It’s the most wonderful time of the year. If politics is your sport, nothing compares to retail politics at the local level. No irrational exuberance surrounding national figures with long coattails or embarrassing blowback; just a good, old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground slugfest where committee members rule the day. This year’s election is one where ideology takes a backseat to patronage in the battle of the bureaucrats. This is small ball, baby.
It’s been a while since I pulled my thoughts out of the national and international clouds to take a look at what is happening here at home. So forgive me as I reminisce for a moment before handicapping the county executive race in Nassau County, far and away the most interesting local political story of the season.
A little more than a decade ago I ran for mayor in my hometown of Glen Cove. In doing so I found myself on the opposite end (and losing side) of the Suozzi family machine. While this was my adopted hometown, I was a so-called carpetbagger living in the feudal regime run by generations of Suozzis. The race was so parochial, my opponent even sent out a campaign flyer that told the good citizens of Glen Cove that I was untrustworthy because I was born in Canada. Glen Cove is the land of homemade pasta sauce, not maple syrup. I never had a chance.
As a Republican candidate (hard to believe, I know), I briefly found myself in the fascinating world of the Nassau County GOP. My first (and last) general meeting at GOP headquarters in Westbury was as if I had set the dashboard clock on my DeLorean to 1950. The nearly all-white and graying crowd milled about greeting one another with hearty slaps on the back while the power brokers huddled quietly in the corner of the room whispering among themselves and occasionally surveying the crowd. Gradually, everyone took a seat in a folding chair facing a large map and a podium where chairman Joseph Mondello presided over the meeting.
“This is a business!” he bellowed on more than one occasion. Mr. Mondello’s countenance would move from ashen to crimson within seconds as he addressed the audience alternately with the coolness of a CEO and the vigor of a college football coach. The overarching message was that we were to adhere to the script, send our money directly to headquarters and essentially fall in line.
The lessons I learned from this experience will stay with me forever. My 15 minutes of fame in Glen Cove has all but faded away, allowing me near perfect anonymity as I watch the lawn signs sprout up all over town with this year’s crop of candidates. My hope is that the politicians who occupy positions on the ballots, whether it’s Brookhaven, Southampton or Glen Cove, have gone to where the action really is: knocking on doors. There is no more authentic or humbling experience than standing in someone’s living room and listening to what they want from their local officials.
Which brings me to the two men atop the Nassau County ticket who are appropriately playing small ball, and in doing so, missing the larger picture altogether.
When watching current County Executive Ed Mangano and former county executive Tom Suozzi fight to be the one to circle the bowl next, it’s hard not to get caught up in the partisan bickering. And there is some great “inside baseball” going on here. Suozzi says Mangano is responsible for Nassau’s $2 billion debt. He’s not. Mangano claims to have presented balanced budgets. He didn’t. Suozzi attacks Mangano for being soft on gun control. This is grasping at straws. Mangano asserts that he has made progress on the property tax assessment issue. He hasn’t.
The biggest disconnect of this race, however, is ideology. The truth of this contest is that the two parties these men represent are indistinguishable from one another.
The assessment situation is fixable. But it must come from Albany—and the nine Long Island senators hold the key. Unfortunately, neither Mangano nor Suozzi will cop to this admission because each is cozy with law firms that extract exorbitant fees from tax grievances.
Both men share an antipathy toward labor and favor privatization. Mangano spends an inordinate amount of time cozying up to donors and Suozzi spent his political off-season consulting for an investment bank and commissioning works of art. In everything they have done and represent, they are shills for corporate America and complicit in an overall scheme designed to liquidate taxpayers, privatize public works, and ride the status quo deep into the ground.
It’s hardly their fault, mind you. Our troubles in suburbia are so thick that there is an air of inevitability to our decline. Mangano and Suozzi know it, which is why this is the ultimate bureaucratic contest. As voters, this election comes down to which starting lineup you want on the field playing in a game that won’t affect the outcome of your season. Got a buddy sandwiched in a cubicle in North Hempstead waiting to return to a cushy county job? Vote for Suozzi. Have a relative in the county who needs three more years to pad his or her pension before retirement? Vote for Mangano.
Want real change and a chance to redefine our future? Sorry. Not on the ballot.
Either way, I’ll be glued to my television as usual, watching Jerry Kremer and Larry Levy narrate the inevitable. And loving every minute of it.