In Nassau County, Corruption Scandals Hang Over Race for County Executive

By Joseph De Avila Features Dow Jones Newswires

Recent political corruption scandals in Nassau County are casting a shadow on the race to lead this sprawling section of western Long Island that has a bigger population than the cities of Boston and Baltimore combined.

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Nassau County's top elected official, Republican County Executive Edward Mangano, was indicted last year on charges of bribery, conspiracy and extortion. Former North Hempstead Democratic Committee Chairman Gerard Terry pleaded guilty to criminal-tax fraud last month.

While Mr. Mangano, who pleaded not guilty, continues to serve as county executive as he awaits his trial, the Republican Party nominated former state Sen. Jack Martins to run for the position. Mr. Martins, who lost a 2016 congressional race to Tom Suozzi, faces Laura Curran, a Democratic legislator in the county legislature and a former school board trustee in Baldwin, N.Y.

Nassau County Democrats are hoping to persuade voters that their party is the best equipped to clean up politics in the county, despite their own corruption scandals, political analysts said. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has focused the race more on pocketbook issues like property taxes, they said.

"The challenge for Jack Martins is to distance himself from the local corruption issues and change the conversation to one of competence and leadership," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

"The challenge for the Democrats is to tie the Republican candidate to corruption issues when the connection is pretty tenuous," Mr. Levy said.

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Democrats in Nassau County, with a total population of 1.3 million residents, now outnumber Republicans 396,000 to 337,000 in what was historically a GOP stronghold.

Republicans, however, are more reliable voters in nonpresidential elections, typically giving them the edge in these races, said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who often works with Republicans. But it is possible the corruption scandals could motivate more Democrats to vote this year, Mr. Dawidziak said.

The Republicans also were hurt by the 2015 conviction of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican, seemingly ending the career of one of New York's most influential politicians. A federal appeals court recently overturned the conviction, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established a higher standard for federal anticorruption laws, and Mr. Skelos will be retried.

The Republicans' corruption scandals "could help level the playing field for the Democrats," Mr. Dawidziak said.

Both candidates said fixing the county's fiscal problems is a priority. Nassau County is forecast to finish the year with a $53 million deficit if not mitigated, according to the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority. NIFA, which has overseen the county's finances since 2000, estimates the county's budget hole will be nearly $190 million by 2020.

Ms. Curran, 49 years old, said she would focus on negotiating expiring municipal contracts to get better terms and on redeveloping downtowns in the county with transit-friendly projects to grow Nassau's tax base.

Mr. Martins said he wants towns to take over property-tax assessments from the county. The towns would handle it more accurately, reducing what Nassau County owes to homeowners in property-tax refunds by up to $100 million annually, he said.

Ms. Curran said Mr. Martins' plan would shift costs from the county to the towns. She has called for beefing up the county's assessment department and assessment review commission, among other measures.

If Ms. Curran wins the election on Nov. 7, she would become only the third Democratic county executive in Nassau County history and the first woman. Mr. Suozzi, who served from 2002 to 2009, was Nassau's last Democratic county executive.

Ms. Curran, a former newspaper reporter, said there is "a feeling of deep distrust" of politics in Nassau County. "The Republican party, the way it is now, has no credibility to" address it, she said.

Ms. Curran has proposed a host of ethics reforms, including creating an independent office of the inspector general to review county contracts. She also wants to prohibit any political party leaders from being appointed to a job by the county executive, as well as limiting how much money county contractors can donate to county political campaigns.

Mr. Martins, 50, has also called out corruption, but has stressed that both parties have been tainted by it, citing the recent incarceration of former Democratic county legislators Roger Corbin and Patrick Williams.

"If there is a culture of corruption in Nassau County then it is a Democratic and Republican culture," said Mr. Martins, a former mayor of Mineola, N.Y. "And the fact that she is celebrating that for political purposes is truly sad and just demonstrates how little vision she has."

Mr. Martins is pitching his own ethics-reform packaging, including giving the County Legislature the authority to remove the county executive for cause. He also proposes overhauling the existing county board of ethics and having it work more closely with the commissioner of investigations.

Some political consultants aren't convinced that fighting corruption will matter more to voters than issues like property taxes.

"There is nothing new here about corruption," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who temporarily ran George Maragos campaign against Ms. Curran in the primary election. "The problem is who will the voters determine is most capable of cleaning up the mess? And by that I mean excess costs, excess taxes."

Write to Joseph De Avila at joseph.deavila@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 09, 2017 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)