Nov. 7 was a historic day in Nassau County political history. Democratic candidates scored major victories in the county and the Town of Hempstead, and the old-line Republican establishment is still in shock. And like Robert Redford in the movie “The Candidate,” there is no doubt that on the morning after the election, both Laura Curran, the county executive-elect, and Laura Gillen, the Town of Hempstead supervisor-elect, had to be thinking, “Now what?”
Today’s Nassau County is a much different place than back in the 1960s, when the Democrats elected Eugene Nickerson as the county leader, and years later, when Tom Suozzi managed to beat the Republican Party machine. To start with, we have a very different voter enrollment. A few years ago, for the first time, the number of enrolled Democrats exceeded the number of registered Republicans. And the portion of voters who shun both parties is now over 25 percent.
Once upon a time, newcomers to the county registered Republican on the advice of their neighbors, who suggested that it was the best way to get a stop sign or to get your street plowed after a snowstorm. So it was a given that the vaunted Republican Party would win almost every race for almost any post, from sanitation commissioner to county clerk. But times change, and party loyalties are no longer written in stone. Check the contribution reports and you’ll find Republicans donating to Democrats, and vice versa. Years ago that would have been considered treason.
An independent electorate is just part of the problem that the two newly elected Democrats face. Street gangs, opioid addiction deaths, traffic nightmares and the demands of the not-in-my-backyard crowd will stress both Curran and Gillen. Social media is a potent weapon for an angry public, and small political mistakes can be enlarged beyond imagination. The public no longer has patience for corruption or the appearance of corruption.
Back in the 1960s, a local elected official could make a major mistake, and there would be plenty of time to explain the other side of the story. Today’s public official may have only precious minutes to respond intelligently and credibly. So both women will need the guidance of smart professionals who can spread their message and know how to respond when an emergency arises.
One of the biggest challenges that Nassau County must deal with is its sluggish business economy. With very little land available for expansion, it will be a challenge to attract new businesses and the jobs that come with them. Regrettably, over the past 10 years there have been few major announcements of new businesses seeking to plant their flags here. Companies do come here, or expand, in small numbers, but the county has failed to chase the big names or even make an attempt to do so.
Another problem has been the lack of planning for the future. Nassau needs better highways, new sales tax revenue, modernized facilities for public use and affordable housing. The builders who have profited from residential housing need to be coaxed into creating apartments and homes that young couples can afford. Thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, service on the future Long Island Rail Road will be faster, but we need our college graduates to stay behind in a place that conforms to their budgets.
Both Curran and Gillen will take over governments that have been run in mysterious ways. The county budget has been shrouded in gimmicks, and there has been an ongoing war with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state-mandated control board. Finding good people to unravel the fiscal mess should be a high priority, and there are many qualified people out there who could help. The Town of Hempstead has been saddled with a heavy dose of patronage, and the true state of its finances is unknown and might have stayed a mystery but for the voters deciding that it was time for a change.
Being a successful public official these days is a gigantic challenge. The road to success is littered with land mines. Both of these new executives are honest and eager to do the right thing. We hope they succeed, because if they do, we do.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.