Thomas Suozzi pushes for second chance in Nassau county executive race
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At the annual country fair in Glen Cove, 8-year-old Tom Suozzi used to ask strangers for quarters so he could compete with kids twice his age in the milk jug toss game.
As a teenager, Suozzi entertained his family by training his dog Bo to fetch his slippers, a trick that had taken hours to perfect. To earn extra money in high school, he shined shoes, ran a lemonade stand and sold suede belts door-to-door from scraps he got from a local leather store.
The same competitive streak is on display again as Thomas Suozzi, who served as Nassau County executive from 2002 to 2009, seeks a political second act after losing four years ago to Republican County Executive Edward Mangano.
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Suozzi, who also lost the Democratic primary for governor in 2006, is challenging Mangano in a contentious rematch in hopes of winning back his old job on Election Day.
During a Democratic primary in September in which he beat businessman Adam Haber, and now in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's general election, Suozzi has crisscrossed the county -- shaking hands at street fairs and touting his record as a manager capable of transforming Nassau's finances, which are under the control of a state monitoring board.
Working to 'solve problems'
"I am still an idealist," Suozzi, 51, of Glen Cove, said in an interview. "I still think we can make this the best county in the country. I really believe we can get people to work together to solve problems."
When Suozzi took over in 2002 from Republican County Executive Thomas Gulotta, who had served three terms, Nassau's credit rating was one level above junk bond status. At the end of the Gulotta administration, Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs called Nassau the "worst run" of the nation's 40 largest counties, citing factors including the county's multibillion-dollar debt.
Suozzi says that over eight years in office, he reduced county borrowing, cut the county workforce by 1,200 employees, obtained concessions from labor unions and streamlined government services.
He notes that there were 13 bond rating upgrades during his tenure, and that he and the Democratic-controlled county legislature produced eight balanced budgets.
Tax hikes criticized
Critics say Suozzi relied on property tax increases.
He engineered a 19.4 percent property tax hike in 2003. Suozzi's final budget, introduced on the day Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, proposed a 3.9 percent tax hike as he moved to close an estimated $150 million deficit. He also called for program cuts and a reduction in the county workforce.
Mangano, who touts the fact that he has not raised county property taxes in four years, has made the Suozzi tax hikes a central issue of his campaign.
"It's amazing that Tom Suozzi thinks he deserves another chance after raising property taxes 23 percent and placing an energy tax on our electric and heating bills," Mangano said Wednesday.
Thomas Stokes, a deputy county executive for finance during Suozzi's second term, said Suozzi faced difficult budget choices immediately after taking office and during the 2008 recession.
"Around the country, everyone wanted to delay the inevitable," said Stokes, chief operating officer at Weill Cornell Imaging at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. "But Tom had acknowledged we had a problem . . . He had a vision and a plan to implement it."
The youngest of five siblings in a close-knit Roman Catholic family, Suozzi grew up in a two-story brick ranch on Tulane Road in Glen Cove.
His father, Joseph Suozzi, served as Glen Cove's mayor, ran unsuccessfully for county executive as a Democrat and later became a State Supreme Court justice. Suozzi's mother, Marguerite, has organized a summer concert series in Glen Cove's Morgan Park for more than five decades.
Suozzi's early years
Competing for attention in a busy household that also included a quartet of grandparents, Suozzi developed a reputation early on as a gregarious storyteller who was comfortable with adults.
Suozzi attended grade school at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Glen Cove and the all-boys Chaminade High School in Mineola, where he once broke the school record for the most demerits without being expelled. Among his offenses: wearing a T-shirt in the hallways after school.
Suozzi showed a strong interest in politics, telling family members he hoped to become the first Italian-American president. He often spent weekends reviewing his father's files, immersing himself in policy papers.
"He had it in his mind to follow in my footsteps," recalled Joseph Suozzi, 92, a partner in the law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein in Mineola. "I encouraged him to do what he wanted, to do what made him happy."
"Tom was gregarious but he was also reflective," said his sister Rosemary Suozzi Lloyd, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston. "I was sure he was going to be secretary of state or a cardinal at the Vatican."
Suozzi graduated from Boston College with a degree in accounting. He spent two years as an auditor at Arthur Andersen & Co. before enrolling in Fordham Law School, where he started the Young Democrats club. After graduating, Suozzi worked as a commercial litigator at the law firm of Shearman & Sterling in Manhattan.
But politics remained his passion. Suozzi took the helm of the Glen Cove Democratic Party in 1991 and when his candidate for mayor dropped out, Suozzi ran instead. He lost the race but ran again two years later and won.
Suozzi said that during his four terms as mayor from 1993 to 2001, he boosted downtown economic development by attracting new businesses; moved City Hall, the police department and the courts into new buildings and was recognized by then-Vice President Al Gore for the city's environmental cleanup efforts. In 1994-95, Suozzi also served on Nassau's board of supervisors, which was replaced by the county legislature in 1996.
First run for exec office
In 2001, Suozzi challenged then-Assemb. Thomas DiNapoli for the Democratic nomination for county executive.
DiNapoli, now New York State comptroller, had the backing of the county Democratic Party, but Suozzi pulled off an upset victory, winning by more than 5,000 votes. Suozzi in the general election defeated Republican Bruce Bent, a millionaire Manhasset businessman who had created the first money market mutual fund. Suozzi won re-election by nearly 67,000 votes in 2005, beating Republican Gregory Peterson, a former Hempstead Town supervisor.
Suozzi said that under his leadership, Nassau reduced its crime rate to its lowest level in 30 years.
Suozzi and police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey developed NASSTAT -- a program modeled after the NYPD's COMPSTAT system -- which uses technology to target high-crime areas. The county also implemented the ShotSpotter gunshot location system, formed task forces for high-crime areas and began a series of gun buyback programs, Suozzi said.
But Reginald Pope, vice president of the Nassau branch of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, criticized Suozzi's record on crime and other issues important to many minority communities.
"Our needs were not met: housing, crime, the proliferation of gun violence and property taxes," Pope said. "People can't afford to stay here because of the taxes."
Frederick Brewington, a civil rights attorney in Hempstead, said Suozzi took minority voters "for granted," allowing unemployment to increase and crime to fester.
"Mangano and Suozzi talk about bond ratings and taxes, but people are getting killed day in and day out," said Brewington, who supported Haber's unsuccessful primary against Suozzi.
"Mangano and Suozzi do not speak to 90 percent of the electorate because they are focused on balance sheets and not the issues that the county cares about," Brewington said.
Criticism and accolades
Pastor Patrick Duggan, who served as Suozzi's deputy county executive for economic development, called such criticism politically motivated. He said Suozzi had the most racially diverse administration in Nassau's history and increased the percentage of contracts that went to minority-owned businesses.
"Tom was a leader on immigration policies and investments in social services, and he opened doors for minority businesses," Duggan said.
Suozzi said he also invested $18 million to refurbish county parks and spent millions more to restore county buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Suozzi said air-conditioning vents in county offices were covered in black soot while the Office for the Physically Challenged was not handicapped accessible.
"We turned all this around and made the county function like the $2.5 billion system it was," Suozzi said.
Arda Nazarian, a senior policy adviser to Suozzi from 2003 to 2009, said the administration spearheaded an effort for school districts to consolidate back-office functions such as purchasing. Suozzi also brought together Planned Parenthood, a pro-abortion rights group, and Catholic Charities, a private network of social service organizations that is against abortion, to work on a $3 million program designed to reduce the need for abortions countywide.
"Typically, county and local officials don't understand these types of challenges," said Nazarian. "But Tom looked at the big picture and came up with goals and a plan to get things done."
Successes and setbacks
One of the largest projects of Suozzi's first term was "No Wrong Door," which consolidated eight county departments, including the Department of Health, Veterans Affairs and the county Youth Board, in one building in Uniondale.
The agencies, Suozzi said, were spread across Nassau in five dilapidated county buildings that would have cost an estimated $40 million.
Suozzi brought the agencies into one renovated building, modernized client services and got officials from the different departments to collaborate on cases, said Louise Skolnik, who was Suozzi's director of human services.
"It became a model for delivering services," said Skolnik, a Fordham professor. "We developed a safe, secure spot and saved taxpayer dollars."
Suozzi also suffered setbacks.
He backed a $3.8 billion proposal by New York Islanders owner Charles Wang to redevelop the Nassau Coliseum and its surrounding 77 acres to include 8.8 million square feet of office space, housing, restaurants and a minor league baseball stadium. The Town of Hempstead refused to approve the zoning, calling the project too dense.
Mangano signed a $229 million deal this year with developer Bruce Ratner to renovate the Coliseum and build an entertainment district on its surrounding plaza.
Suozzi had run for office promising to rid Nassau of political corruption and cronyism, but he faced scandals involving the misuse of county funds.
In late 2003, Peter Sylver, Suozzi's deputy county executive for economic development, resigned following disclosures that he had used an office credit card to charge meals and trips. The expenses were paid from federal funds intended to help the needy.
During hearings, county legislators learned that a 24-year-old female employee of Sylver's had alleged that he had repeatedly sexually assaulted her in his county car and then fired her when she resisted his advances. Sylver denied the allegations. The county later transferred the woman to a higher-paying job in return for her signing a confidentiality agreement. In 2004, Sylver pleaded guilty to improper use of a county credit card and second-degree harassment.
The following year, Michael Klein, the deputy county executive in charge of parks, resigned after a seasonal clerk he was charged with supervising was charged with falsifying time sheets and defrauding taxpayers of $12,000. The clerk was later cleared of all charges.
Suozzi said he learned from the incidents, and instituted background checks and systems for employees to report improper behavior in the workplace.
"We never covered it up or hid from it," Suozzi said. "We took steps to learn from it."
In 2006, Suozzi ran unsuccessfully for governor against then-state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in the Democratic primary, but got only 19 percent of the vote.
"I got squashed like a bug," said Suozzi, who said he has no plans to run for higher office if elected county executive.
Stanley Klein, a political-science professor at LIU Post in Brookville and a Huntington GOP committeeman, said Suozzi "had great promise but his eyes were always on a different office."
Desire to serve the public
Suozzi also acknowledges that he did not take his 2009 contest with Mangano seriously enough, ending the race with $1.1 million in his campaign account. Suozzi now calls his loss to Mangano a blessing in disguise.
"I needed to get taken out of this bubble of being the boss and being the politician -- and be out in the private sector, having normal conversations and spending more time with my family," Suozzi said.
After his defeat, Suozzi became a senior adviser at Lazard Frères & Co., a financial advisory and asset management firm; served as an adviser for MSG Varsity, Cablevision's high school sports venture, and was of counsel to the law firm of Harris Beach. Cablevision owns Newsday.
Friends and family say Suozzi matured during the period, curbing his temper and penchant for micromanaging that former staff members still talk about.
"He listens to people a lot more and is not in so much of a rush," said Suozzi's wife, Helene. "He used to want everything yesterday. But he realizes now that's not always possible."
But Suozzi became dissatisfied working in the private sector.
"You need to get up in the morning and love what you do," said his sister Rosemary. "And Tom loves what he does when he's a public servant."
"It was not fulfilling enough for me," Suozzi said. "I feel like I have a certain set of experiences and skill sets -- that I have an obligation to try to solve the problems that exist here in Nassau."