Suffolk County Executive Race Heats Up

Spencer Rumsey
Long Island Press
Levy's mess and the tough job ahead

Looking up it was hard to tell that the man in the blue helmet and yellow harness dangling backwards off the roof of the H. Lee Dennison Building was Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone. He was rappelling 12 stories down the north face of the concrete edifice, letting the long, strong ropes be his guide.

This was no political ploy to benefit Bellone, however; it was “Over the Edge for Charity,” a recent event to raise money and awareness for Long Islanders with autism and other special needs. Under the auspices of a nonprofit organization based in Old Bethpage called Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, hundreds of police, civic, community and business leaders—as well as a 22-year-old young man with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair—were planning to rappel.

There weren’t any campaign signs in sight, and no one was handing out pamphlets. But given that Bellone, a Democrat, wants to replace the present occupant of the top floor of the Dennison Building, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, politics was in the air. Bellone’s Republican opponent is Angie Carpenter, the current Suffolk County treasurer. The race features two Suffolk politicians—one a relatively new grandmother, the other a father of two young girls—who know and respect each other, having done public service together over the years. By November, they might not even recognize themselves.

“I haven’t done this since I was in basic training 18 years ago,” Bellone said, successfully and safely back on the ground. “In the Army, it wasn’t that tall. Only four stories!”

The Army veteran was competing with his old neighborhood buddy, Robert Stricoff, CEO of Babylon Town’s Industrial Development Agency, who’d gone ahead of him on a different rope. Their team raised about $4,000 for the charity, said Stricoff, who also serves as Babylon Town’s Democratic committee chairman. (The day’s total was about $130,000.)

“I beat you down!” Bellone shouted, with a grin. “I started out of the gate late and then I pulled away.” Stricoff was glad to be on firm footing; he admitted he’s scared of heights.

Bellone did get to do some sight-seeing on his descent. He said he looked into Levy’s executive office on the 12th floor. He wasn’t there.

The Other Steve

Many questions continue to hound Levy months after he turned over his $4.1 million campaign war chest to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who said that a 16-month investigation had revealed “serious issues” with Levy’s campaign fund-raising. Until that day in March when Levy announced he wasn’t running, he practically had a lock on a third term. But then Levy did the unexpected, shocking the political world and provoking the New York Times to editorialize that “something strange and sleazy is going on in Suffolk County.” In his statement, Spota said he could have asked for Levy’s resignation, but didn’t. Why? He wouldn’t say. But he didn’t indict Levy, either. Spota just left him hanging as the lamest of lame ducks.

Meanwhile, Levy’s former friend, George Guldi, once a Suffolk County legislator, continues rattling the bars of his Riverhead jail cell after recently being convicted of insurance fraud and grand larceny. Key to the conviction was Guldi’s business associate, Ethan Ellner, now turned state witness, who was a convicted tax evader whom Levy, his old “workout buddy” and an usher at Ellner’s wedding, had recommended for $85,000 in county title-insurance work. Guldi, a Westhampton Beach attorney, has been firing off letters and legal briefs claiming that there are a “vast array of irreconcilable conflicts of interest between the District Attorney of Suffolk and Defendant George Guldi, and the witnesses and criminal defendants Ethan Ellner and County Executive Steve Levy.” Guldi accused Levy of figuratively buying himself a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” from Spota for $4.1 million.

Guldi, who’s serving a sentence of 4 to 12 years, is being held on Long Island pending the start of another trial in which he and several others are charged as being part of an $82 million mortgage fraud scheme. At the center of that prosecution supposedly stands Ellner, who’s accused Levy of trading contracts with the county for contributions to his campaign coffers—a charge that Levy and his aides have vociferously denied.

Levy began raising this huge sum of money when he was still ostensibly a Democrat but he was already paying increasing attention to former Brookhaven Town Supervisor John Jay LaValle, who’d become Suffolk County Republican chairman in 2009. LaValle persuaded Levy to switch parties in March 2010 so he could enter the GOP primary for governor. (Under party rules, however, Levy couldn’t even vote for himself because he hadn’t been a Republican long enough.) For LaValle, Levy had finally made the right move. Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer said that Levy’s action felt like “a punch in the gut.”

Levy’s long-time abhorrence of raising taxes and his determination to cut government spending have made him a suburban political powerhouse. But the popularity did not come free. The costs of his fiscal conservatism are coming clearer by the day. With Suffolk’s population of roughly 1.5 million, it’s larger than 11 states and, like many states, it’s not immune to the economic problems hurting the country, especially the poor and working class who depend on public services. A month ago Standard & Poor’s, the prestigious Wall Street rating agency, gave Suffolk a “negative outlook” for its $101.1 million bonding and said the county’s financial condition has “deteriorated due to ongoing weakness in economically sensitive revenues, notably sales tax” as well as the county’s worrisome use of its “rainy day” reserve funds since 2006. As of now, the county’s $2.7 billion budget for 2012 faces a $179 million shortfall, and the county’s indebtedness has doubled since 2003.

“There are some very significant structural problems that the next county executive will inherit,” said someone with direct knowledge of the county’s fiscal health who asked not to be identified. “This county executive’s solution to everything has been to cut. So a lot of the fat has been cut.”

This government insider said that Levy’s determination not to raise general operating fund taxes has accelerated the structural imbalance, or gap between recurring revenues and expenditures. “The climate is such that you can’t generate more revenue with taxes but we may have to!”

As Suffolk County treasurer, Angie Carpenter knows how much money comes in and goes out. With her campaign for county executive just getting underway, raising taxes is last on her to-do list.

Paying the Piper

“First of all, from the county’s perspective, taxes [aren’t] the answer because our property tax revenue generates $49 million,” Carpenter told the Press at a crowded recent fundraiser held at the Madison Steak House in Hauppauge. The county’s operating budget is in the billions. “If I double the property tax…it’s not going to make a difference,” she said. “I mean $49 million pays one and a half payrolls! You know it’s not the answer.” She leans toward public-private partnerships, a la the Ducks Stadium (“that was a home run!”) and pursuing joint initiatives with Nassau County.

Carpenter still has a couple of years left on her term as treasurer but she’s been itching to get into this race for the county’s top job for quite a while. Carpenter said she was seriously thinking about running a primary against Levy if he hadn’t taken himself out of the race in March.

“I just felt he wasn’t taking the county in the right direction,” she told the Press as a steady stream of well-wishers came to her corner table at the restaurant. Her approach is different. “My style is doing things quietly behind the scenes. We won’t be having press conferences three times a day!”

She also intends to strike a better relationship with the county legislature, where she served for more than a dozen years, than the one Levy’s had. “We have two branches of government here,” Carpenter said. “You need someone who can work with the legislature.”

When Carpenter last ran county-wide for the treasurer’s office, Schaffer didn’t run a Democrat to oppose her; she was endorsed by both the Democrats and the Republicans. Bellone emerged early on as Schaffer’s pick for the county executive race, but Carpenter did not get the official blessing of GOP chairman, LaValle until the Suffolk Republicans held their convention at the end of May.

Being treasurer has given Carpenter a broader perspective about the county’s issues. She knows the county executive job comes with a lot more agita, but says she can handle it.

“I know I have what it takes to do the job,” she said. “Because of the challenges the county is facing right now, we can’t afford to have someone who needs on-the-job training. We need someone in the position who really knows what’s going on.”

She wouldn’t criticize her opponent, calling Bellone “a nice young man who doesn’t have the county experience,” in contrast to her years in the legislature and in the treasurer’s office.

“You want somebody who understands the plight of the business owner, the working person,” Carpenter said. She started a printing business now run by her sons in West Islip called Act Communications Group. “People who’ve never had to work, who’ve been in elective office their whole life, don’t really know what people are struggling with,” Carpenter added. “And I hear it every day in the treasurer’s office. I hear it from people who haven’t been able to pay their taxes.”

Republicans have started labeling her Democratic opponent “Big Tax Bellone,” claiming that the town supervisor has made Babylon “the tax capital of Suffolk County.”

“I’m not going to attack Babylon,” Carpenter insisted. “Babylon plays an important role in Suffolk County. It’s not my style to attack. I’m just going to focus on what I can do for the residents of Suffolk County.”

Calling the Tune

After descending the Dennison Building, Bellone was driving his Ford SUV last Saturday afternoon and talking about the county executive race. He’d begun the morning at an event in Wyandanch, where the seeds of the civic renewal project Wyandanch Rising are beginning to bear fruit. Now he was headed to a house party in Moriches to meet about two dozen supporters. It would be small potatoes compared to going down a 12-story building.

“My case will be that I’m in the best position to address these challenges because I’ve been an executive for 10 years. I have a proven record of success running a large government and I think that’s important.”

“I get along well with Angie Carpenter,” he told the Press. “In fact when I was going on my honeymoon, she recommended some places in Italy for me and [my wife] Tracy to go… She’s a wonderful person, and I think she’s been an effective elected official.

“Both of us understand the problems we’re facing in the county,” Bellone continued. “My case will be that I’m in the best position to address these challenges because I’ve been an executive for 10 years. I have a proven record of success running a large government and I think that’s important.”

He scoffed at the Republicans’ trying to crown him “Big Tax Bellone,” citing that he’s been re-elected with 73 percent of the vote. But he does understand the GOP mindset, he said, adding that his mother is a lifelong Republican.

“I think she’ll vote for me but I’m not taking it for granted,” he laughed.

As for Babylon’s rising tax bill, Bellone explained, “The average resident is paying…about $140 more today than they were paying 10 years ago, but we’ve reduced our debt burden by about 20 percent during the same time.”

He said he believes that what upsets people “is the sense that their tax dollars are being wasted…. They want to know that when they pay their tax bill, the money is being put to good use to improve the lives of their families and their communities…What the people of Babylon have understood that under my administration their tax dollars are well spent. The investments being made are not only helping them and their families today but helping to lay a foundation for a strong future down the line. That’s what’s important, and that’s not what we have in the county today.”

Bellone took the current county executive to task for his “hyper-focus on the general fund property tax, which is the same thing you saw in Nassau County in the ’90s,” adding that it’s the notion of Levy’s telling voters that “we haven’t increased the general fund property tax when the reality is that the…county is being driven into a ditch!”

On his first day in office as county executive he’d make two speeches: one to the police department, the other to the health department. He’d tell the cops to fight the gangs and stop the violence plaguing too many communities.

“A resident in North Bellport told me that he wears a bulletproof vest when he goes out to work on his house,” Bellone exclaimed. “That’s in Suffolk County!”

The county health department is demoralized and moribund, he continued, and he’d take a fresh approach.

“Instead of figuring out how we can delay things and stop things,” Bellone added, “we’re going to say, ‘How can we make this project happen?’ What people will find out about me if I am county executive is that I don’t just deliver a speech and go away.”

Singing Kumbaya

Rich Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman, literally grew up across the street from Bellone in North Babylon and has watched his protégé rise in government. He said that Bellone “is not into ‘Let’s send out a press release and tell everyone we’re working on this issue,’ and then you never hear about it again. He’s actually a very thoughtful person, really into policy and really into bringing everybody together to come up with solutions. It will be a drastic change [in governing] as opposed to what we’ve got now, which is slash and burn vs. kumbaya!”

The outcome of this race could be historic, according to Brookhaven Town Republican Chairman Jesse Garcia.

“I do believe, in my soul, that we’re going to make history: We’re going to elect the first woman as county executive,” he said. “A woman who has experience as a small business owner, and has sacrificed time away from her family to give back to the voters in public service.”

Schaffer hoped it would be a cleaner contest, too.

“I think for the first time you’re going to have a race that is going to be an intelligent discussion of the issues facing the county,” he said. “I think voters would be much happier listening to that discussion than listening to a political leader throw mud.”

Mopping up Suffolk’s muck is already hard enough no matter who wins in November.