Nassau County is now watching election results tallied ballot by ballot because their county executive elections were so close. This is becoming a trend. Before the 2000 presidential election, one had to go back to 1976 to see a result that uncertain.
Last week saw Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi struggling to hold on to a small lead over Edward Mangano. You could say that this is a referendum on the Democratic Party, but it is not, not here anyway. This is hardball country, and the politics here are never easy. (Virginia, on the other hand, was a referendum on the Democratic Party.)
The issue matters to Queens and Brooklyn residents if for no other reason than so many of them eventually wash ashore in Nassau County as homeowners. The issues in New Jersey and Nassau County are somewhat similar: property taxes, shoreline issues, and public education (which sometimes conflicts with the desired lower taxes).
If New Jersey is impossible to govern, as governor-elect Chris Christie will soon find out, Nassau County is a close second. The people want lower taxes, but they also want to pay their police six-figure salaries. It was Suozzi himself who penned a New York Times op-ed piece in 2006 bemoaning the average Nassau County police officer’s annual salary of $120,000. After all, you don’t move to Nassau County because of its transportation infrastructure, you move there because of the public schools and safety.
(In fairness to New York City, Nassau County can also amp up those salaries because they do not pay a fire department and a sanitation department - so why not make the police, which are far fewer in number than the NYPD - content with their wage?)
New Jersey operates in a similar way. As a political operative friend described, in New Jersey “they want to pay no taxes and they want no services cut.” It’s not easy for New Jersey; the residents see all of the government services in New York and want them, and then they gaze south and sees the low taxes of neighboring Delaware and Virginia, and want them as well. Nassau County does the exact same – it sees New York City and wants the same activist government, yet it wants taxes low enough so that residents can expect the next generation will be able to afford to stay there.
All of this leads to close elections. New Jersey’s gubernatorial contest was a relatively close election, and no governor in that state ever skates to re-election. Christie Whitman had to wait until midnight in 1997 to see if she bested James McGreevey. Suozzi has for the longest time aimed for higher office. Those aspirations could now be gone. Win or lose, you need to win big if you want to move up and on.
Suozzi’s problem is a little bit more complicated, however, than just how tough Nassau County can be politically - he may have had a hard time rallying Democrats. In a day when Democrats are in the majority everywhere, not getting their full support is like going to a mall and not getting sprayed with sample cologne. You almost need to try to avoid getting it.
But there are Democrats on Long Island that can talk at length about their dissatisfaction with Suozzi. The key to analyzing this election – which is a loss to Suozzi whether he eventually wins the election or not – is to see how many Democrats actually voted. The number of Democrats that Barack Obama can attract cannot be expected in off-presidential years. To put it simply, many Democrats were not enthusiastic in New Jersey and Nassau County, while many Republicans were sure they were coming out this year. And in those two places, an incumbent needs to rally the troops all the time.
Maybe this is foreshadowing for New York’s gubernatorial election next year. If Andrew Cuomo thinks that he can rely on Obama’s type of momentum, there could be two Italian politicians counting ballots next year