Crisscrossing through a crowd of Latino supporters in the backyard of a Freeport home, Democrat Thomas Suozzi takes the stage and promises the dozens in attendance that change -- both in leadership and in policy -- is coming to Nassau County.
The former two-term county executive, making a run for his old office, tells the crowd at the kickoff of "Latinos for Suozzi" in late July that he will restore the county's finances, attract young families to the region and, tailoring his message to the evening's audience, improve services for minorities.
"We have to grow for the future in a way that will expand our tax base and bring new revenue into our government," Suozzi says to applause.
After a three-year absence from politics, Suozzi, 50, of Glen Cove, has returned to the campaign trail as he prepares for the Sept. 10 Democratic primary against East Hills businessman Adam Haber.
In the weeks leading up to the primary, Suozzi said he is working 12- to 14-hour days, speaking to small gatherings of voters, attending community events and raising campaign money. On the campaign trails and in interviews, Suozzi rarely mentions Haber, a Roslyn school board member and former Wall Street executive, and instead directs his fire at Republican County Executive Edward Mangano, who defeated Suozzi in 2009 by 386 votes.
Suozzi claims Mangano has rolled backed the progress he made as county executive, increasing spending, borrowing at record levels and allowing Nassau to be taken over by a state fiscal control board.
Suozzi said he will reverse those policies once re-elected, while also overhauling county government operations.
"It's more fun campaigning when you're not the incumbent," said Suozzi. "People want you to solve their problems. And, one of the main reasons I got into politics is because I'm a problem solver."
On a rainy Saturday afternoon in early August, Suozzi made his pitch as Nassau's problem-solver-in-chief to voters in East Meadow.
As Suozzi walked through the heavily GOP neighborhood, he passed lawn signs that thanked Mangano "for not raising our taxes." Assuming those homeowners may not be amenable to his message, Suozzi kept walking until he reached the home of Philip LoGiudice.
A retired teacher, LoGiudice, 88, told Suozzi there were too many people living illegally in the neighborhood and not paying taxes. Suozzi told him local law enforcement was the key to dealing with illegal homes. "OK, you've got my vote," LoGiudice said.
But, Lisa Snyder, 47, a registered Republican who voted for Mangano in 2009, said she was undecided after listening to Suozzi discuss taxes and jobs. "During the election season, I'll listen to what they have to say," said Snyder, a retired special education teacher.
Suozzi is the youngest of five children from a close-knit Glen Cove Catholic family. Suozzi's father, Joseph, an Italian immigrant, was a State Supreme Court justice, is a successful attorney and once ran for Nassau County executive.
Tom Suozzi graduated from Chaminade High School, received a bachelor's degree in accounting from Boston College and a law degree from Fordham University School of Law school. After graduating, Suozzi worked as an auditor at Arthur Andersen & Co., as a law clerk to Chief Judge Thomas C. Platt of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York, and as an attorney at Shearman & Sterling.
But Suozzi said he was drawn to the competition, strategy and public spirit of politics. At age 31, he was elected mayor of Glen Cove, a post that had been held by his father, his uncle Vinny and now by his cousin Ralph.
After serving eight years, he ran for county executive in 2001, pulling off an upset in the Democratic primary against Thomas DiNapoli, now the state comptroller. Suozzi then defeated Bruce Bent, a wealthy GOP candidate from Manhasset, becoming the first Democrat to win the seat since 1971.
In 2006, Suozzi ran unsuccessfully against then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary. But he suffered another setback in 2009. While seeking a third term as county executive, Suozzi lost to Mangano, a relatively unknown Bethpage legislator. Suozzi currently is of counsel at Harris Beach, a Uniondale law firm.
Suozzi concedes he took his 2009 race for granted -- he left more than $1 million in his campaign account unspent -- but says he's learned from his mistakes and will run a more focused campaign this time around. For example, Suozzi said he now rejects invitations to attend political events outside the county, saying, "This is where I need to be."
Suozzi defends his record as county executive, arguing he improved the county's credit status 13 times, cut the workforce by more than 1,000 workers through retirements and attrition and invested in basic infrastructure, from parks to department offices.
But critics note that Suozzi twice raised property taxes -- by 19.4 percent in 2002 and 3.9 percent in 2009. Suozzi said the first hike was necessary to plug large deficits that had developed under his predecessor, Republican Thomas Gulotta. The second was necessary to help the county through the recession, he said.
In 2009, Suozzi also imposed a 2.5 percent tax on all residential home energy sources. The plan was heavily criticized by Republicans and Mangano rescinded the tax immediately after taking office.
Development near transit hubs
Suozzi said Nassau is again on the verge of fiscal collapse, spending more than it takes in and borrowing at record levels. Mangano disputes the claims and said borrowing has declined at a faster rate in his administration than under Suozzi.
Suozzi pledged not to raise taxes again and said he will balance the budget through reduced spending, attracting new businesses to the area and fixing the county's tax assessment system by reversing Mangano's freeze on tax rolls at their 2010 values and focusing more on commercial tax challenges.
"I am the fiscal conservative in this race," Suozzi said. "I am the fiscally responsible candidate."
Suozzi also wants to spur residential and commercial development near transit hubs by investing $10 million in county, state and federal grants over the next four years. Suozzi's plans include cutting patronage and outside legal contracts, investing in youth services and conducting a review of every county department in his first 90 days in office.
"The decline in the infrastructure, the decline in the services and the decline in the quality of life threaten the long-term health of the county," he said.
Suozzi's message appeared to resonate with voters in Glen Cove during the annual Feast of St. Rocco in early August. Suozzi chatted with vendors, traded jokes with a police officer and shared stories about his three children.
"Tom can walk into any situation and connect with that person," said Suozzi's wife, Helene. "It just comes naturally to him."
During dinner, old friends approached Suozzi, offering their opinion on why the 2013 race would turn out differently than 2009. "The county is in bad shape and Tom's the only guy who can turn it around," said Lester Stanco, 65, a building developer from Old Brookville.
"Tom's one of us," added Vito Milanese, 47, a landscape contractor from Glen Cove. "He is always looking out for the community. The past four years have been tough."
With Ted Phillips
Suozzi's campaign proposals
Reform Nassau's assessment system by reversing County Executive Edward Mangano's freeze on tax rolls at their 2010 values and devote more time and staff to commercial assessments.
Encourage commercial and residential development near Long Island Rail Road stations through $10 million in county, state and federal grants over four years. Towns and villages would be asked to create downtown redevelopment plans and competefor the money.
Develop walking trails that integrate the Nassau Coliseum with Eisenhower Park, Museum Row, Nassau Community College and Hofstra University.
Negotiate privately with county labor unions to settle a lawsuit against a wage freeze imposed by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state oversight board that controls the county's finances.
Reduce county borrowing by implementing pay-as-you-go policies, and cut the use of outside legal contracts.
Conduct a review of every county department within 90 days of taking office, and develop plans to redeploy staff, resources and technology.