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Inside the Secret World of Long Island Politics: Election 2013
Observations and Ruminations on L.I. Election Night 2013 from the Long Island Press News Staff
Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano clenched the hands of GOP party boss Joe Mondello and former senator-turned-lobbyist Alfonse D’Amato and together, from a stage at the back of a catering hall in Westbury, the smiling trio raised their arms triumphantly.
Cameras flashed. Chants of “Four more years! Four more years!” and “Ed-die! Ed-die!” engulfed the room. More than a dozen fellow county, state and federal lawmakers joining Mangano and his family onstage cheered, applauded and roared along.
“I feel so blessed that I’m able to continue in this job,” the emotional former legislator from Bethpage told supporters, one of whom presented him with a portrait in his likeness which Mangano eventually posed alongside.
It was a definitive moment for the incumbent county executive, the culmination of a months-long, hard-fought rematch against predecessor Tom Suozzi marked by finger-pointing and vicious rhetoric from both sides. Campaign literature from the state Republican committee had cast the Democrat as a sneering bank robber, transformed him into a Pinocchio and slapped him with a dunce cap. The state Democratic committee’s mailers were adorned with a winking Mangano alongside Sandy-devastated neighborhoods and an assault rifle, the massacres “Newtown” “Aurora” “Virginia Tech” and “Columbine” emblazoned from a revolver’s barrel.
And of course, both candidates made a whole bunch of promises to Nassau taxpayers. For decades they’ve been paying the second-highest taxes in the country for ever-dwindling municipal services, and thus, talk of taxes and spending once again became the signature of the campaign trail.
Election night is that special evening in which respective political parties throw themselves celebrations packed with hard-core loyalists and supporters while praising each other for the hard work they’ve all been doing throughout the year, their term, ad infinitum, and, of course, touting their values. The publicly financed officials typically wear their best suits or outfits, glad-hand and smile. They laugh, spout glowing sound bites, and then make more promises.
There are camera crews, live broadcasts, drinks, balloons, sometimes food, and most of the time, ballot results before dawn.
Election Night 2013 saw an island-wide re-election of the status quo, with both majority parties in Nassau and Suffolk counties retaining their respective legislatures and very little upsets. The Mangano-Suozzi rematch was undoubtedly the most-anticipated and most closely watched race, yet typically left out of most media’s election coverage are arguably the most telling scenes: the relentless bro hugs, the operatives’ rants, the felons-turned-county appointees cheering from the sidelines, the donors and the puppet masters out from the shadows basking in their own narcissism and successful spins.
The Mangano-Suozzi showdown had arguably been in the works since their last faceoff; a nail-biting squeaker in 2009 in which the former ousted the latter by a mere 386 votes. Their first contest was sealed, says at least one Mangano loyalist there that night, by Mangano’s chief deputy county executive, former New York State Assemblyman “Rob” Walker (whose first name is actually Richard).
As the tale goes, he allegedly awoke from a dream—or a nightmare, more appropriately—in which his boss had lost that election to Suozzi by absentee ballots. He consequently refocused all their efforts the next morning and the remainder of the campaign, the legend continues, on those crucial votes.
Prophetic vision or party-created mythology, it doesn’t really matter. Following a month-plus hand-recount, it came to pass—absentee ballots effectively deciding and dictating the course of the county for the next four years.
This time around, Mangano introduced Walker—the head of the Hicksville Republican Committee, whose purchase of a MetLife Stadium skybox for fundraising activities has piqued some interest with Democratic New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman—as his ”best friend.”
“I love him,” he gushed.
Suozzi had famously, or infamously, stated during his failed New York State gubernatorial primary bid against Eliot Spitzer in 2006 that he wanted to one day become president. He bode his time out of the county executive suite as counsel to Harris Beach, PLLP and senior advisor to investment bank Lazard Freres & Co.
Shortly after his ousting in 2009, Suozzi was also hired by Cablevision Systems Corp., perhaps his biggest campaign donor, as a consultant to its Local Media Group.
That group consists of the company’s programming and media properties, including Newsday Media Group—comprised of Long Island’s lone daily newspaper, Newsday, the newspaper’s website and free New York City daily am New York. The group also included Cablevision’s News 12 Networks, which consisted of 12 local news, traffic and weather channels, and its high school sports initiative MSG Varsity, where Suozzi had a large supporting role.
Cablevision and its owners, the Dolans, have poured nearly half a million dollars into Suozzi’s various political campaigns throughout the years, including nearly $300,000 in his latest bid.
It’s these figures and his Cablevision payroll connection that Newsday repeatedly failed to disclose in its reoccurring endorsements and campaign stories until being called out by the Press, though these facts were not lost on Nassau Republicans.
“Since when do the journalists and the media who are supposed to be impartial—since when do they contribute hundreds of thousand of dollars to one of their employees that they don’t tell you about!?” blasted a fired-up D’Amato during a venomous anti-Newsday tirade alongside Mangano, Mondello and an army of Republicans lining the backroom podium.
“Dump Newsday!” Mangano supporters at Mirelle’s Restaurant & Catering in Westbury—Nassau GOP’s historic campaign-night celebration venue—chanted in response.
“Dump ’em!” sniped D’Amato, snarling that his remarks would never be broadcast by the live News12 cameras recording the event or the lone Long Island daily newspaper, and almost baiting them to do so. “Dump Cablevision. FIOS is much better and cheaper.”
“They are strangers to the truth,” he spit.
Arm and arm onstage with the smiling and victorious re-elected county executive, D’Amato, the founder and managing director of Manhattan-based lobbying firm Park Strategies LLC, which represents multiple clients who’ve received county contracts from the Mangano administration, made no mention of his company’s own financial connection, the more than $35,000 in donations state Board of Election records show his political action committee Renew New York contributed to Mangano in 2009 ($10,000) and 2013 ($25,300), nor the $12,500 those filings state he personally contributed to Mangano in 2011 ($2,500) and 2013 ($10,000).
But Suozzi, during his failed campaign, did do that, alleging improprieties. He also blasted Mangano every chance he could about alleged sweetheart deals to donors (government watchdogs refer to such transactions as “pay-to-play” schemes) in the wake of Sandy—though if Suozzi’s goal was to paint himself as somehow above such dealings, the former Cablevision consultant didn’t get the job done.
“Contracts are given to campaign donors all the time, and sometimes donors give you money based upon the fact that they want to keep a good relationship with the administration,” he said during a pre-recorded debate with Mangano that aired on CBS Nov. 3.
“Yes, I have,” Suozzi said of his own awarding of contracts to donors during his tenure as county executive. “It happens all the time.”
On Tuesday night, however, there was no talk of Cablevision or campaign contributions from the former two-term county executive down the road at his own ill-fated gala.
Death of a Salesman
Almost an hour had gone by after the polls had closed and Nassau Democrats gathering in the Leonardo ballroom upstairs at the posh Chateau Briand catering hall in Carle Place had nothing but candidates’ zeroes to contemplate on the big screen projected behind the podium.
Then the first numbers were posted, and with 23 percent of the precincts reporting, Mangano had a double-digit lead. There was uneasiness among some observers, anxiety on the faces of others, and scorn on the rest. Nobody stopped talking or laughing—or drinking.
Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs was asked about the early figures as he was leaving the main ballroom after making a brief round of TV interviews in the main room. He did his best to put a positive spin on them.
“Those numbers are coming from basically Republican areas,” he said. “I can’t say I’m optimistic, I’m a realist.” But he added that he hadn’t heard from “minority areas we’re counting on,” as well as North Hempstead town, which he thought would turn Suozzi’s way.
As he headed back to where Suozzi was ensconced, Democrats in the ballroom had something new to contemplate on the big screen: the unabashed jubilation of Nassau GOP Chairman Joe Mondello, Ed Mangano and his wife Linda, and a charged D’Amato. On the ticker at the bottom of the News12 broadcast being projected live were these words: “Mangano victory speech.”
The onlookers at Chateau Briand stared in various degrees of disbelief, shock and awe. Suozzi hadn’t even conceded yet.
“The Republican machine must be running better than ever because they know something that we don’t,” said David Mejias, a former longtime Democratic county legislator. “They know what’s going on in an election before the Democrats or even the people do!”
Later, Jacobs recounted, he entered Suozzi’s room and his staff handed him some updated numbers but there on the TV screen was a triumphant Mangano. The Dem Party boss was back in the ballroom within minutes, Suozzi and his wife Helene in tow, threading their way through the crowd to the podium, where they were greeted by a growing wave of applause.
At the podium, Jacobs—who filed complaints with state Attorney General Schneiderman’s office alleging fundraising improprieties regarding the aforementioned MetLife Stadium skybox—said that he’d seen quite a number of elections but “I have yet to see a campaign without the finality of numbers jump to a victory speech with such anxiousness as I just saw.” But he had to admit the election was over. His hopes that Suozzi’s run for a third term would succeed this time were dashed.
“If I have one regret in this campaign,” he said, emphasizing that he meant himself and not his candidate, “is that we left unchallenged for too long the misstatements and mischaracterizations of the eight years that Tom Suozzi served as county executive. He turned this county around; he put it on the right track! He had eight balanced budgets and 14 bond-rating upgrades! That means something.”
When it was his turn at the podium, Suozzi said, “This is a tough loss. It’s a tough loss for the Democrats, a tough loss for me personally…. We may have run a bad campaign, and we may have hit the wrong message, but we still have serious problems in Nassau County.”
Forty miles away in Patchogue, Suffolk County Republican Party boss John Jay LaValle, standing at a podium overlooking his team’s supporters, glanced over his shoulder at the scene unfolding on a massive projector screen, paused, and asked the room:
“Can we watch Tom Suozzi cry for a second?”
Suozzi’s political fortunes had clearly ebbed. In 2001, he’d beaten all-but-forgotten Republican Bruce Bent 64 percent to 33 percent in 2001, but lost by 386 votes to Mangano, then a Republican Nassau County legislator, in 2009.
This Nov. 5, Mangano trounced Suozzi 58.73 percent to 41.04 percent. More than 275,000 votes were cast out of some 900,000 registered voters, according to William Biamonte, the Democratic commissioner of the Nassau Board of Elections, marking an uptick in turnout from four years ago. Clearly not enough Democrats came to the polls for Suozzi, although countywide they now outnumber Republicans by 37,000 people, 361,570 to 324,210.
In the end, the almost 18-point spread in this matchup was actually greater than the results of the first Newsday/News12/Sienna College, which came out in early October and had Suozzi losing by 17 points. A survey conducted a week before the election showed Mangano’s lead narrowing to 52-41. But despite a flurry of robo-calls and an appearance from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (who gave a heart-hearted endorsement at a rally for all Long Island Democrats Oct. 26, tacking the former county executive’s name at the end of a long list of Democratic candidates), an appearance at a campaign fundraiser at Leonard’s of Great Neck by former President Bill Clinton, endorsements in The New York Times and Newsday, Suozzi could not recapture the executive seat in Mineola.
Tellingly, Suozzi’s margin in defeat almost equaled the 58.68 percent to 41.29 percent victory that Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, the Democratic incumbent, won over her Republican challenger, Howard Sturim. The Sienna poll had predicted that Rice was “cruising” to re-election but that the race for county comptroller between Republican incumbent George Maragos and Howard Weitzman, his opponent, was “too close to call.” Weitzman had been the Democratic comptroller in 2009 whom Maragos defeated by 576 votes. This time Weitzman lost by 6 percentage points, 53-47 percent.
Taking his place at the podium, Weitzman told those still on hand at the Chateau Briand that in the last 12 years he’d won twice and lost twice, so he wound up with “a .500 batting average and that gets me in the hall of fame!” He noted that four years ago he was so ill he was in a wheelchair and needed the help of the Nassau County Democratic chairman and several others to get him up a ramp.
“Here I am on my own two feet, standing in front of all of you and getting all your well wishes,” he said proudly.
Weitzman afterwards said he had no regrets about how he’d run the race this time and that he wouldn’t have changed anything.
“Not one thing! Not one thing!” he repeated. “I couldn’t overcome a big Mangano win like that,” he lamented, adding that Mangano’s campaign mantra that he hadn’t raised taxes was “an easy message to put out, and it takes a nuanced message to explain that that’s not what happened. The voters chose the message that they wanted to hear.”
Same Old, Same Old
Looking at the election from a broader LI perspective, it’s hard to generalize. Democrats held their majority in the Suffolk County legislature, but slipped a seat there and in Nassau, although not enough to give Nassau Republicans a super-majority so they could pass borrowing without bipartisan support, which could prove interesting since the county is still run by the state Nassau County Interim Finance Authority due to its million-dollar budget shortfall.
Nassau Democrats didn’t turn out in enough numbers to help Suozzi regain his former office (or help his cousin Ralph Suozzi remain mayor of Glen Cove), but in the 5th Legislative District they “crushed the Republicans,” as Election Commissioner Biamonte put it, electing Laura Curran, Suozzi’s former aide.
Across the county line, Suffolk Democrats were celebrating maintaining their majority, even though they lost a seat left vacant by outgoing temporary Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) to Republican Kevin McCaffrey.
That one loss aside, there were some heavy hearts in the crowd at the usual election night party venue, the IBEW Local 25 hall in Hauppauge—a relic of the party’s relationship with the union forged by the late Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), who died of cancer this summer.
“We miss him dearly…he’s left us too soon,” Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Richard Schaffer, who also won re-election as Babylon town supervisor, told the crowd. “But I know today he is with us. He is here and he is smiling down because the one thing he told me…was: ‘Rich, don’t screw up Billy’s campaign.’”
Billy, or as he appeared on ballots, William Lindsay Jr.—the former legislative leader’s son—won his father’s seat, allowing Schaffer to say he kept that deathbed promise, despite the extra low turnout of what Schaffer termed “an off, off, off-year election.”
Party faithful cheered when Schaffer announced that political newcomer Monica Martinez had unseated fellow Democrat Legis. Rick Montano (D-Central Islip), a renegade who refused to caucus with his party. They laughed when he joked, “We call her landslide Sarah,” referring to Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai), who narrowly thwarted her Republican challenger. And some rolled their eyes when he touted “another nailbiter” victory for Thomas Spota, the unchallenged, cross-endorsed Suffolk County District Attorney, who was re-elected but spent the night with the Republicans in Patchogue, where he trumpeted his own victory as “historic.”
So, in the end, all the predictions that this election would become a Democratic verdict on the federal shutdown perpetrated by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, or a Republican reaction to the badly handled rollout of Obamacare, came down to the simplest of political edicts, attributed to the late great Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, that “all politics is local.”
Back in Westbury, Italian-American tenor opera singer Christopher Macchio joined the giddy Nassau Republicans onstage. With a pink handkerchief peering from his upper breast jacket pocket, he smiled before serenading the crowd a cappella.
“Are you guys ready for a victory anthem?” he asked.
Arm in arm, smiling along, indeed they were.