After four years on the Babylon Town Board, a decade as Babylon Town Supervisor and 12 years as Suffolk County Executive, Steve Bellone is getting ready for his next act.
Bellone, a Democrat, has had plenty of time to prepare for his transition away from the county executive’s chair. Last year, he signed term-limit legislation that prohibited him from seeking re-election to what would have been his fourth term in office, a development he says he welcomed.
“I’ve been a longtime supporter of term limits. In fact, I think every position in the United States should be term-limited,” he says. “I believe it’s a good thing for the system to have that kind of forced turnover.”
Steve Bellone’s Political Future?
Bellone, 54, is not yet ready to share his plans regarding his future professional life. But while acknowledging the rigors of his office and saying all the right things about wanting to spend more time with his family, the career politician clearly hasn’t ruled out another run for public office.
“I am concerned about the future, and not just here in the region,” he says. “I’m concerned about where we’re going in this country and I expect that I will certainly maintain political viability.”
The demands of the job and the desire to spend more quality time with their family notwithstanding, when an elected official says he will “maintain political viability,” it’s a safe bet that he’s not quite ready to leave the public sector and ride off into the sunset.
Bellone won’t say whether his sights are set on a House or Senate seat for example, or perhaps an appointed position in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration. But he appears legitimately confident that his 12-year record as county executive and the relationships he’s made along the way have left him well positioned to further his political career.
Steve Bellone’s Historic Tenure As Suffolk County Executive
He cites a number of legislative achievements to make the case for his administration. These include the gradual elimination of a $500 million budget deficit and a $200 million annual budget gap he inherited when he took office on the heels of the largest fiscal crisis in county history.
“Over the course of my tenure, we’ve gone from more than a half-billion-dollar deficit to having more than a billion dollars in reserve,” he points out. “I can say definitively that Suffolk County is in the best financial condition it’s ever been in. And there are no modifications or asterisks that need to be put on that statement.”
He also notes that during his first term, his office reduced the size of county government by more than 10% over a span of three years, eliminating 1,100 positions and saving county residents more than $100 million in salaries and benefits.
Additionally, the Bellone administration points to significant progress on the economic development side of the ledger, noting that Suffolk County has seen more than 3,200 residential units created in more than 30 Transit-Oriented Developments (TODs). The projects include what Bellone’s office calls, “major transformative projects such as Station Yards (Ronkonkoma Hub), Wyandanch Village, Copiague Commons, Huntington Station, Uptown Funk in Port Jefferson, Speonk Commons, and New Village in Patchogue,” adding that the county has committed more than $4.5 million in Downtown Revitalization Initiative funding to support pedestrian enhancements, streetscape improvements, and municipal facility upgrades during Bellone’s tenure.
Traditional day-to-day governing and fiscal policymaking are the backbones of any administration. But often, the ultimate perception of the success or failure of a county executive’s stewardship hinges on crisis management. And as Bellone points out, Suffolk County was no stranger to crisis during his tenure.
In addition to inheriting a generational fiscal deficit and budget shortfall as he took office, Bellone’s administration made its bones dealing with a number of additional man-made and natural disasters, including the public health and economic challenges left in the wake of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and 2013’s Winter Storm Nemo, which shut down the Long Island Expressway for multiple days, presented challenges of their own, as did a major scandal at the highest levels of county law enforcement. The scandal, which ensnared ex-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, ex-County Police Chief James Burke, and a large supporting cast of associated cronies and henchmen, probably significantly delayed the ultimate arrest of Gilgo serial killer suspect Rex Heuermann, who damaged the County’s zeitgeist and collective sense of safety a little bit more every day the alleged killer remained at large.
“Each of the multiple major crises were different,” says Bellone. “But we treated them the same way in that we put everything we had into dealing with them and we worked around the clock to make sure that people were OK. Part of that means that you address the immediate challenges, but you’re also thinking about the long-term implications. For example, during the financial crisis, we knew it was a long-term effort to get the county back on a path to fiscal stability.”
Bellone points out that while his administration’s crisis-mitigation strategy stayed fairly consistent over time, one recent event called for a unique approach. In 2022, a ransomware attack forced most of Suffolk County’s systems offline and exposed troves of private data to malicious hackers.
“In all of the other emergencies, it was necessary to communicate with the public on a regular basis,” Bellone says. “The cyberattack flipped that on its head. Now we were playing a cat-and-mouse game with a criminal organization located in a foreign country. They were delivering ransom notes but also monitoring what was said in the media. In that emergency, unlike every other, I was communicating as little as possible with [the media and my constituents]. Once that danger passed, we were able to put out a forensic report and we’ve been completely open and transparent about everything that happened.”
The Shifts In Long Island Politics Since Bellone Was First Elected
The next chapter of Bellone’s career as an elected public official – if indeed there is a new chapter – will likely be shaped by moderate Republicans and Independents.
There is clear evidence that Suffolk County has gotten redder over the last few election cycles. Examples include Republican Ed Romaine’s convincing victory in his race to succeed Bellone as county executive; the flipping of the Suffolk County Legislature to Republican control in 2021 for the first time in 16 years, and the GOP expanding its comfortable legislative majority in the 2023 election. Also relevant was Lee Zeldin’s dominating performance in Suffolk County during his surprisingly competitive 2022 gubernatorial run.
As Bellone points out, voting patterns continue to consolidate around party affiliation.
“During my time in politics, at both the town level and the county level, people have always been willing to jump the party line if they know and like the candidate and respect the job they’re doing,” he says. “That has to a great extent eroded over the years as more and more attention has become focused on national issues and the branding of the parties – so much so that people are voting for a collection of issues rather than a candidate.”
If voters in Suffolk County and across the country are increasingly casting their ballots based on party affiliation or their perception of party positions on a specific basket of issues (crime, the border, taxes, inflation, LGBTQ rights, abortion, etc.), is there a secret sauce to winning elections when politics aren’t nearly as local as they used to be? And does the Democratic Party have a messaging problem in Suffolk County?
“As a party on Long Island, certainly we need to do a better job of recruiting on the grassroots level and staking out positions that make sense and messaging them in ways that are appealing to voters,” Bellone says.
Whatever his next professional move may be, the outgoing county executive is more than willing to run on his record.
“We’re all here for a certain period of time and the object is to make a positive contribution – to do what you can while you’re in a position to make things better,” Bellone says. “Your hope is that when your work is complete, you’ve made it better than you found it. I think by that standard, we achieved our goal.”