For signs of how the ongoing federal corruption dragnet has affected Long Island politics, look no further than the four executive-level county positions with no incumbents running for re-election this fall.
It’s the first time in recent memory – possibly ever – there will be turnover in so many top jobs in Nassau and Suffolk counties during the same election. While three of the four open county-wide posts – Nassau County executive, Suffolk district attorney and Suffolk Sheriff – were directly touched by investigations, many local legislative races have also seen ethics reform become a campaign issue as a result. Voters will narrow their field of aspiring replacements in many of these and other races during the Sept. 12 primaries.
“It’s a historical anomaly, perhaps,” said Peter Cohalan, the former Suffolk executive and current county historian. “I don’t think that it’s happened before.”
Arguably, the most-watched primary pits Nassau Comptroller George Maragos against the Democratic nominee in the Nassau executive’s race, Nassau Legis. Laura Curran (D-Baldwin). Their general election opponents are former-New York State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Old Westbury) and Green Party candidate Cassandra Lems. The GOP nominated Martins over incumbent Republican Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, who pleaded not guilty to an alleged kickback scheme last year.
Authorities allege he awarded contracts to a friend, who in turn gave a no-show job to Mangano’s wife. The couple deny any wrongdoing. Even though he hasn’t publicly stated that he’s not seeking a third term, Ed won’t “keep it going,” to quote his 2013 re-election campaign motto, past Dec. 31. This will be the first time since ‘01, when Republican Tom Gulotta nearly bankrupt the county and his deputy was arrested for taking bribes, that a sitting Nassau exec hasn’t run for re-election.
“We have a lot of … people who are really hustling, working hard and there’s a sense that the government doesn’t live up to them,” said Curran, a two-term lawmaker, ex-journalist and former school board member who would be the first female Nassau exec if she wins in November. “I believe that we deserve a government that lives up to us. That we hire people not for purely political reasons but because they have the merit, because they have the credentials to do the job.”
Maragos, a Greek immigrant who switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat last year, said he’s confident that he can pull off a surprise win as the self-funded underdog because he already has one upset under his belt – unseating his Democratic predecessor eight years ago. (He wasn’t as lucky when he unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) less than a year after becoming comptroller.)
“As comptroller, I’ve seen a lot of issues that the county has that are not being addressed,” said Maragos. “The people that can least afford to pay the high property taxes are subsidizing the rich, in effect. And the two parties seem content with that.”
In forgoing re-election to run for county exec, Maragos makes the Nassau Comptroller’s seat the only one of the four incumbent-free, non-judicial countywide contests on LI to not have a cloud of a federal investigation hanging over it.
The outgoing comptroller is running on a ticket with the small business owner he hopes will replace him: Ama Yawson, who is challenging the Democratic nominee, Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman. General election opponents Steven Labriola, the Republican nominee, and Laurence Hirsch, the Green Party candidate, await on Election Day in that race.
“There’s no magical solution for turning it around quickly,” Schnirman said of the cash-strapped county’s fiscal woes that have kept it under watch of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority for 16 years. “There’s not a huge chorus out there calling for draconian cuts in services, or calling for dramatic tax hikes. It took many years to cause these problems, and those problems are not going to be solved overnight.”
Yawson said her priorities include ensuring small businesses are afforded equal access to winning government contracts. If elected, she would be the first woman and first African American to be Nassau comptroller.
“I understand the burden our community is living with as we try to afford these homes, which are … more expensive than 70 percent of the homes in the nation,” she said. “As we try to afford these taxes, which are four times the national average.”
Regardless of whether Yawson wins, Schnirman will be on general election ballots on the Working Families and Women’s Equality party lines.
The last time a county comptroller didn’t seek re-election in Nassau was in 1993, after U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) resigned the post upon his election to Congress. His interim replacement didn’t run to keep the job.
On the opposite side of the county line, the other pair of top-level seats are being vacated after two more unrelated FBI probes. Although the outgoing incumbents haven’t said the cases had anything to do with their decisions, the timing speaks for itself.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, a Democrat who had been repeatedly cross-endorsed, opted against seeking a fifth term after reports that his public corruption bureau chief, Christopher McPartland, is under federal investigation. Additionally, Spota’s former protigé, disgraced Suffolk Police Chief James Burke, was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to beating a suspect. That led to calls from lawmakers for Spota’s resignation.
Neither Spota nor McPartland have been charged with wrongdoing.
It’s been 26 years since an incumbent Suffolk DA hasn’t run to keep their job. The last time it happened, in ‘89, Republican Patrick Henry bowed out after a special investigative report was issued on corruption in Suffolk law enforcement.
Democrats backing Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini, the Democratic nominee to replace Spota, successfully petitioned for what’s known as an Opportunity to Ballot – an invitation for write-in primary candidates – to challenge the Reform Party line of his Republican rival, Ray Perini, who ran an unsuccessful GOP primary against Spota four years ago.
“It’s clear that Democratic Party Leader [Richard] Schaffer is attempting to take the vote away from the voters and get Sini every line that he can get,” said Perini, noting that Sini is also running on the Working Families, Conservative and Independence party lines.
“We haven’t had a chance to vote for a DA for so long,” he added, referring to Spota’s cross endorsements. “I think the voters … are ready for a change.”
The Sini campaign referred a request for comment to the Suffolk Democratic committee, which did not return requests for comment.
IN THE JAILHOUSE NOW
As for Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, the lone Conservative to hold a countywide seat, he declined to seek a fourth term after he tipped authorities off to political corruption in his ranks.
The Suffolk Conservative Party indicated that it would not back DeMarco after he helped get its ex-chairman, Ed Walsh, convicted of fraud for $200,000 in wage theft. Based in part on information DeMarco provided to the FBI, Walsh was found guilty of golfing, gambling and politicking while on the clock as a corrections lieutenant at the county jail. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison, but his attorneys are asking a judge to consider granting a new trial.
The GOP nominated state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) to replace DeMarco, but Boyle’s Republican nomination is being challenged by two candidates: Peter Krauss, a former New York City police sergeant, and Lawrence Zacarese, the Stony Brook University police deputy chief. Former Huntington Town Councilman Stuart Besen is the Democratic candidate in the general election in that race.
GOP attorneys had a court throw out enough signatures on Krauss’ petitions to have him bumped off the Republican primary ballot. Krauss said he plans to appeal, but the resolution of that case was yet to be determined as we went to press. Zacarese and Boyle remain locked in a GOP primary.
Regardless of whether Krauss makes it a three-way primary, Krauss and Zacarese are expected be on the ballot in the general election. That’s because Krauss is running as a Libertarian and Zacarese also has the Reform Party line.
The Sheriff’s seat hadn’t been voluntarily vacated since ’02, when then-Suffolk Sheriff Patrick Mahoney, a Republican-turned-Democrat, pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND
The four high-level elected office vacancies aren’t the only seats on LI that will be on September primary ballots. There are dozens of other local primaries for voters to decide, too.
In other primaries, Maragos ally Carl DeHaney is challenging Democratic nominee Dean Bennett in the race to face three-term Republican Nassau County Clerk Maureen O’Connell on Election Day. The rest of the primaries on ballots are scattered across various county legislative races, Glen Cove and Long Beach city council contests and judgeships. Many of the primaries are on minor party lines, such as the Reform and Green parties.
“As Nassau County Clerk, I will cultivate a record of transparency, accountability, and accessibility, promote superior service delivery, introduce 21st century technology to record-keeping and advocate for lower fees,” Bennett said, citing a recent Press report card that gave the clerk’s office a D+ for its responsiveness to public records requests.
Regardless of whether he fends off DeHaney’s challenge in the Democratic primary, Bennett will be on the general election ballot on the Working Families and Women’s Equality party lines.
“One of the biggest reasons that I decided to run, particularly for this office, because if you ask the average Nassau County resident, ‘what does the clerk’s office do?’ No one really knows,” DeHaney said, noting that he also would lobby the county legislature to lower fees for filing paperwork with the office.
If either Bennett or DeHaney unseat O’Connell, they would be the first African American to be elected Nassau clerk.
The race to replace outgoing Nassau Legis. Dennis Dunne (R-Levittown), who left his seat representing the 15th legislative district after being appointed to fill a vacancy on the Hempstead town board, features a Reform Party primary between Democratic candidate Michael Sheridan and Republican candidate John Ferretti. NYPD Det. James Coll is appealing a court ruling nixing his planned GOP primary against Ferretti.
And in the 16th district, freshman Nassau Legis. Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview) is facing a Democratic primary from Lewis Yevoli of Old Bethpage, the former Oyster Bay town supervisor. The Republican in that race is Angel Cepeda.
On the other side of the county line, there are also a handful of legislative primaries. Stephen Ruth, the Libertarian candidate and self-described “Red Light Robinhood,” is appealing a court ruling bumping him out of a GOP primary challenging Suffolk Legis. Thomas Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), who also has the Conservative and Independence party lines in the 4th legislative district. The Democratic challenger in that race is Dominador Pascual.
Lining up to challenge Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) in the 6th district are Frank Vetro, a school principal and Republican challenger to GOP nominee Gary Pollakusky, a marketing consultant also running on the Conservative and Reform party lines.
Challenging Legis. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), who also has the Independence and Women’s Equality party lines, is Angela Ramos, wife of Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood). The Republican general election opponent in that race is Douglas King.
Michael McElwee, a restaurateur, is challenging Republican nominee Steven Flotteron, the Islip town councilman vying to replace term-limited Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip), who’s McElwee’s father-in-law. The Democrat in that contest is Joseph McDermott.
The primaries are scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 12. Polls are open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. To find your local polling place, contact the Nassau or Suffolk board of elections.