If Election Day 2021 proved anything, it’s that Long Island voters shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran had been told by pollsters, Democratic Party leaders and pundits that she had this. She had attended all the civic meetings, street fairs and news conferences. She was approachable, engaged and empathic. And she spent four years raising campaign cash with the intent of spending all of it to ensure no surprises on election night.
What she didn’t hear was the palpable anger of homeowners whose property assessments are still way out of whack. Nor could she avoid being on the same ballot with a Democratic district attorney candidate who co-sponsored the state’s bail bill that puts criminals back on the street before the arresting police can return to their patrol cars. For Curran, standing next to State Sen. Todd Kaminsky was more than minor collateral damage.
Nor could she control what appears to be an anemic county Democratic organization that is long on strategic analysis but short on the ability to get its own supporters out to vote.
The Republican candidate, Bruce Blakeman, astutely declined to follow the traditional tactics of a campaign “underdog.” He didn’t attack the incumbent. On any number of occasions, he told audiences that Curran "is undoubtedly a nice person.” But Blakeman would then methodically examine the policy failings of the Curran administration and let the facts speak for themselves. The voters heard, and responded.
Blakeman had a crucial partner: Nassau GOP Chairman Joseph G. Cairo Jr. Quiet, reserved and a veteran of countless election nights, Cairo has the unique ability to intuitively spot political trends, recruit candidates who resonate with voters and, perhaps most important, pay attention to the grass-roots mechanics of motivating voters to leave their homes on chilly, rainy November nights and head to the polls.
While much coverage has been devoted to Blakeman’s victory, Cairo’s political professionalism reached beyond that single election-night win. North Hempstead, a generational Democratic enclave, went Republican, too, with Jennifer DeSena beating Wayne Wink in the race for town supervisor — no small feat given Wink’s longstanding political presence in that township and overwhelming Democratic enrollment.
Cairo also knows his political history. He saw how the Nassau County Republican Party of the late 1940s reinvented itself when Long island suburbs became home to Italians, Jews and Irish seeking a place for their families in communities across post-war Long Island. Those ethnicities became the next-generation Republicans.
So, it’s no surprise that Cairo nominated Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip, a first-time candidate from Great Neck, to run against incumbent Democratic County Legislator Ellen Birnbaum in the 10th District, with Pilip declaring victory last Tuesday night.
And just who is this person that Cairo entrusted with this race? Pilip was born in Ethiopia, moved to Israel at age 12, and became an Israel Defense Forces paratrooper and a gunsmith before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from the University of Haifa and a master’s in diplomacy and security from Tel Aviv University.
The ability to motivate Republican voters to make their voices heard has put two other Democratic Nassau legislative incumbents at risk, with Republican Paolo Pironi ahead of self-proclaimed “independent” Joshua Lafazan, and Republican Daniel Atler leading Democratic Legislator Arnold Drucker by several hundred votes. Absentee ballots may ultimately decide those races, but the tally thus far has certainly given the incumbents a shock.
Like meteorologists, pollsters get paid whether they get the forecast right or not. Candidates should view Election Day 2021 as a cautionary tale, as the Nassau GOP wins have sent a shock wave from one end of the state to the other. The victory tally is reminding both parties that, regardless of the latest social media, computer-driven analytics, media endorsements and geo-fencing digital ads, there is no substitute for the type of grass-roots politics practiced by Cairo and the Nassau GOP.
Ronald J. Rosenberg has been an attorney for 42 years, concentrating in commercial litigation and transactions, and real estate, municipal, zoning and land use law. He founded the Garden City law firm Rosenberg Calica & Birney in 1999.