Hoisting Atrophy

When watching current County Executive Ed Mangano and former county executive Tom Suozzi fight to be the one to circle the bowl next, it’s hard not to get caught up in the partisan bickering.

suozzi manganoIt’s the most wonderful time of the year. If politics is your sport, nothing compares to retail politics at the local level. No irrational exuberance surrounding national figures with long coattails or embarrassing blowback; just a good, old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground slugfest where committee members rule the day. This year’s election is one where ideology takes a backseat to patronage in the battle of the bureaucrats. This is small ball, baby.

It’s been a while since I pulled my thoughts out of the national and international clouds to take a look at what is happening here at home. So forgive me as I reminisce for a moment before handicapping the county executive race in Nassau County, far and away the most interesting local political story of the season.

A little more than a decade ago I ran for mayor in my hometown of Glen Cove. In doing so I found myself on the opposite end (and losing side) of the Suozzi family machine. While this was my adopted hometown, I was a so-called carpetbagger living in the feudal regime run by generations of Suozzis. The race was so parochial, my opponent even sent out a campaign flyer that told the good citizens of Glen Cove that I was untrustworthy because I was born in Canada. Glen Cove is the land of homemade pasta sauce, not maple syrup. I never had a chance.

As a Republican candidate (hard to believe, I know), I briefly found myself in the fascinating world of the Nassau County GOP. My first (and last) general meeting at GOP headquarters in Westbury was as if I had set the dashboard clock on my DeLorean to 1950. The nearly all-white and graying crowd milled about greeting one another with hearty slaps on the back while the power brokers huddled quietly in the corner of the room whispering among themselves and occasionally surveying the crowd. Gradually, everyone took a seat in a folding chair facing a large map and a podium where chairman Joseph Mondello presided over the meeting.

“This is a business!” he bellowed on more than one occasion. Mr. Mondello’s countenance would move from ashen to crimson within seconds as he addressed the audience alternately with the coolness of a CEO and the vigor of a college football coach. The overarching message was that we were to adhere to the script, send our money directly to headquarters and essentially fall in line.

pullquoteThe lessons I learned from this experience will stay with me forever. My 15 minutes of fame in Glen Cove has all but faded away, allowing me near perfect anonymity as I watch the lawn signs sprout up all over town with this year’s crop of candidates. My hope is that the politicians who occupy positions on the ballots, whether it’s Brookhaven, Southampton or Glen Cove, have gone to where the action really is: knocking on doors. There is no more authentic or humbling experience than standing in someone’s living room and listening to what they want from their local officials.

Which brings me to the two men atop the Nassau County ticket who are appropriately playing small ball, and in doing so, missing the larger picture altogether.

When watching current County Executive Ed Mangano and former county executive Tom Suozzi fight to be the one to circle the bowl next, it’s hard not to get caught up in the partisan bickering. And there is some great “inside baseball” going on here. Suozzi says Mangano is responsible for Nassau’s $2 billion debt. He’s not. Mangano claims to have presented balanced budgets. He didn’t. Suozzi attacks Mangano for being soft on gun control. This is grasping at straws. Mangano asserts that he has made progress on the property tax assessment issue. He hasn’t.

The biggest disconnect of this race, however, is ideology. The truth of this contest is that the two parties these men represent are indistinguishable from one another.

The assessment situation is fixable. But it must come from Albany—and the nine Long Island senators hold the key. Unfortunately, neither Mangano nor Suozzi will cop to this admission because each is cozy with law firms that extract exorbitant fees from tax grievances.

Both men share an antipathy toward labor and favor privatization. Mangano spends an inordinate amount of time cozying up to donors and Suozzi spent his political off-season consulting for an investment bank and commissioning works of art. In everything they have done and represent, they are shills for corporate America and complicit in an overall scheme designed to liquidate taxpayers, privatize public works, and ride the status quo deep into the ground.

It’s hardly their fault, mind you. Our troubles in suburbia are so thick that there is an air of inevitability to our decline. Mangano and Suozzi know it, which is why this is the ultimate bureaucratic contest. As voters, this election comes down to which starting lineup you want on the field playing in a game that won’t affect the outcome of your season. Got a buddy sandwiched in a cubicle in North Hempstead waiting to return to a cushy county job? Vote for Suozzi. Have a relative in the county who needs three more years to pad his or her pension before retirement? Vote for Mangano.

Want real change and a chance to redefine our future? Sorry. Not on the ballot.

Either way, I’ll be glued to my television as usual, watching Jerry Kremer and Larry Levy narrate the inevitable. And loving every minute of it.

The Untold Story Behind the Coliseum Referendum

News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community… but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.

The News Of The World scandal brought to light some of the more salacious dealings of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Empire. But as attention-grabbing as reports of phone hacking were, citizens of the UK were perhaps more shocked and ashamed by revelations that a cozy relationship had developed over the years between high-level government officials—as far-reaching as Scotland Yard and Prime Minister David Cameron—and executives from News Of The World, Murdoch’s now-shuttered tabloid.

A flurry of inquiries into the matter illustrated an almost symbiotic bond between Murdoch the man and government officials desperately seeking his approval. As much as an anathema as this is to purists in either journalism or the public sector, the fact is that media magnates have always curried favor with political leaders and well-funded private interests have unfortunately always had a penthouse suite in the fourth estate.

Less notably, to the outside world, Long Island itself has been besieged by our own local conglomerate in Newsday/Cablevision; one that quizzically evaded the scrutiny of the Department of Justice when it formed and is serving us its own unique brand of partisan influence, though political ideology appears to have little to do with it.

Long Islanders have come increasingly and unwittingly under the influence of Cablevision’s invisible hand as both News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community. To be sure, outlets such as the Press, local community weeklies and newer entrants such as Patch.com, have leveled the playing field to an extent; but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.

BILLION-DOLLAR BATTLE

It was a story we planned to report, though it was not originally slated for our cover position. As the debate intensified and details of the project were being hastily, yet relentlessly thrown out from all sides, Michael Nelson, the Press’ Editor In Chief, decided upon a group assignment for the story. There were simply too many questions, too much posturing and too little time for one writer to pen a comprehensive piece. (CLICK TO VIEW COVER STORY)

This was a billion-dollar proposition. Those don’t come along every day.

All sides of the issue were pitted against one another and trading vituperative remarks, the most colorful ones coming off the record I can assure you. Former allies turned enemies. Civil discourse was abandoned almost from the start. Moreover, ideology was completely discarded as the Nassau Republican Party and the Nassau Democratic Party appeared to have switched sides somewhere along the way like a bad Hollywood “Mom-wakes-up-in-daughter’s-body” movie. Jay Jacobs, the Democratic leader, was vilifying taxes and union labor supported infrastructure spending while Republican County Executive Edward Mangano was proposing to increase taxes almost the same amount as the home energy tax he repealed; a campaign promise that, quite frankly, got him elected.

Charles Wang and Ed Mangano’s relentless public relations and advertising blitz to encourage the passage of the Coliseum Referendum had the very opposite effect on the pubic. The very thought that Nassau would undertake such an enormous taxpayer-financed project against the backdrop of a country raging against government and high taxes—and at the height of the debt ceiling debate in Washington—inspired an over-taxed population to draw its own line in the sand. But that’s not the most interesting, and tragic part of what transpired during this campaign.

Our cover story, “On Thin Ice,” scrupulously detailed every aspect of the proposed development absent any hyperbole; we also took care to represent every side of the issue equally, concluding that while the details of the plan as presented were shaky at best the decision was an emotional one because the Coliseum played an important role in Long Island’s history.

Newsday’s coverage couldn’t have differed more.

HOW NEWSDAY COVERED IT

With one week to go until voters would be asked to decide whether or not to allow the county to issue a $400 million bond for the Coliseum, Newsday ran a photo of Charles Wang on the cover of its Sunday edition, the most widely circulated paper of the week. The headline read, “Wang and the Arena.” It was billed as “an interview” though it ran in the lead news position and spread over three pages. The interview, conducted by veteran reporter Ted Phillips, was formatted as a news story rather than an interview as it quoted both Wang and Michael Picker, Senior VP of the Islanders, and carried several paragraphs of analysis. This is an important distinction, because a proper news format should have carried opposing viewpoints to the Coliseum plan, particularly since the piece relied on more than just Wang’s interview. Only there were none.

Perhaps these were observations that only other members of the media or opponents of the plan would recognize, but after speaking with a Newsday staffer on the condition of anonymity, this murky piece came into focus. It was full of “unchallenged statements and assumptions,” claimed the staffer, who followed bluntly with, “quotes from the other side were cut.”

Newsday, it seemed, was in the tank for the referendum. Any questions regarding this assertion were, in my mind at least, answered one week later.

On Sunday, July 31, the day before the referendum, proponents of the Coliseum redevelopment plan issued a torrent of positive information regarding the plan in Newsday. Both the Islanders and the Steamfitting Industry Promotion Fund took full-page advertisements encouraging Nassau residents to “Vote Yes.” The news section carried a two-page “Q&A” on the Coliseum with a picture of the proposed rendering with a caption that read “Courtesy of New York Islanders.” The rendering had appeared seemingly out of the blue, with no attribution other than who supplied it. No architect, no engineering firm. Nothing. For Newsday to accept this rendering without questioning the source or viability of it was incredible.

Once again, the so-called answers in this piece were barely vetted or questioned, instead offering a snapshot of the opposing sides. As they had done the week before, Newsday accepted what was given to them at face value, even though just a few days prior the Press’ cover story highlighted critical errors and inconsistencies in the same reports. Conspicuously absent from the July 31 issue was an Op-Ed piece from the Association For A Better Long Island (ABLI) submitted a full two weeks prior, which Newsday held and decided not to run. But the most stunning part of the newspaper came on the Editorial Page.

VOTE YES

To fully appreciate the July 31 editorial, it is helpful to understand that Newsday’s honeymoon with the Mangano administration was short-lived. Consistently the Newsday Editorial Board and its columnists have chastened Mangano on several issues ranging from his ongoing feud with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) to his choice of key staffers and deputies. They have relentlessly hammered his fiscal agenda and the County Executive has responded defiantly along the way. This is why the Editorial titled “Vote yes for a new arena” was entirely anachronistic.

The editorial settles the financial argument by claiming that the worst-case scenario of the bond would be a $58 increase on homeowners’ tax bills and the best case is a profitable scenario that would “mitigate future property tax increases.” Nowhere in their calculations did they factor in the potential cost to commercial taxpayers, who pick up a greater share of the tax burden, thereby concluding: “So, $58 per year. That’s less than it would cost a family of four to travel to New York City to see an ice show, a boat show or a circus that they won’t see near home if the deal fails.” To paint the picture that $58 per year, per household was the worst-case scenario would be laughable if it wasn’t so troubling.

The remainder of the Editorial is a virtual press release for the Islanders. It offers a few minor hurdles, essentially admits that residents won’t have a full picture of the project and closes with “voters ought to get the process started by saying YES on Monday to sow the seeds for a vibrant and growing Nassau County.” Ignoring for a moment that the language and logic of the Editorial indicate that it was authored by a third-grader, the Editorial Board offered its full support for a non-binding referendum on a $400 billion bond by a county Newsday has positively excoriated for not paying its bills, laying off workers and ignoring a growing structural budget deficit.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Newsday was once a very good paper, and at times it still is. But its tacit endorsement of the Coliseum plan in news coverage such as the Phillips piece coupled with the outright support of the Editorial Board, suggests something is rotten in Denmark. Despite the fact that the Islanders appear to have spent a sizeable chunk of advertising dollars and that the Nassau Coliseum is entirely wrapped in an Optimum Online banner, this is more than the obvious advertising pay-to-play scenario.

What no one addressed at Newsday or News12 is that both the Islanders and Cablevision are controlled by two of the wealthiest individuals on Long Island. And their affiliation goes far beyond advertising.

Perhaps the disclaimer that should have appeared in Newsday’s coverage of the referendum is the best way to characterize their relationship:

Newsday’s parent company, Cablevision, owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers, a competing venue to the Coliseum and archrival of the New York Islanders, respectively. It is considered one of the greatest and fiercest rivalries in sports, resulting in increased ticket revenue for both organizations. According to Forbes, Cablevision reportedly pays the Islanders $15 million annually (nearly 25% of the team’s annual revenue) for broadcast television rights on a contract written through 2030 provided the Islanders remain in the New York marketplace. According to the NYS Board of Elections, Cablevision was one of County Executive Edward Mangano’s largest financial donors in the first half of 2011.

I am in no way insinuating that Cablevision/Newsday and the Islanders were conspiring to maintain a financially beneficial arrangement between the two organizations by issuing propaganda, omitting certain key details in news stories, relaxing reporting standards and pumping campaign dollars into the account of the local political leader. I’m merely suggesting that such a disclaimer would have been useful information for the reader.

Nevertheless, a crazy thing happened in spite of the efforts put forth by the above parties. The referendum failed. Badly. In the end, the outcome may have been less about the opposition from the development community spearheaded by the ABLI or the sniper attacks from the Democrats, and more as a result of simple voter awareness inspired by Mangano and the Islanders. Ironically, had Islanders owner Charles Wang and the Republicans left well enough alone and favored a quieter, more traditional Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign, their chances might have increased dramatically. Instead their aggressive campaign served only to wake the anti-tax giant in many Nassau residents and the proposition failed.

Though not on the scale of the News of the World ignominy, the failure to influence the outcome of the Coliseum referendum should be a lesson to the Cablevision and Newsday executives. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but not if it is filled with invisible ink; both your adversaries and your followers will see right through you.

Whither Reform?

Too often we look to find the solution for symptoms instead of examining and treating the root causes of an illness. In the cases of property tax cap and the Coliseum development, the prescribed reforms are merely masking the diseases that plague both patients.

Governor Andrew CuomoBig things are happening in Albany. After passing a timely budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has come to an agreement in principle with state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to pass a 2-percent property tax cap in New York State, the most aggressive cap of its kind in the nation. Gov. Cuomo Part Deux is making the most of his fresh political capital by making good on his campaign promises to restore fiscal stability to the Empire State.

The economic recovery on Long Island, as it is everywhere, is tenuous. Though I’m told the recession ended some time ago, the only apparent indication is the continuing progress of the stock market, which seems to march to its own beat irrespective of reality. Here on the ground things seem to be pretty much the same, save for a few glimmering lights at the end of the tunnel that may still be flashes from an oncoming train.

One such glimmer is the movement on the core project inside the Nassau Hub in Uniondale. The proposed redevelopment of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is beyond the talking stages and coming up for a vote. It’s the ultimate “put up or shut up” moment being sold to taxpayers by the strangest of bedfellows. Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and New York Islanders owner Charles Wang have put forth a proposal to Nassau residents to redevelop the Coliseum through taxpayer-financed bonds in a referendum tentatively set for Aug. 1. No casino, no mass transit, no retail and no backsies. Just a straight-up, publicly financed deal to take a financial leap of faith on Long Island’s only professional sports franchise.

Enter Albany. The only things standing in the way of this proposal, at long last, are a jaded electorate and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), a decade-old creature of the state Legislature created to save us from ourselves. The proposed bond is tentatively pegged at around $400 million to finance the Coliseum and an adjacent parcel for a minor league baseball team. Regardless of the outcome on Aug. 1, ultimately NIFA will have final say on whether the county can pull the trigger.

Conservative pundit and NIFA board member, George Marlin, may have already tipped NIFA’s hand in a recent Newsday op-ed, by saying this type of publicly financed stadium deal is in large measure lousy for the taxpayer.

There is a striking parallel between the property tax cap issue and the proposed Coliseum plan. In theory, both are good ideas. We taxpayers need extraordinary relief and future economic security. We need movement on the Hub to put the trades to work and at least begin reimagining the geographic focal point of Nassau County. When taken at face value, both propositions seem fairly obvious, and the political machinations to make progress on both appear to be nothing less than Herculean given the staggering inertia that has weighed them down for so long. But like everything in life, it’s more complicated than passing a bill or staging a referendum.

Too often we look to find the solution for symptoms instead of examining and treating the root causes of an illness. In the cases of property tax cap and the Coliseum development, the prescribed reforms are merely masking the diseases that plague both patients.

There are two sides of the property tax coin in Nassau County: schools and local government. School districts are understandably perturbed by the proposed tax cap as it eliminates their ability to levy tax increases according to an individual district’s needs. Many argue that it also places an undo burden on poorer districts that at times require greater tax increases due to a significantly lower tax base than their wealthier neighbors. With rising health care and pension costs for the teachers and staff, and little in the way of wage reform on Long Island, school districts will indeed be under the gun to do business differently. Taxpayers with children in the district will be caught in the crossfire for several years should the cap pass the Legislature as proposed because many districts will be loath to make systematic changes at first, instead they’ll impose drastic cuts to school programs in order to prove a point.

The smaller, but more pernicious aspect of the tax system in Nassau County, however, is the largely misunderstood local government levy. The tax certiorari issue, the process of grieving your property tax assessment to reduce your payment, is frequently employed in large part by commercial property owners. It’s a standard process replicated in municipalities across the nation but Nassau County still has an antiquated ruling on the books, referred to as the “county guarantee” dating back to 1948, whereby the county is required to cover whatever portion of the reduction is allocated to the schools.

The Mangano administration pushed legislation through the Nassau Legislature last October to eliminate the guarantee by 2012; predictably the ruling is being challenged in court by 41 districts. The school districts contend that more than $50 million annually would be shifted toward the school districts from the county budget, a move that would provide relief to the county but not the local taxpayer who would still be on the hook for the refunds through the school tax levy. The introduction of the tax cap adds yet another wrinkle to the equation if schools are required to take on this burden without the ability to raise taxes in accordance with the amount of the refunds.

To fix this problem, Nassau County and NIFA need to act boldly and enact a variance clause to the tax certiorari process whereby any assessment within a margin of error of 10 percent results in no change to the assessment. The county has estimated that 90 percent or more of all challenges fall within this range. This one simple ruling, in conjunction with the courts upholding the legislation to reform the county guarantee, would not only properly allocate payments of tax refunds to the original beneficiaries of the funds, but it would finally reform a broken system and eliminate the need to continually cover the refunds through bonding that has no offsetting future revenue stream.

Absent this type of reform, every project that might be aided by or require government borrowing and assistance such as the Coliseum project will always be viewed in a negative light because taxpayers are overburdened as it is. As residents we should be able to make an emotional decision to keep our only professional sports franchise on Long Island and the practical decision of redeveloping the Hub without the prevailing sense that somehow the other shoe is about to drop. The “other shoe,” by the way, is called reassessment. Understand that there are two parts to the property tax equation: rate and assessment. Just because we are moving toward capping the rates doesn’t mean the county can’t simply reassess your property at a higher value to raise your taxes. 

So while Albany seems to have found its rhythm for the moment, we need our state legislators to take the next difficult step of fixing the underlying structural imbalances we face in order to let us  make the right decisions for our future.

Coliseum Casino: Let It Ride

It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

Foxwoods Casino. Oh no, this just wouldn't do. Too pretty for Long Island. Next!

There is a renewed hullaballoo surrounding the proposed Shinnecock casino at the current site of the Nassau Coliseum. A deserved hullaballoo, I might add. The very thought of a casino in the middle of our bustling, albeit struggling, suburban landscape inspires clamorous debate among the many stakeholders that exist in relatively tight quarters. Even lame duck Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is quacking about building a casino at his beloved Yaphank facility claiming that it’s better suited further away from Nassau County residents.

Unfortunately, it will be a cold day in hell before Long Islanders in either county have a say in the matter. People you have never heard of in positions you didn’t know existed will never allow a casino to be built this close to New York City because it would potentially devastate the interests of the people they represent from upstate New York, Connecticut, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. I offer this, not to quell your enthusiasm but to issue a gauntlet of solidarity and self-determination: either we all get behind this, or we drop it from the start.

So let’s have a debate among ourselves. Long Islander to Long Islander. But allow me to establish some ground rules. First, take the emotion out of the ensuing discourse by recognizing that while there is no magic elixir to cure our financial illness on Long Island, Nassau County in particular, we must not allow ourselves to be constrained by classic NIMBYism. There’s nothing wrong with thinking big. Conversely, big thinking doesn’t always ensure positive outcomes. But the only journey that guarantees failure is one that never begins. Taxpayers can no longer afford pusillanimous behavior from elected officials who acquiesce to a vocal minority. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Huntington! Oops. Getting emotional. My bad.)

Further, in order to have a proper discussion we must move past the question of legitimacy; that is, whether the tribe has the right to construct a casino on this parcel. For the purposes of examining the potential impact of this type of development, let us assume that it is within their right to strike an agreement with the government to build on this property. Lastly, the only other stipulation I entreat you to heed is to refrain from casting racially motivated aspersions toward members of the Shinnecock Nation. It detracts from the merit of the debate.

Here are my assertions. Let the debate begin.

If you build it they will come. A casino nestled within such a populous community has the potential of being the largest-grossing casino in the nation. Factor in the public transportation access to this area from New York City residents and this is an irrefutable fact. The impact upon the local economy would be seismic. According to a 2008 study published by the Taylor Policy Group of Sarasota, Fla., the estimated impact of the gaming and related industries of the Seneca Nation in western New York is $820 million annually. The study places this figure in context by stating that “the impact of the Nation exceeds that of the [Buffalo] Bills and the [Buffalo] Sabres combined and approaches that of the SUNY Buffalo campus.” This project would create thousands of sustained jobs and provide badly needed work for the local trades, generate healthy revenues to the Long Island Power Authority and local municipalities, and have an incredible halo effect on the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.

A casino would not create a seedy culture. This particular assertion is hotly debated. Casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods and prostitutes. Never mind that you can already gamble in dozens of OTBs, buy lottery tickets on every corner, find a hooker making the rounds in industrial parks, or get a happy ending at any number of corner massage parlors. The moment a high-priced call girl takes up residence on a casino barstool looking for an out-of-town businessman in a leisure suit with a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out. I’m not condoning the use of escort services, but merely pointing out our collective hypocrisy with respect to our view on what’s acceptable and where. Prohibiting this illegal indulgence is far more manageable than scouring Craigslist and cracking down on neighborhood massage parlors.

This actually is the best location for a casino. The modern casino is part of an extensive array of business and cultural services. They tend to be aesthetically pleasing (think Wynn, not Trump) and boost the viability of a convention center, sports complex and entertainment arena. If a gaming operation was paired with a family destination nearby (think Great Wolf Lodge), imagine the combined economic possibilities of family and business travel. I might also remind everyone that Roosevelt Raceway was a gigantic gambling facility. It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

This development would ease traffic. Yup. I said it. The amount of money generated by a full-fledged hotel, casino and convention operation with a family amusement center would fund the long-desired transportation hub between the railroad, Museum Row, and the local shopping destinations. It’s all right there; you just can’t get there from here at the moment.

The Islanders are worth fighting for. This team stood by Long Island for decades. Hell, they even looked pretty good at the end of this season and their prospects for next year are even better. This is our only professional sports franchise. Like I said, the Islanders are worth fighting for.

Hofstra would benefit greatly from this development. Hofstra University is emerging as the largest and most vocal detractor of this project. This is completely understandable given the fears gambling inspires. The two most salient points the University is making are that college kids shouldn’t have this type of access to a gambling establishment and that its proximity will have a deleterious effect on the school’s image from the perspective of parents considering sending their children to the school.

First of all, kids are gambling online and addicted to video games. This will be the addiction cross to bear for this generation. As for the perceptual aesthetic and moral issues of a peripheral gaming establishment, it’s hard to imagine the current “approach” to the University being any worse. I love the Hofstra campus but the immediate surroundings, including the dilapidated coliseum, leave much to be desired. Hofstra is a serious stakeholder that would and should be able to ask for the sun, moon and stars when the infrastructure is fully developed here. President Stuart Rabinowitz has done more to enhance the reputation of this institution, from which I proudly hold a degree, by hosting the Presidential debate, building a medical school and improving the overall academic standing of the school. Hofstra is already bigger than its environs and will continue to be so for decades to come, casino or no casino. Besides, you tell me which option sounds worse to a parent in Nebraska with a child considering a top-notch school in New York:

(A) Columbia University in Harlem,
(B) Fordham University in the Bronx, or
(C) Hofstra University on Long Island.

By now, I’m confident several of you vehemently disagree with these assertions. I welcome your commentsbelow and look forward to continuing the conversation.

With that, let the games (of chance) begin.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW PREVIOUS ARTICLE ON THE SHINNECOCK RECOGNITION

Leadership on Long Island (Or Lack Thereof)

What drives me batty is that, if nothing else, Mangano had the playbook in his hands. Anyone paying attention knew that 2011 would be the year everything blew up in Nassau County. Instead of dilly-dallying about whether his administration could find a magic revenue pill to salvage the day, Mangano should have shouted, blamed and threatened the world and thrown himself at the mercy of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) within the first 100 days of his term…

There's someone missing from Newsday's photo of County Executive's with budget trouble. Can you guess who it is?

Let’s bring this year in with a bang and drill deep into the black hole that is the leadership void on Long Island. It’s time to take aim at those at the helm of our ship and offer some honest feedback, which is difficult to come by of late.

Quite frankly, considering the enormous challenges we face, I’ve been trying to mind my Ps and Qs while watching and waiting for Long Island’s leaders to genuinely coalesce throughout 2010. Now, just moments into the New Year, my bottled up frustration has punched out my cork of politeness and sent it ricocheting across the room. The bubble that broke the cork? Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano.

Mangano came to office as the underdog archetype with the weight of the world, or at least the Island, on his shoulders.

Yet instead of hoisting up Nassau like Atlas, he has allowed himself to be driven into the ground by a thousand ball-pein hammers. When former County Executive Tom Suozzi was first elected, he shouted at the heavens, took the blame game to new heights and threatened union leaders and lawmakers alike. He made such a racket he was able to muscle through a double-digit property tax increase and have everyone thank him in the process. His political acumen and prowess were matched only by his hubris.

Eight years and several hundreds of millions in blown surplus dollars later, Glen Cove’s favorite son was ousted from office by the demure Mangano, who is as modest as Suozzi was pugnacious. What drives me batty is that, if nothing else, Mangano had the playbook in his hands. Anyone paying attention knew that 2011 would be the year everything blew up in Nassau County. Instead of dilly-dallying about whether his administration could find a magic revenue pill to salvage the day, Mangano should have shouted, blamed and threatened the world and thrown himself at the mercy of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) within the first 100 days of his term and offered the following statement:

After reviewing the catastrophic state of affairs my predecessor (Tom Suozzi) left behind, I have determined that Nassau County is, to put it simply, screwed. Unlike him (Tom Suozzi), I cannot in good conscience raise taxes on the good people of this county—as was my pledge—as they have already paid more than their fair share for Nassau’s (his) political misdeeds. Therefore, I have requested the full assistance of NIFA and will submit to their recommendations completely so we may put our troubles behind us. God bless us all.

But, no. Mangano instead took the high road toward the inevitable, and he has created his own political nightmare to match our fiscal reality. He did such a terrible job explaining to Nassau residents how the former administration taxed its way to a surplus it later spent without fixing any of the structural problems that have plagued the county that even Newsday is comparing Mangano to Tom Gulotta, and omitting the Suozzi years entirely.

In other news slightly to the east of Nassau, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is still fighting with everyone.

If you have any questions for either Mangano or Levy, you’ll have your chance to ask them at the Long Island Association’s County Executive’s Report at the (where else?) Crest Hollow Country Club on January 12! Which brings me to the next same-old-tune on my hit parade: the LIA. It’s been relatively quiet at the Island’s most prestigious association so I decided to take a gander at their website to see what’s new on the agenda. Let’s see…last entry under “Legislative Action”—2007. Check. “Regional Priorities?” Housing. Just housing. Check. Oh, wait, you can peruse their new ideas under the helpful heading, “Innovate Long Island,” and read a report from 2006 because, you know, not much has happened in the world since then. In fairness, Long Islanders can get some gardening tips from the latest blog entry of March 25, 2010. At least we know they’re not wasting any money on a webmaster.

My most recent “OMG” moment came a few days ago reading one of Jim Bernstein’s business columns in Newsday. Bernstein interviewed LIA head honcho, Kevin Law, one of the brightest and most amiable figures on the Island. Asked what he was dreaming up for the New Year, Law said he was thinking about “a destination center” that “Long Islanders and tourists could use as a meeting place, a place to shop and dine, and also a place where the New York Islanders could play hockey.”

Do you hear that sound? That’s the sound of Charles Wang beating a hockey stick against The Lighthouse Development model, taking his puck and going home. Let’s just pretend Kevin didn’t say that and move on. (I love the guy so he gets a pass. I’m playing favorites, I know…but it’s my column.)

We’re better than this, or at least we should be. We don’t even need new leaders, we just need them all pulling the oars at the same time in one direction.

As for the answer to the question above… Ta Da!

Peek-A-Boo! Tom Suozzi, former Nassau County Executive and current Newsday/Cablevision Consultant!

Shinnecock Casino At Nassau Coliseum

Shinnecock will have many chefs in their kitchen (I’m resisting the “too many chiefs” reference) as they try to establish a casino in any state that begins with “New” and ends in “York.” Look no further than the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the six Off Track Betting regions in New York State, none of which turn a profit.

Lighthouse Project Canal
View of the Lighthouse Project and Tall Ships Manned By Little People

The Shinnecock Nation is set to finally receive federal recognition. This status gives the tribe the ability to apply for a Class III gaming license, which would allow it to operate a full-fledged, high-stakes gaming facility. The biggest question is, where? Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano would like the ball to stop on his number on the roulette wheel and he has tens of millions of reasons for it.

As this column often serves as a bully pulpit for Indian rights, I will spare you all the reasons why “federal recognition” is such a sham and why the Shinnecock Nation should be able to build a 100-story casino in Southampton. Instead, allow me to explain why this is such a good idea for Long Island.

Indian casinos do not guarantee prosperity for the tribe in possession of the license or the community surrounding it. But an Indian casino based in the heart of one of the most populated regions in the nation does. A casino at the Nassau Coliseum site would be the single largest gambling facility in the nation. It is simple math. The Nassau “Hub” would finally be realized with an infusion of public and private money, fast-tracking infrastructure spending that would make Robert Moses blush.

This casino would serve as the nucleus for a burgeoning entertainment epicenter. All of the commercial, retail and residential “new suburbia” dreams would become reality as developers flock to construct a supporting economy within the glow of the Lighthouse Project. This presupposes that a deal could be reached with the Rechler/Wang power duo.

This project would have a negligible impact on traffic in the area to quiet the NIMBYists by funding a total overhaul of the public transportation network. A light rail system connecting the Casino to the Hempstead train station and Roosevelt Field? You got it. Widened roads with greater access to the Hub? Not a problem. Twenty-story complexes to house industry and residents surrounding the complex? Why not 30?

Of course, there are those who will fight tooth and nail against a casino on Long Island because of the filthy underbelly it represents. For many, casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods, prostitutes and bootlegging. Never mind that you can gamble in dozens of OTBs, buy lottery tickets on every corner, find a hooker making the rounds in industrial parks, or get a happy ending at any number of corner massage parlors. The moment a high-priced call girl takes up residence on a casino barstool looking for an out-of-town businessman with a leisure suit and a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out.

But let’s assume for a moment that Kate Murray of Hempstead, Ed Mangano of Nassau, Randy King of Shinnecock, and Charles Wang of everything else, are all in agreement that this plan should move past both the drawing board and the planning board. Then assume that the residents, community groups and environmentalists join hands and sing the praises of this proposal. Then assume the Islanders win the Stanley Cup. (OK, that was one step too far.) Even with all of these obstacles cleared, the single biggest one might surprise you: the gaming industry itself.

Technically, there is nothing that restricts sovereign Indian nations from building casinos on Indian land. Nothing, that is, but for the bigger sovereign known as the United States. Gambling operations existed on tribal land well before the U.S. government established the rules of engagement under Ronald Reagan with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. Even still there is theoretically nothing that would prevent a tribe from ignoring this Act (it’s a unilateral law, not a treaty) and opening a casino. It’s the gaming industry that operates within U.S. territory that provides the insurance policy against any casinos not blessed by the United States. The U.S. government would run any gaming manufacturer out of the country if it dared sell or license technology and support to a non-licensed operator that didn’t have U.S. approval. This is enough to dissuade any gaming company from doing business with tribes without an agreement in place with federal, state and local governments, which leads to the next issue…

Shinnecock will have many chefs in their kitchen (I’m resisting the “too many chiefs” reference) as they try to establish a casino in any state that begins with “New” and ends in “York.” Look no further than the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the six Off Track Betting regions in New York State, none of which turn a profit. NYRA only recently emerged bankruptcy but is still bleeding cash, New York City OTB just went into bankruptcy, and horse racing in New York is in danger of extinction as a result. This is due more to the financial mandates of the state than it is to the decline in betting revenues. New York State is in such dire financial straits that it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Albany acquiesces to the desire of the Nassau Republicans to revitalize their hopes for the Hub. Add to the mix that Sheldon Silver, hands down the most powerful politician in the state, detests gambling and you have a recipe for failure.

But the most powerful foe in this process won’t be the most immediate one. The “powers that be” with interests in Las Vegas simply cannot afford to allow a casino so close to New York City. Atlantic City might as well disappear completely. One can point to the success of the casinos operated by the Oneida and Seneca Nations located in upstate New York, not to mention Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, to understand that the closer to New York City you place a casino, the more successful it is. Then track the number of flights from the tri-state area with Vegas as the final destination and consider how important this market really is. A large-scale, sophisticated Class III gaming facility 40 minutes from New York City by train and in the center of Long Island is death for all the others. The politicians in New York City will be damned if they lose one reverse-commuting thrill seeker, the politicians upstate can’t afford the potential revenue and job losses and New Jersey, well, to hell with Jersey. 

By going public with his discussions with Shinnecock, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is about to come face to face with the biggest challenge of his young administration. It’s no secret that the prior administration handed him a giant sack of financial meatballs and this could be the single most significant game-changing move. How he maneuvers through this process will either establish a new gilded age for Nassau County or set the stage for a calamitous one-term footnote in Long Island government history. Either way it will test the mettle of the dream team from Bethpage and set the tone for the next three and a half years in Nassau County.

The Case for Tom Suozzi

It is imperative that Tom Suozzi wins his upcoming bid for reelection. My reasoning for this is simple: that a vote for Suozzi will serve to hasten our descent into an economic cataclysm. And that may be precisely what we need.

The deciduous state of our local economy reveals nothing if not a general state of malaise, or form of financial purgatory. Any attempt at recovery, whether employing conservatism or progressivism, will only break against the middle, further paralyzing government, industry and the individual. As a mature region we have no choice but to fail, utterly and completely, before we can rebuild. You cannot salvage a failing system for a sustainable period by altering it or adding to it. It must be replaced.

Suozzi’s opponent in this election, Republican Ed Mangano, has many of the right ideas but is still tied to the last, gasping vestiges of a broken system. Insurgency provides clarity for the opposition during a campaign but there are too many pigs that still feed from the trough that was the Republican machine. The only pig that wound up on the spit was Tom Gulotta, while nearly everyone else survived, marking time in the Republican havens of Hempstead and Oyster Bay. The patronage in these towns makes the impossibly petulant John Kaiman of North Hempstead look like a financial genius.  

The Nassau Democrats under Tom Suozzi and Jay Jacobs broke the Republican machine as they promised they would. Then they did the unthinkable with their mandate and replaced it with a new, shiny model. And boy does it hum. Nassau County’s newly reported 2009 structural deficit is almost $170 million. As if this isn’t staggering enough, consider that just five years ago the county was sitting on $284.8 million in reserves. This is more than a dip in sales tax—that’s a more than $450 million operating swing since the end of Suozzi’s first term alone. The Suozzi/Jacobs machine is indiscriminately destroying everything in its path. A vote for Mangano would be the responsible thing to do if our goal is to prolong the inevitable.

It takes teamwork to make the dream work and hubris to kill it. So let’s get on with it then.

We need Suozzi to continue destroying the county because we are still too close to what was. What we require is distance from our successes. A distance that inspires creative thought and attracts new talent. But if we remember what it was once like, if we allow ourselves to wax poetic about the glory days, then we rob ourselves of the hunger for change. Everything that this suburban dream once represented must be brought to its knees and become wholly untenable if we are to get out from under the crushing weight of debt, patronage and mismanagement. No sense bickering about it now, there are bridges to burn.

We cannot allow ourselves to look over our shoulders and wonder what brought us here. The answer is quite obvious and there’s nothing more to gain from our mistakes but to allow those who made them to bring it to an end. Suozzi has delivered his dream of a new suburbia, even if it’s not the one he fully intended. But he is not to blame. He told us everything we wanted to hear with impunity because lying isn’t illegal. In fact, it’s rather polite. Had we watched his actions more carefully, instead of listening to his words, we would have seen for ourselves what was to come. If we understood the creature that is Tom Suozzi more completely we would have seen an adroit political figure who seeks only personal gain. Naked ambition such as this is a commanding and necessary attribute when a clear and precise path is discernible. It is called for in matters of war or human rights—battles between good and evil, right and wrong.
Naked ambition absent a defined and popular objective feeds only on itself thereby facilitating its own decline. It needs only to be married with time.

To rebuild a progressive and robust economic system in this place requires the abrogation of several structural impediments such as inordinate layers of government, a broken zoning infrastructure and extravagant political patronage. At one time these were not impediments but characteristics of a burgeoning suburban economy, a system designed to support a wide economic and political infrastructure. A system now crumbling under its own weight. Unfortunately, the current leadership in both parties is alike in that they were all there for the rise; they remember what it was like to experience absolute growth. It’s all they know. The Republicans skipped an entire generation of new blood in protecting their fiefdoms at the height of power. The Democrats simply had a lot of catching up to do and grabbed power with reckless abandon while pointing their fingers in every direction but their own.

The great mistake on both sides is not in wanting the past to return but in believing that the local economy is cyclical. It is not. The American economy as a whole may indeed be cyclical but the road to past American economic recoveries was paved with losses suffered by localities and the shifting tide of industry and innovation. Our local officials have laid down their arms of ingenuity at the altar of inertia, leveraged our future and chose slush funds over rainy day funds. All because they believe it will get better. But it won’t. It can’t. Not until we have ridden it to the logical and bitter conclusion—complete decimation.

In the end, Suozzi will prove to be neither visionary nor charlatan. I submit that he is, in actuality, nothing. There is in him an emptiness fueled by intangibles; he is a charade in a suit that ceases to exist when the audience takes leave of him. We can only see him now because he is the purest reflection of the things we still want or wish to be, brought to life by the words he speaks and the manner he presents them. By definition of his nature he cannot possess any discernible principles except the ones that suit the moment. He is an assiduous student of the wind, sensing shifts imperceptible to you and me.

As his subjects we are frogs in boiling water, incapable of understanding impending doom because in the pot the heat rises slowly, insidiously. And then, blackness. We won’t take notice of precisely when he left the pot unattended, only that he wasn’t there when it came to a boil. He will mention us as the reason that his career must be advanced. So that he may prevent further economic bloodshed because unseen forces tied his hands. He will implore his new audience to help him, to pitch in, and that he will share in the sacrifice for the greater good. The role of martyr suits the politician with naked ambition because it too implies that he must rise above the broken system to be in a position to fix it. Or, plainly stated in this instance, Fix Albany.

I am as much pragmatist as prophet where this is concerned. It gives me no comfort to be either, because this is my home. But so long as we are comforted by the figure looking back at us with the proper empathy and concern, and as long as our decline is skillfully managed from behind closed doors by power brokers who share in his political gain, he will continue to win. And our pot will continue to boil.

I’m an ardent admirer of his skill and believe wholeheartedly that of any politician in New York State, Tom Suozzi has the clearest vision of ascent. His ambition will set the course normally charted by one’s moral compass and, in fact, little may stand in his way. Therefore we must return him to this office so that he may don the appropriate formalwear as captain of this Titanic and ride the final wave into obscurity. Absolve him of his financial transgressions by defeating his reelection bid and we will be left to pray that real calamity awaits him at the next doorstep so that his directive is clear. Only then can he achieve lasting greatness and be forgiven for the price we have all paid for his ambition.