“Once we got to the Inn at New Hyde Park and the polls were closed and the numbers were coming in, my calmness fell away a little bit because this is the moment of truth,” recalled Laura Gillen, the Town of Hempstead’s first Democratic supervisor-elect in more than a century.
Down in the polls early on Nov. 7, Gillen remembered, she and incumbent Republican Anthony Santino were neck and neck for much of the night, separated by a few hundred votes at one point as districts continued to report results.
“People said, ‘Oh, we’re going to paper,’” Gillen told the Herald. “‘We’re going to be locked in a room with lawyers for weeks and we’re not going to know who won.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. It has to end tonight. I have to win tonight.’” She did.
Gillen, 47, grew up in Baldwin and moved to Rockville Centre in 2003. Prior to that, she graduated from Georgetown University and later from New York University’s School of Law. She served as an attorney and, most recently, worked as counsel to Uniondale law firm Westerman Ball Ederer Miller Zucker & Sharfstein, LLP, where she practiced commercial litigation until resigning after being elected.
She was not politically active until following news of plans for the Lighthouse Project, which was supposed to transform Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and its surrounding area into a residential and commercial hub. Then-Islanders owner Charles Wang proposed it. Watching the deal fall apart, in 2009, and County Executive Ed Mangano “try to hoist that burden onto the taxpayers” caught Gillen’s attention, she said. Residents ultimately rejected the proposal for a new arena to replace the Coliseum in 2011.
“When I saw those kind of shenanigans going on, that made me really say, ‘I’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on locally,’” Gillen said. Previously, she added, she had paid more attention to national news than what was happening in her own backyard.
Seeking a way into public service, she ran for Nassau County clerk against Maureen O’Connell in 2013. Though she lost the race, Gillen said, she enjoyed the election process, which served as something of an initiation for this year’s campaign.
After losing the 2013 election, she said, she stayed engaged and waited for a race that was important to her. One against Santino fit that description. “I thought that over 100 years of one-party rule was too much, and that the bad results were quite evident throughout the Town of Hempstead,” she said. “It’s forever been known as a bastion of nepotism and cronyism, and it needed to be changed.
“I knew it would be a difficult race,” she continued, “but it was worth fighting.”
Gillen’s pursuit of public office stems partly from serving others earlier in life. In her youth, she volunteered for South Nassau Communities Hospital and Camp ANCHOR, a town camp that serves those with special needs. In her mid-20s, Gillen worked at an entertainment agency, and after visiting a friend in Hong Kong, she decided she wanted to travel more and continue serving others. On her lunch break one day, she walked into a Barnes & Noble and saw a book called “Volunteer Vacations.” Flipping through, she learned of an opportunity in Calcutta, India, through the Missions of Charity that cared for those in need.
“I said, ‘That’s it!’ I told my best friend that night, ‘I know what I’m going to do next year. I’m going to go to India and work for Mother Teresa.’ Of course she laughed, and was like, ‘Yeah, right.’”
Spending a few months at the center, she also traveled to Asia and the Middle East. By traveling alone, she gained confidence and resourcefulness that remain with her today, she said. “Learning about how much my life was enriched by just serving other people,” Gillen recalled of her experience in Calcutta, “and that’s certainly something that I want to bring into government as well.”
After her historic victory, she began assembling her transition team, and wrote a letter to Santino a day before the town’s board meeting on Nov. 14, asking him to “refrain from appointing, hiring/transferring employees, entering into contracts, or making material decisions affecting Hempstead Town, its operations/budget, including, but not limited to, the appointment of an inspector general.”
She told the Herald that though certain parts of the meeting disappointed her — without elaborating — she is optimistic that certain measures will be seen through once she takes the helm in January.
Though she noted that the honeymoon period has been short, the reality continues to set in for Gillen, who recalled the moment on election night when she received confirmation of her victory. Fellow Democrat Laura Curran, who became the first woman Nassau County executive-elect, was on stage giving her victory speech when, all of a sudden, the crowd realized Gillen had won, and erupted in applause. She called the moment, which she shared with her husband and four children, one of the best of her life.
“I’m still thrilled; I’m eager to get to work,” Gillen said. “I’m so ready to prove to the residents in the Town of Hempstead who entrusted me with this very important job that I’m going to work tirelessly to earn the seat that they’ve