Gov. Andrew Cuomo drew more than 1,000 protesters Monday night outside Villa Lombardi in Holbrook when he came to speak before a packed crowd at the Suffolk Democratic Party’s annual spring dinner.
While those rallying outside boisterously protested Cuomo’s position on issues ranging from education to the environment and gun rights, Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Richard Schaffer and Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs both called the fundraiser a success.
“We’ve broken all records in terms of attendance as well as money raised for Governor Cuomo!” Schaffer boasted from the stage, recalling the crowds he’s seen in the 14 years he’s been chairman. He reportedly raked in $410,000 from 550 attendees, with the average price of an individual ticket set at $300. As Jacobs put it, looking at the enthusiastic audience with admiration, “This is a very successful night for Richie Schaffer!”
Schaffer’s goal for November, he proclaimed, is to ensure that Suffolk voters give the governor the largest county plurality in New York. Judging from the number of protesters lining both sides of Main Street as he spoke, that achievement may not come easily this fall—at least in Suffolk.
“I remember the old days in Suffolk,” Cuomo told his supporters. “I remember when Democrats didn’t win. I remember when people believed that Democrats couldn’t win in Suffolk. But I watched the Suffolk Revolution…. I watched Democrats rise up.”
Today not only does a Democrat, Steve Bellone, hold the Suffolk County executive post, but Democrats also have a majority on the county legislature. In the governor’s speech, which lasted less than 15 minutes, Cuomo congratulated Schaffer for working “his magic” on the local and the county level.
A different spell was working outdoors on the people carrying signs knocking the governor and loudly shouting, “Hey hey, high-ho, Cuomo’s got to go” among other chants. It was clearly a mixed crowd. There were teachers, parents and school kids opposing the governor’s Common Core academic curriculum with its emphasis on teacher evaluations and standardized tests.
“We just really want to get Cuomo out of the classroom and let us do our jobs,” said Jennifer Ronayne, a fifth-grade teacher in the Connetquot school district.
Emma Rennard, a fifth-grader in the Comsewogue school district, was carrying a sign that said, “I love my teachers. My school’s the best, but I have to refuse the state test.”
Gun rights advocates wanting to repeal the New York Safe Act, which requires universal background checks on gun purchases and bans assault weapons. The governor had pushed its passage after the Newtown school shooting in Connecticut. One sign held by a Bayport man in a cowboy hat and gray mustache who declined to give his last name used the image of automatic rifles as the letters “F” and “K” to spell out an obscene verb to be inveighed against Cuomo.
Environmentalists were on hand to remind the governor to “ban fracking now!” Hydraulic facturing, or “fracking,” refers to a controversial method of drilling for natural gas that has been linked to air and water pollution in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where the practice has been approved. A de facto fracking moratorium has been in effect for years while New York studies the issue and Cuomo remains mum.
Holding a blue sign with white letters that read “Support medical marijuana in New York” was Donna Schwier, a disabled registered nurse from Medford.
“I think we should have safe access to medical marijuana,” she said. “There are thousands of New Yorkers suffering. In some cases it’s a matter of life and death.”
She wanted the governor to throw his weight behind a bill now bogged down in the state Senate that’s been proposed by Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), who is a member of the small group of independent Democrats that are in a power-sharing agreement with Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the Senate Republican leader and a Cuomo ally. The Assembly, under Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), is poised to pass the bill.
Also making their presence known were people still struggling to get their lives back in order after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. Dominick and Jill Russo from East Rockaway have been living in an RV in their front yard while waiting for the governor’s much-touted New York Rising relief program to pay them enough so they can fix their home and move back indoors.
“It’s been 18 months we’ve been fighting,” said Russo, who was holding a sign that said, “Homeless with a mortgage! Living in RV for 17 months with family of four plus a dog and a cat.”
Nearby another woman was holding a sign that read, “Thanks to flood insurance and New York Rising, my house still has NO GUTS!”
For the most part the protesters were spirited but peaceful. No arrests were reported, but the police were on hand to escort the benefit participants who had to cross Main Street to enter the venue. The crowd at the entrance subjected them to taunts like “Shame on you! Andy’s puppets!”
One Suffolk Democrat who ran the gauntlet joked that “I’m usually on the other side of these things.”
The themes raised by the protesters got short shrift in the governor’s speech. Cuomo defended his record on capping property taxes, raising the minimum wage, promoting job growth and passing the marriage equality act “for all New Yorkers.” And in an ironic twist, considering that his father was also governor once upon a time, he boasted, “Not since Nelson Rockefeller was governor have there been four on-time budgets in a row.”
The closest he came to addressing the Common Core controversy was when he said that New York spends more money per student than any other state but the results are mediocre at best. That’s why he supports the new teacher evaluation system, he said.
“We can see what teachers are working well, what schools are working well; and teachers who need help, we can get them the help,” he said. “I believe evaluating performance works for everyone…and we want to get our students the best education we can.”
As his speech reached its climax, the attentive audience started applauding so loudly that some of his litany of accomplishments were drowned out.
“We said we were going to end the ‘tax-and-spend madness’ and we did!” Cuomo shouted. “We have the lowest middle class tax rate since 1953!”
Then he was gone, with chants of “Cuomo! Cuomo!” ringing in the ears of the crowd, erasing any lingering memories of the protests they’d heard when they arrived.