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 Soul of Glen Cove

I live in Glen Cove, one of Long Island’s two cities. Our mayor has a familiar last name but is still a relative unknown outside the city. His name is Ralph Suozzi.

Being in the public eye is part of the job of any elected official, but the vast majority of responsibilities heaped upon local politicians are for the most part mundane and thankless. Like every great local politician Ralph knows the names of all the cops and firemen, every teacher in the district and the local restaurant owners. The tools of his trade are like so many other mayors across the nation—helmets and shovels to break ground, oversized scissors to cut ribbons, and proclamations to reward citizens for outstanding service to the community. Behind it all, though, politics can be an ugly business; one in which many politicians eventually crack and lose their sense of self, or worse yet, their humanity.

This is not one of those stories.

During the snowstorm that besieged the Island last week, the mayor’s wife, Jane Beckhard-Suozzi, was home when she heard a familiar voice on the answering machine in the background. It was Reb Irwin Huberman from Congregation Tifereth Israel, the conservative temple in town. He was calling to let them know that a local woman and member of the congregation, Patricia Workman, had passed away in her apartment the night before.

In a city of more than 30,000 people, death is no stranger. What made this call different was the fact that Pat, as most people in town knew her, had no family. She was a child of Glen Cove. “The city adopted her,” said Ralph. “She had her own challenges in life and needed help from assorted people in the community and people rose to that.”

Pat led a troubled life. Her piercing blue eyes and ever-present smile belied a lifetime of hardship many of us cannot even dream of. The pressures of her past and a diseased mind plagued her existence. And yet, through it all, she had a smile for everyone she saw.

Jane described the flurry of phone calls and e-mails between Reb Huberman, his congregation and community leaders. “Help was sort of a central theme of her life,” says Jane. “She needed help and she gave help.” Word of Pat’s passing spread quickly through the city, as did the realization that her next of kin was not a person, but an entire city. As Reb Huberman reached out to community members to raise funds for a dignified service, Mayor Suozzi cleared hurdles to ensure that the process wouldn’t be delayed unnecessarily.

By 1 p.m. the following day, more than 100 people had gathered at Dodge Thomas Funeral Home in Glen Cove to honor the life of Patricia Workman. Of all the duties expected of a local public servant, attending funerals is a must. As her husband rose to address Pat’s adopted family members, Jane said it suddenly struck him that this was the “first time they had been to a funeral when there wasn’t someone there saying, ‘Thank you for coming.’ So Ralph had everyone turn to the person next to them and say, ‘Thank you for coming.’”

 Pat deserved a better life on this earth. In the end, the community she adopted gave her the peaceful and loving conclusion that her smile and spirit warranted. “The community we know as Glen Cove is the people,” reflected Ralph. “Their personalities, their hearts, the history they all bring. It just has a soul of its own that we’re all a part of. It’s a generational soul. We collectively watch out for each other.”

Suiting Up For A Run

runningmansuitI know it’s all part of the political process, but there’s something so amusing to me when politicians have to don costumes to profess an interest in community happenings. Nothing makes me giggle more than the likes of Tom Suozzi wearing hip waders in a sea of garbage, or Steve Levy touching the top of a solar array as if being able to feel the energy emanating from it. My all-time favorite is seeing any of our public servants in a hard hat, as if their union card is at the ready and they are prepared to singlehandedly hoist a steel beam several stories into the air. I think when you’re elected you actually get a pair of giant scissors in the event a ribbon-cutting ceremony breaks out. 

Several years ago I ran an ill-fated campaign for mayor of Glen Cove. Truthfully, it was a blast and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Just meeting everyone in the city and learning how roads are paved, where garbage goes and who answers the call when the alarms go off at the firehouse is enough to light my candle. Putting my family through the misery of a campaign, on the other hand, was an unfortunate way to gain the education. What got me thinking about the shenanigans of the campaign trail and the silly things politicians have to do to stay elected was a piece of campaign literature from my mayoral run that I came across recently when cleaning out my garage. There I was, standing on the beach at sunset wearing a suit. Why not? What else would any self-respecting office-seeking candidate wear on a warm summer day at the beach?

Yet beyond the hard hats, giant scissors, Michael Dukakis helmets and Cub Scout photo ops is the timeless Tip O’Neill saying that “all politics is local.” It’s shoe leather that wins the day in a campaign. Proof positive of this is yet another colossal upset in Suffolk County under the stewardship of Democratic Party boss Richie Schaffer. Schaffer once again upended the expectations in Brookhaven and got an unknown candidate elected to Brookhaven Town Supervisor. They did it the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors and connecting with people. Having my own brush with the process I can honestly say there is no greater truth in politics. In fact, it may be the only truth in politics. 

Knocking on doors, however, is its own box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. For example, my fellow candidates and I were surprised to learn how many men answer the door shirtless. When walking on a Sunday (in the narrow window between church services and baseball), we learned that knocking on the front door in the Italian district was pointless. Now, check the side door entrance to the basement and you’re likely to find dozens of people of all ages streaming out of the house like a clown car. This is how I learned that Italian Americans don’t actually cook in the kitchen; that’s what the basement kitchen is for. Politicians who walk in wealthy districts do so at their own risk. Alternately, the poorer the neighborhood, the more likely you are to be invited in for a meal. This is a perilous tactic that assaults a politician’s time and waistline, necessitating yet more walking. There are hundreds of observations to be made about our culture and our neighborhoods when walking door to door in a political campaign, each one more valuable than the next. 

At the end of the day it’s the only way to learn about the community you strive to represent. It’s also the only way to earn people’s trust first and their votes later. And if you work diligently enough, you too will be awarded with a giant pair a scissors, a hard hat and an undying respect for the people you represent.

Too Cool To Fail

fonz
Don’t Let LI Do This

Too big to fail. Too small to fail. Too important to fail. Apparently there are several parameters in judging who should and shouldn’t fail. Who knew? Therefore, on behalf of Long Island, the Press would like to throw our hat into the bailout ring with the reason that we’re too cool to fail. Whoever is in charge of the bailout money let it be known that our nation’s cool factor is at stake if Long Island is allowed to sink into recessionary turmoil. 

If Congress needs any proof of this we suggest a whistle stop tour through Cleveland, Wisconsin, Sarasota, Flagstaff—wherever. Then we invite anyone involved in doling out bailout funds to come on a guided tour of Strong Island.

(Disclaimer –If it helps we would be more than happy to partner with sister destinations such as Memphis, La Jolla, and Denver.)

Claiming that Long Island is cool may seem odd considering for years our youth has portrayed Long Island as a cultural wasteland, which has contributed to our growing problem of brain drain. But the issue we have in selling ourselves as ‘cool’ is a geographic one. Because we lack a concentrated downtown area in which to gather our killer resources we have a more egalitarian approach to spreading our wealth of coolness. At the Press we have strategically aligned our staff and partners so that we may personally guide members of Congress through the island as seen through our eyes.

I’ll take Glen Cove. We’ll have breakfast at Henry’s, a vintage breakfast and luncheonette joint where Glen Covers gather and talk politics. I’ll even convince Joe to give you a tour of the basement where he makes the most incredible chocolate that brings all of Long Island together for Valentine’s Day and Easter. Hopefully you can make it on a Sunday so I can take you to First Baptist to experience the brilliance and inspiration of Pastor Roger Williams. After that we’ll meander through the city and check out the old mansions from the turn of the last century where billionaires played. Their mansions have been preserved and maintained by businesses like the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture, Glen Cove Mansion and Conference Center and Glengariff Nursing Home.  There are several stops to make along the way (including a quick game of bocce in the Orchard) but undoubtedly we’ll finish the night with Gus and Enzo at La Ginestra laughing and drinking their signature drink, the Errol Flynn.

The Press staffers come from all over the island so you’ll be in good hands once you leave Glen Cove. Along the way you’ll hit businesses like All American Burger in Massapequa, Whirling Disk, the Rockabilly Barbershop and Willis Hobbies. You’ll spin around on the carousel in Greenport, take flight with our friend “Fresh” at Sky Dive Long Island, catch some rays at Jones Beach and witness Broadway caliber performances at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. You can watch a horror flick with Dylan at the Cinema Arts Centre, tour Borghese Vineyards with an actual Princess, and our columnist Mike Martino will take you deep sea fishing off Montauk. At some point I’ll talk my fellow publisher Jerry of the East Hampton Independent into treating you to a world class meal at his East Hampton restaurant. 

The bottom line is that we all have these stories. In every village within every town, in either county.  Long Islanders may lament our economic situation and be slightly wary of outsiders but when pressed we’ll reveal the magic that is this island of ours. Long Island is the Fonz of this Happy Days nation. Let’s bang on the jukebox and get this island restarted before we jump the shark.

If you would like to sign up to become a virtual tour guide in our kioli effort “Too Cool To Fail” log onto kioli.org, enter the “Shout Outs” section in the café and post something, someone or somewhere you think is cool about LI.