As election nears LI voters in bad mood

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Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island. ...

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With gridlock in Washington over the president's jobs bill and the prospect of massive budget shortfalls and layoffs in Nassau and Suffolk, Long Island voters are more unhappy and upset than local political leaders have ever seen them.

"It's bad out there. It's beyond belief," said Joseph Mondello, Nassau Republican chairman. "People are feeling down and not in love with either party."

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, called the upcoming election "different than any other. People are feeling completely disconnected and the anxiety level over the economy and the future is the highest I've ever seen."

But with three weeks to Election Day, experts say they're having a difficult time divining how that voter ire will manifest itself.

Part of the problem is predicting how many people will vote. Such off-year elections normally attract the smallest turnout in the four-year election cycle. Turnout in Suffolk four years ago, when incumbent Steve Levy had no foe, was 25 percent. That year in Nassau, with only town and legislative races at stake, 24 percent of voters came out. This year, few political experts expect voter discontent to result in a turnout tidal wave -- and some believe more voters will stay home, feeling their votes won't matter.

Michael Dawidziak, a strategist who works mainly for Republicans, says the national news largely is driving voter mood. "Right now, they don't like anybody," he said.

Local Republicans say they expect President Barack Obama's poor poll numbers to drag local Democrats down. But Democrats see growing anger about the GOP's opposition to Obama's $447 billion jobs bill, dislike for Republican presidential hopefuls and growing anger over Wall Street greed.

Some experts say the malaise is exacerbated because local candidates are skirting the tough budget issues for fear of angering different constituencies. "You read in the papers that Nassau's insolvent and Suffolk is not that far behind," said Patrick Halpin, a former Democratic Suffolk County executive. "But there's very little discussion of what needs to be done to straighten out both counties."

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Steve Flanagan, founder and director of Conservative Society for Action, based in Brightwaters, said a lower turnout could increase the clout of activists, including his tea-party-inspired group.

"The bulk of people may stay home but our people are motivated to show up 100 percent," Flanagan said. "And in certain elections like [Assemb.] Dean Murray's, we became the swing vote," he said of Murray's special election victory last year.

To cope with the volatile electorate, Mondello has ordered his candidates to stay on the message that Republicans will not raise property taxes. "We're the party that has established itself as the one who will not raise taxes," he said.

Jay Jacobs, state and Nassau Democratic chairman, said Nassau Republicans are "playing a shell game" by refusing to lay out details of planned budget cuts that include closure of two police precincts. "They say they are cutting two police precincts, but don't say where. That's nonsense," Jacobs said.

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In Suffolk, Schaffer is orchestrating a massive field operation to identify and turn out supporters. Already, volunteers have made 170,000 phone calls and knocked on 249,000 doors; the party's Election Day get-out-the-vote effort will involve more than 500 workers. "I'm concerned about the atmosphere," said Schaffer. Nonetheless, he said the ground efforts and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's endorsement of the party's slate "work in our favor."

But John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, predicted that Schaffer's expensive effort will fail. He said grassroots Democrats have soured on Obama and will reject their party's county executive candidate, Steve Bellone, because of his record of raising taxes. LaValle has cited the 108 percent increase in town general fund taxes for the average household since Bellone voted on the 1999 budget, his first as a Babylon council member. Bellone says the focus should be on budgets he oversaw as supervisor, starting with the 2003 spending plan.

"I think there will be Democrats supporting our candidates," LaValle said.

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