were other town commissioners permitted to do so. All questions to them had to go through the public information office. When pressed in his office, Croci would not give this reporter reassurance that his airport commissioner’s tenure was secure.
“It’s one of the toughest job markets in our lifetime and the hardest thing in the world is to let a person go,” says Croci, adding that he was in the Bush administration when President Barack Obama came in. “I think Secretary Condoleezza Rice was one of the finest secretaries of state in our history and President Obama didn’t keep her. It wasn’t because she wasn’t a skilled secretary of state that didn’t have the ability; he wanted his own team—the people that shared his values and his vision. That’s what we’re doing.”
Political observers concur.
“It is under the jurisdiction of the supervisor to do as he sees fit with anyone within the administration. That’s the political lay of the land,” says Ryan. “You could have an individual who’s competent, capable and qualified with impeccable credentials but if that individual does not have the confidence of the chief administrator of the town, then all of the politicking aside is lost.”
What Rizzuto thinks of this change in town leadership she’s not saying, but people who know her closely say never underestimate her.
“Teresa has the appearance of a China doll but she has a steel rod running down the middle!” says a source with close ties to Islip but who asked not to be identified. “She’s a very strong person with tremendous character and integrity, and she’ll do what she has to do because she’s made a commitment to move this airport forward. Unfortunately, I think Mr. Croci’s priorities are somewhat askew.
“We desperately need more direct flights and airlines,” this source continued, “and Commissioner Rizzuto is the person who is on the verge of landing those deals. Does it make any kind of sense for a man who promised to untie the hands of the commissioner—which, by the way, were not tied—to ditch her?”
Airline executives crave reliability in an industry that is battling the elements day and night, coping with rising fuel prices and falling customer demand. Whether MacArthur Airport can provide them the stability they need to make a commitment to come to Islip is a question still up in the air.
With additional reporting by Mike Ventimiglia
Tags: Bob Greene, Charles Schumer, Cover Story, Desmond Ryan, Donald Kuss, Eric Hofmeister, featured, Frank Tantone, Islip, Islip Foreign Trade Zone, LIRR, Long Island MacArthur Airport, Long Island Metro Business Action, Long Island Regional Planning Council, MacArthur Airport, Pete McGowan, Phil Nolan, Robert Keeler, Ronkonkoma and MacArthur Airport Transit Oriented Development, Southwest Airlines, Teresa Rizzuto, Terry Hennessey, Tom Croci, Tom Spota, Tracey Krut, Walter Conlon