Raging Against the Machine in GOP Stronghold

Charlie Burr

[Editor's Note: BlueOregon regular Charlie Burr is in Long Island, NY running a campaign for Harvey Levinson for Supervisor of Hempstead.]


The Town of Hempstead, New York is the largest town in America. With a population of 760,000, the Town is home to one out of every four Long Island voters, but more significant politically, hosts one of the oldest and most entrenched Republican political machines in the country.

At a time when Dems are struggling in the New York City Mayoral contest, Democrats here have our best chance for victory in a century in what the New York Times called “the Democrats' first serious attempt at the Town's top job.” (New York Times10/2/05)

The political consequences are not insignificant. For decades, the Joe Mondello political machine has run the Town – and Nassau County – as its personal political fiefdom. The Nassau County Republican machine produced among others, Al D’Amato, who used his position as Hempstead Town Supervisor (like a Mayor) to launch his successful statewide run.

Here’s how Newsday recently described the heyday of the GOP political machine in a recent Sunday editorial entitled The Incredible Shrinking Elephant (10/2/05):

“Bob Dole couldn't believe his eyes.

It was 1996, and the Republican presidential candidate had spent an hour posing for photos with 200 high-rollers at a Nassau GOP fund-raiser. A good turnout for a local event, Dole thought. And when party leaders escorted him past the melting carved-ice elephant, he figured he was off to the next campaign stop. Instead, Dole saw the vast Hofstra University fieldhouse filled with 5,000 people in tuxedos and gowns. Except for national conventions, Dole said he couldn't remember a larger crowd of Republicans - especially gathered to contribute money to the party.

Welcome to the world of Long Island's GOP - as it was.” (10/2/05)

The extent of Republican abuse, cronyism, and raw patronage waste in the Town is staggering. It is offensive. And due to a lot of hard work and a few lucky breaks, it is quickly becoming a key issue in this race.

Currently, there are exactly 324 Republican committeemen on the Town’s public payroll, filling such vital functions as Second Deputy Superintendent of Reproduction Services (Read: I make $67K making photocopies!) and Third Deputy Keyboard Supervisor to the tune of $36 million dollars a year. Even the Supervisor’s father and two brothers are on payroll. The dad makes over $119,000 (plus benefits) each year as a legal assistant. That’s not a typo – he’s a paralegal – not an actual attorney.

A little more about our race: it has been exactly 100 years since the Democrats controlled Hempstead – with five votes the margin of the Dems’ big victory.

Our guy is a former Assistant District Attorney named Harvey Levinson. Two years ago, he won a difficult upset victory against the Republican political machine to become the Chairman of County Board of Assessors. He’s a reformer whose politics aren’t easily labeled and an aggressive campaigner.

This is what Newsday had to say about the race recently:

“In the past, Republicans could get away with purely negative campaigns. Democratic challengers were often weak, uninformed and lacked money to fight back. Levinson is none of those.” (Newsday 10/2/05)

While Harvey’s moved quickly to modernize the Assessment office, recruit professional staff, and bring fiscal sanity to the operation (after the Republicans’ nearly bankrupted the county in the late 90s), the Republicans have also been quick to blame him for out of control taxes, despite the demonstrable fact that his job is to value property, not set tax rates. The Republican attack’s a 100% total lie, but has some currency as a political argument.

We have a tough, uphill race. We’ve already been hit by over a million dollars of TV – in addition to over 30 town-wide four-color glossy mail pieces from the Supervisor’s public office. This bears repeating, because in Oregon one of these taxpayer funded flyer would be a statewide scandal. The incumbent is essentially running her personal political campaign out of her public taxpayer funded office.

There are mail pieces congratulating frequent voters for recent birthdays. There are pieces informing people how to renew their passport. There are pieces – no shit – thanking citizens for flying the American flag in front of their home, including a certificate of appreciation from the Town. But perhaps the worst are the town-wide pieces that not just promote the Republican incumbent, but actually hit Harvey – despite the fact that he serves on a completely different level of government.

Most pieces are mailed to a universe of about 240,000 households. Clearly, this is a government with a lot of time and money on its hands. (As a side note, I recently weighed the mail pieces altogether. They came to 2.014 pounds, which means at 240K households, the Town has literally sent out 241.68 tons of mail. 200 tons of fun indeed!)

Meanwhile, Town taxes are through the roof. Spending is out of control. And while in other places you might expect a Republican to be making some of these arguments, voters in this historically Republican county rightfull view the Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility. This is not, by the way, a poll driven march to the mushy middle to win an election; there truly is too much government in Nassau county.

To put it in perspective, under the Republican’s watch, we have arrived at a point here in which there are now 400 different levels on government in the county. There was even a special level of government to regulate elevators - which is insane. And before the Democrats elected their first county executive in three decades, Nassau was named the “worst run county” in America.

The details of the turnaround I’ll save for another day, but about a week ago, Jeff posted a question about what the what direction the Dems should be headed. This race is certainly a tough nut to crack, but I truly believe that this is a good example of what we should be looking at as a party: going straight into the heart of former GOP strongholds where they have taken their vote for granted and holding them to account for croynism, waste, incompetence, corruption, fiscal irresponsibility and an arrogance that is profound and deep.

I don’t know what will happen less than three weeks from now, but after 100 years of one party rule, it feels good to be putting what the New York Times called in their endorsement a “culture of cronyism in a one party town” on the defensive. After a century, creating a real debate here is the absolutely the direction the Dems should be taking.

For more on the race, click here. But the fact that this race is even competitive at this point, bodes well for things to come. And if Dems can't kick ass next year, we deserve to be in the minority.

  • I M Nuts (unverified)

    Sorry Charlie but is this suppose to have some correlation to Portland or something?

    It sure sounds like the polar opposite of the Little Beirut. Are you saying that some day the pendulum might swing here?

  • (Show?)

    Sorry Charlie but is this suppose to have some correlation to Portland or something?

    No, I wasn't trying to draw a comparison with Portland. But I do think it's an interesting local election in which the major themes of the race - cronyism, incomptence, and corruption - are synching up pretty closely with what's dominating national headlines.

    The classic saying about local politics is that there's no Democratic or Republican way to empty the trash. It's kind of sad, but that's not really the case in Hempstead.

    Here's a good story on Republican sanitation patronage here, btw.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Dear I M Nuts - yes you are.

    First off, this is Blue Oregon - not Portland.

    Quick Quiz - How much of Oregon does Portland represent?

    Oregon has 96,002 square miles, Portland 130, which makes Portland 0.14% of Oregon.

    So, drop your Portland centric stance.

    Second, there are places around Oregon that are more under Republican influence than others, so this was interesting reading. It also points to how the Republicans play out machine politics. I for one read this and wondered how they count ballots in Nassau County.

    Thankfully the Republican's don't have a hold on government like this in my part of Oregon. We may vote Republican in many elections at the national level, but locally we elect some Democrats too! Our three person elected County Court (like a County Commission) has two Republicans and one Democrat. Our only incorporated city, Prineville, has a Democrat as mayor. Frankly most of the Republicans around here would oppose government like what has been described in Nassau County.

    If any place in Oregon has to fear this sort of government, I would think that wealthy suburban areas, perhaps Clackamas or more likely Washington Counties would be at most risk.

    So, dear I M Nuts (yes you are) I think this is a very legitimate topic for Blue Oregon.

  • BooyahBulldog (unverified)

    It was interesting to read.

    But Charlie, "cronyism, incomptence, and corruption" - this IS a good correlation with Portland. Good for you for spotting it, gold-star.

  • (Show?)

    This accords quite nicely with what I read just last night. From this week's New Yorker (George Packer):

    Instead of trying to cobble together a hypothetical majority with a hodgepodge of small-bore policy proposals, the Democrats need to nationalize the elections of 2006 the way the Republicans did in 1994. A Democratic manifesto that unites the Party’s own diverse factions would begin as a referendum on the ruling party: the White House and Congress have handed government over to corrupt interests, and, in so doing, the Republicans have betrayed basic American principles of honesty, competence, and fairness. There is no reason for Democrats to be on the defensive about moral values. On issue after issue, government by cronyism and corruption has sacrificed the interests of the middle class to those of the Administration’s wealthy friends. The deepening inequality in American life threatens families and democracy, and it is neither natural nor inevitable.

    I know another guy who uses a mantra that--perhaps slightly modified--Dems should begin to get comfortable with: evil, stupid, and corrupt. When we see candidates with these qualities, it's not impolite to mention them. In fact, you could argue that the republic depends on it.

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