Richard Kessel, just-appointed chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, was motivated to get into politics and government by the 1972 death of his mother from cancer. He says, “The death of my mother in 1972 energized me to get involved in politics. I felt the government wasn’t doing enough to eradicate and find a cure for cancer.”
So in his 20’s he formed Long Island Consumer Action and also Say No to LILCO (Long Island Lighting Company) and became a gadfly and also a Democrat running for Nassau County executive.
But Kessel, although he’s still a solid Democrat, is comfortable working with Republicans. “I began to realize that it’s better to get things done working together,” reflects Kessel, now 73, and as energetic as he was a half-century ago. “We are all human beings. We shouldn’t be enemies of each other. We should work for the common good and benefit of the taxpayers.”
Kessel’s activities as a consumer advocate on Long Island led to his being named executive director of the New York State Consumer Protection Board by Gov. Mario Cuomo. He later would become CEO of the New York State Power Authority. Most recently, he was chairman of the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency.
All along, Kessel has been issues-focused. His main targets were the now defunct Long Island Lighting Company’s drives for rate increases and nuclear power, and the Long Island Rail Road and its fare hikes and services problems. He fought for decades against LILCO’s plan to build nuclear power plants on Long Island and handed over a $1 bill to LILCO so the state could acquire LILCO’s first completed nuclear power plant, Shoreham, and decommission it as a nuclear facility.
He would like to see Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) trustees elected by Long Islanders—the original arrangement in the law establishing LIPA—rather than being appointed by high state officials.
NIFA was set up by the state in 2000 when Nassau County government was on the brink of bankruptcy. Says Kessel: “I think Nassau County has made marked improvements” under the administrations of County Executives Laura Curran and Bruce Blakeman. But the financially ailing Nassau University Medical Center “has bonds backed by the county which could create a huge financial burden on the county.” And there will be fiscal impacts as Covid-related support by the federal government runs out.
NIFA’s authority has been broadened to approve—or disapprove—of any county contract over $50,000 and all labor agreements. As a member of the original board, he is familiar with NIFA; Gov. Kathy Hochul said Kessel “has the background and experience” for the position.
He has a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University and taught consumer issues at Brooklyn College and Five Towns College. Kessel’s life in politics and government has not been academic, however, but exceptionally hands-on.
Karl Grossman is an Investigative Reporter and Professor of Journalism.