Who's Steve Bellone? That's a question lots of East Enders are asking.
The Independent recently sat down with the Babylon Town Supervisor and Democratic candidate for Suffolk county executive. For close to an hour in the county Democratic headquarters office tucked in an upisland strip mall, Bellone discussed his record as supervisor, his governing style and desire to learn about the people and communities on the Twin Forks.
"I'm an upislander," he admitted, reporting he never heard the term before he began his campaign. But, the Babylon Town native said, "I've always told our residents here how important the East End is to our quality of life. It's part of the greatness of living on Long Island."
With County Executive Steve Levy's shocking announcement that he won't be running for another term, Bellone catapulted to the front of the pack, as the county GOP scrambles to select an opponent from a slew of wannabes. While he's yet to be officially declared the nominee, Bellone began campaigning earlier this year and has already met with community groups on the East End. He embarked on a series of listening tours because, he said, the first step in governing is understanding what's happening in a community. "Only then can you come up with credible solutions."
So far, what Bellone learned locally is cause for dismay. "I get the sense from people that they feel they've been ignored," he said, pointing to an "almost calculated effort" to dismiss the East End because its population is so small.
Speaking to Levy's history of clashes with local legislators Jay Schneiderman and Ed Romaine, Bellone opined "It hurts the county, it hurts our residents" when elected officials spar for partisan purposes. "We live in a democracy and it requires that you work with people from all sorts of backgrounds to achieve progress," he said, pointing to a record of working across party lines and building consensus.
Ben Zwirn, a one time Levy deputy and the 2009 Democratic candidate for East Hampton Town Supervisor began working for Bellone earlier this year in his intergovernmental relations department. He marveled this week at Bellone's capacity for bringing disparate town residents to the table. "I've never seen anything like it in government," said Zwirn.
"I believe my obligation as a public officer is to give everybody the opportunity to be heard," Bellone affirmed, noting that even when constituents disagree with a course of action, "they still feel they've been heard."
A popular politician upisland, Bellone said he decided to run for county executive because, he feels "the fiscal health of Suffolk County is in terrible condition." In the last eight years, county debt has almost doubled, and almost every asset has been sold off, leaving a $179 million hole "that has to be made up this year and every year thereafter."
Speaking to his own record, Bellone reported debt in Babylon has been reduced every year since he took the helm. His last budget presented a five percent tax cut and since he's been in office town government is more than 50 percent leaner than it was.
Nationally, there's been growing focus on the cost of municipal employees, particularly in regard to benefits. Some communities are considering requiring employees to kick in for health insurance. They already do in Babylon. "While other towns are talking about it, Steve's already doing it," Zwirn reported.
And employees are not doing less, Bellone pointed out "what we do here is figure out how to become more productive, more efficient and innovative."
Innovations in Babylon have led to a variety of honors for the 41-year-old leader. In 2006 Babylon was the first town on Long Island to adopt energy star standards for new home construction and later adopted the most comprehensive green building code in the country. Bellone created a nationally recognized property assessed clean energy program, the first of its kind in the nation, and has traveled around the country to lecture about the groundbreaking initiative.
Even though advisors warned it wasn't a politically savvy move, in 2002 Bellone debuted Wyandanch Rising, a comprehensive revitalizing of the most economically distressed community on Long Island. Told the program wouldn't be "politically advantageous," Bellone said, "It's the right thing to do . . . Having the most distressed community on Long Island is offensive to me." The program, on the verge of implementation, has been recognized as one of 10 programs in the nation to showcase environmental neighborhood development standards.
When he conceived the program, Bellone knew it would take years to get off the ground. He said it was important to be innovative and "not be afraid to do the kind of long term, diligent work necessary to bring about positive change.
"One thing that bothers me," he continued, "is the focus on short term thinking." Leaders work on programs with the question 'What's gonna help me in the next election cycle?' in the back of their minds. "It's easy to focus on things that don't involve long term planning, but I think that's a terrible way to govern."
On the East End, the struggle to craft a fair program dealing with homeless sex offenders has dominated county discourse for years. In Babylon, Bellone implemented the first of its kind system to enforce residency restrictions on sex offenders. One of his first listening tour stops involved meeting with residents to discuss the issue. "No community should have to bear what Southampton and Riverhead had to bear," he said.
Bellone grew up in North Babylon. After earning a BA at Queens College in 1991 he joined the army, serving as a communications specialist stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He earned a masters degree in public administration by attending night school at Webster University.
When he came home, then town supervisor Rick Schaffer offered him a position in his public information office. Schaffer, who's currently the county Democratic Party leader, spoke highly of Bellone's work ethic. "We grew up on the same street in North Babylon," he related this week. "I've known him most of my life, and when he came back from the army, I wanted him to come work for me."
Bellone went to night school again while working in town hall, this time earning his law degree from Fordham University. In 1997, Bellone won a bid for town board, winning again when he ran for town supervisor in 2001.
"He's got an enormous amount of energy," Zwirn related, describing Bellone as "very low key, low maintenance." Few county executives in the past have had experience as a town supervisor, Zwirn pointed out, noting, "He's familiar with the problems facing towns. If he's elected, you're not going to see towns suing Suffolk County." Taking a poke at Levy, his former boss, Zwirn said Bellone's "the right guy for the times and he comes without attitude."