With Republican County Executive Ed Mangano under federal indictment on corruption charges while the county faces a litany of long-brewing financial issues and residents grow increasingly “cynical,” three Democratic candidates for Mangano’s position each promised to clean up and restore people’s trust in their government on Thursday night.
At a joint meeting of the Rockville Centre and Lakeview Democratic clubs, Legislator Laura Curran, of Baldwin, County Comptroller George Maragos, a recent Democratic convert, and Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, of Glen Cove, all agreed with Lakeview Club chair Scottie Coads that for real change to be effected and trust to be restored, the next county executive must be a Democrat.
“There’s a really deep cynicism … and it’s no wonder,” said Curran, who has been endorsed by the county Democratic committee. “And underneath the cynicism is a feeling that we’re powerless to do anything about it.”
Curran began the evening — which the Democratic clubs stressed was to be a “discussion, not a debate” — a bit unsteadily, going silent for a moment as she apparently struggled to remember part of her platform. Some audience members could be heard murmuring in confusion, but Curran soon regained her concentration, joking that she was “a little nervous,” and quickly going after an early assertion by Maragos that he takes “a lot of credit” for the county’s finances being “in pretty good shape.”
“George, I was stunned to hear you say that,” she began, also taking issue with Maragos’s claim that the county currently has a budgetary surplus.
“A surplus of what? Of scandals? Of investigations?” she said.
Lavine also piled on, saying wryly that, “Nassau County always seems to have a surplus.
“Some experts in finance say that that’s a little deceptive though,” he added. “Because Generally Accepted Accounting Principles say that borrowed money is not revenue … it’s not to be counted as a surplus.”
Maragos maintained that he was the only candidate with a degree in finance, and that external auditors of the county’s finances had concluded that there was indeed a surplus and that the budgetary fund balance had grown from $10 million, when he took office, to $160 million.
Moving on to the county’s tax assessment system, which he said penalized disproportionately the 60 percent of homeowners who do not file tax grievances by making them subsidize those who do, Maragos told Curran that the legislature needs to be honest and “confront the real issues.”
Additionally, Maragos said that the county “has done nothing to provide more affordable housing, and that’s an area that we need to focus on because it’s going to become a crisis.”
Lavine was the most strident in criticizing Republicans at the national and county level, calling President Donald Trump’s administration “ignorant and cruel,” and Nassau County government “indifferent and corrupt.”
“This has to change,” he said, adding that the county’s current contracting system, which has been under scrutiny for alleged corruption and favoritism, was its own form of discrimination, “when party favorites can get something that everyone else can’t get.
“It’s utterly disgusting,” he added, promising that if elected, he would order a forensic audit of each county contract because the way Nassau operates impacts its reputation, which also affects its ability to bond.
“We can change our reputation, and I damn well intend to do that,” he said.
Curran repeated her call for an independent inspector general to review all contracts, and for the county to “dust off and reform” its ethics code and board.
All three became animated when discussing the importance of diversity and protecting minorities, particularly with immigration enforcement stepping up under Trump’s administration and bias incidents steadily on the rise.
Diversity is a strength, and Nassau County police would not be “deputized” as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents under their administration, the candidates agreed.
“If you live in Nassau County, the police are there to protect you, not to cart you away,” said Curran, who also touted the unique diversity of Baldwin as an example to the rest of the county.
Lavine shared the story of his immigrant grandmother, who survived a 1905 Russian pogrom by coming to the United States in a hay wagon, while Maragos said that, as an immigrant himself, he well understood that “when you see injustice and you remain silent, you’re complicit.”
An audience member, toward the end of the evening asked that Maragos explain why he changed parties, after being comptroller in a Republican administration for six years, and Curran also brought up the comptroller’s past opposition to same-sex marriage.
Maragos apologized for comments, made during an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid, likening same-sex marriage to marrying one’s pet, and said that he had become disillusioned by the Republican Party, which he found to be self-serving, fiscally irresponsible and indifferent to the plight of minorities.
“I was continuously at odds with them,” he said. “I feel deep down that the purpose of government is to take care of the people who cannot take care of themselves.”
All three agreed that to effectively fight the opioid epidemic, youth programs need to become a budget priority, for prevention, and that new addiction treatment options need to be considered.
“I will make sure there is recurring revenue for these [programs],” said Curran. “This isn’t just liberal ‘do-gooderism.’ It’s important for our economy and it’s something I want to have a holistic look at.”
Lavine added that he found the yearly spectacle of youth service agencies coming before the legislature to “grovel” for money to remain operational was “demeaning” and “cynical.”
“I have seen who on the legislature is sensitive to this issue and it’s the Democrats,” he said. “It’s not the Republicans.”
Coads, wrapping up the event, urged unity in the party in the face of the next four years of a Trump administration in Washington, D.C. “It’s no joke, folks … it must be a Democrat to run Nassau County,” she said.
Lavine agreed, warning that the candidates should avoid pointing fingers or using invective against one another.
“We know the signals that are coming from Washington, and we know the attitudes that are going to flow from the Trump administration,” he said. “If we’re factionalized and we’re not standing up together, we are going to lose … We let, as Democrats, our guard down at a national level, and I don’t want to see us do that here in Nassau County.”
The state and county primary elections will be held on Sept. 12. The general election is Nov. 7.