New York State Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) performed a rare feat when he bucked his party’s leaders’ wishes 13 years ago and unseated a 12-year incumbent who was a fellow Democrat.
Now, Chuck is channeling his chutzpah by plotting a repeat of sorts. After his party named Nassau County Legis. Laura Curran (D-Baldwin) as the nominee in the race for county executive this fall, Lavine challenged her to a September primary, as did Nassau Comptroller George Maragos, a Republican who recently switched his affiliation to Democratic. Although the GOP has yet to name their pick—and Republican Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, who pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges last year, has yet to say if he’ll run for a third term—Lavine maintains he stands out from the crowd of candidates.
“I have no doubt I am the only person running for county executive who’s ever fought for and passed real legislation, progressive legislation,” Lavine said recently while citing his support for the Marriage Equality Act and gun safety laws. “Of all the people running for this office, I am the only one with true progressive credentials.”
He’s also the only declared candidate in the race to have won a primary as an underdog. But he’s not alone in having unseated an incumbent. Maragos ousted his Democratic predecessor, Howard Weitzman, in 2009, when the current comptroller rode a wave of Republican discontent into office.
Lavine grew up in the Midwest and moved to New York after meeting the Long Island woman he’d later marry, Ronnie, while both were students at University of Wisconsin. After graduating from New York University law school, Lavine became a criminal defense attorney. His inspiration to get politically involved came in the 1980s, when the Glen Cove city council banned diplomats residing at a local Russian-owned estate from using the city’s tennis courts and beaches—making his hometown the butt of late-night TV talk show hosts’ jokes in the process.
“It wasn’t long after we moved here that my local city council had decided that Ronald Reagan wasn’t doing enough to battle the Soviet menace,” the assemblyman recalled, noting that the GOP had the majority in Glen Cove at the time. “I would come home at night sleepless because I was worried about paying my mortgage and I would see Johnny Carson and the other late-night comedians making fun of this little town in which I had just made the most major investment of my life. So I got involved in the Democratic Party at that point because I thought there had to be a rational alternative.”
The Russian estate—and the beach pass episode—was in the news again last year when then-President Obama kicked its diplomats out after U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Russia worked to help Donald Trump win the presidential election. Following the dustup three decades prior, Glen Cove city lawmakers reversed their ban after the U.S. State Department expressed concerns that American diplomats based overseas could face retribution.
“This was an example of local politics out of hand that turned out to be dangerous,” Lavine said.
When the Democrats won back control of Glen Cove, Lavine worked as counsel to various city agencies and was appointed to the planning board before becoming a city councilman in 2003. A year later, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who was then the Nassau County executive, drafted Lavine to challenge then-Assemb. David Sidikman (D-Old Bethpage). Lavine was one of three candidates Suozzi ran as a part of the “Fix Albany” campaign intent on reforming politics in the state capital.
Although Lavine was one of two Fix Albany candidates that won, the road he took to the capital made him a pariah. Then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) didn’t support Lavine at first. But, with time, Lavine rose up the ranks—and the experience, he said, proved he’s an independent who’s willing to make tough decisions that are politically unpopular.
As former chair of the Administrative Regulation Review Commission, he passed legislation barring the state from sending enforcement officers to write summonses for violations of laws that the public wasn’t aware had been passed. As chair of the Assembly ethics committee, he’s tasked with handling confidential disciplinary violations—usually allegations of sexual harassment—committed by fellow lawmakers against staffers. And as co-chair of the state Legislative Ethics Commission, he oversees enforcement of state ethics laws for lawmakers, their staff and legislative candidates.
He also serves on the board of the National Association of Jewish Legislators and is the past president of the group’s New York chapter. Although he refers to himself as an “old country boy,” Lavine said his experience of sometimes being the only Jewish kid in a few small town Midwestern high schools gave him a “keen sense” of discrimination.
“We have a county government that is corrupt and every fake contract given to a political crony is nothing more and nothing less than discrimination, because that discriminates against the good citizens, the real people who should be getting those contracts,” Lavine said.
“Every dollar of corruption has to be paid for over and over and over again, because then you have to get another dollar to make up for the other dollar that’s been corruptly spent,” he said. “And at the same time, the county’s reputation, its bond rating, falls. And we have to pay for the police who do the investigation of this corruption, we have to pay for the prosecutors and judges that handle these cases of corruption, and oftentimes we have to pay for lawyers to represent the people who are charged with corruption.”
Then there’s the cost to taxpayers for holding the special elections to replace lawmakers expelled from office upon their convictions. To address the issue, if elected, Lavine would launch a “forensic audit of all county contracts,” he said.
“Nassau County also needs an independent board of experts to review the way the county itself functions, in terms of the number of agencies it has, how are those agencies structured, who are the people who work in those agencies,” he said. “Nassau County needs to be streamlined. We are one of the oldest suburban counties. It’s time for Nassau County 2.0.”
He also said Nassau needs to re-evaluate the so-called county guarantee. The law requires Nassau to pay 100 percent of property tax refunds to property owners that successfully challenge the assessed value of their homes—even though the county only gets 16 percent of the funds and the rest go to towns, villages, school districts and other special districts.
He’s confident that his experience in Albany would help him get such complex reforms approved. Although, like any lawmaker, not all of his proposals have passed. His pending legislation includes bills to create a fiscal oversight board for the scandal-scarred Town of Oyster Bay, fining drivers that don’t remove snow from the roofs of their vehicles and renaming Donald J. Trump Park.
Despite all the work there is to do, Lavine—a father of two with two grandchildren—remains optimistic about the future of the county he aspires to lead.
“Nassau County’s not easy,” he said. “But it’s worth it. This is a great place to live. You’ve got wonderful schools, wonderful communities, we are minutes away from one of the world’s great cities. It’s vibrant, it’s exciting—that’s the reason people want to live here.”