Jerry Kremer

What’s next for two sharp, young county executives?

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In New York state, over 5,000 people hold titles such as mayor, supervisor, sheriff, chief of police and others, and these office holders are responsible for the good and welfare of their citizens. Other than New York City’s mayor, none are as powerful as the state’s 62 county executives. While some have small constituent bases, the downstate county executives have responsibilities with larger populations than several other states.
While the public is largely unfamiliar with the role of county executives, in areas such as Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties, being a county executive is a very big deal. The current Nassau County executive, Laura Curran, is responsible for nearly 1.4 million residents. Her proposed 2022 budget is $3.3 billion. In her daily job, she supervises thousands of public employees, including one of the largest police departments in the state. In addition, she must deal with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and a host of other municipal headaches.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is charged with taking care of the needs of over 1.5 million residents in a territory that, combined with Nassau, has a population larger than 37 states. Like Curran, Bellone deals with the challenges of monitoring a large county workforce and a major police department, and overseeing dozens of agencies that provide critical services to Suffolk residents. With their wide-ranging experience, you’d think that county executives like Curran and Bellone would be on a fast track to higher political office.
A look at the state’s political history, however, shows that no county executive has ever been able to successfully use his government experience as a springboard to the job of governor, attorney general or state comptroller. A number have tried, with no success. In 1968, Nassau County Executive Eugene Nickerson ran in the primary for the U.S. Senate, but lost that contest. Current U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi ran in a primary for governor against then Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, but failed. Political observers agree that if the late Nassau County executive Tom Gulotta had run for governor against the late Mario Cuomo, he might have been elected. Instead, Gulotta yielded to State Sen. George Pataki, who beat the incumbent governor.
Former executives in Westchester County have had mixed results in the quest for higher office. Al DelBello won a Democratic primary for lieutenant governor and served under Cuomo, who gave him few if any responsibilities during his four years in the job. DelBello was a bright and highly capable executive, but after his first statewide role he did not seek any other office. Republican Rob Astorino has run for governor a number of times with no success.

Bellone is term-limited, and after this year he will be out of office. Curran is seeking her second term as county executive, and is an odds-on favorite because of her many successes and her strong administrative talents. She has run her office in a nonpartisan manner, and has the respect of Nassau County’s business and political communities. The question that Bellone currently faces, and that Curran will face, is what opportunities there will be for them when they finish their terms.
In 2022 there will be statewide contests for the three major offices. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who has won all of his races by staggering numbers, is expected to coast to victory. Attorney General Letitia James may decide to challenge Gov. Kathy Hochul, which would leave an opening for an aspiring attorney. Neither Bellone nor Curran is a lawyer, so that eliminates that opportunity.
So what’s next for these two Long Island rising political stars? Both are young and highly capable. It will take some time for there to be a major opening at the state or federal level, but it will come. Once upon a time, it was considered political heresy if one Democrat challenged another, but that’s now considered old thinking, and opportunities that no one ever thought about may surface. For now, the chiefs of both suburban Long Island counties will have to play the waiting game.

Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.

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