When Andrew Hardwick was sworn in for his first term as mayor of Freeport in 2009, he asked the high school's band to mark his arrival by playing "Hail to the Chief" -- a song normally reserved for the president of the United States.
He uses a village employee as his driver, cited unspecified personal threats in posting armed police at village board meetings, and has been taken to court twice by his own trustees.
To his supporters, Hardwick is a hometown guy working hard to improve Freeport, and a source of pride as the village's first black mayor.
To his foes, he is a thin-skinned autocrat who divides village residents with his words and actions.
"I might be a hard guy to get along with, but I protect the people, and their interests," Hardwick said in an interview. "I've got clean hands."
The March 19 election is crucial to Freeport's future. The village is one of Long Island's most diverse -- its 43,000 residents are divided somewhat evenly among whites, blacks and Latinos -- and is home to the famed Nautical Mile. It also is struggling to recover from superstorm Sandy and battling nagging crime, blight and a bad economy.
"Freeport has been a parochial political hotbed with exciting and sometimes nasty elections for many years," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "But with the devastation of Sandy still not behind the village, this election may be far more important than most."
Tussles with trustees
Hardwick's tenure has been marked by controversy and combativeness. But those who have known the former Army staff sergeant the longest -- such as members of the Freeport Fire Department, where Hardwick is a former captain and 30-year volunteer -- say that's just Hardwick being Hardwick.
"Andrew was always very reserved, but there is a side of him they call 'Sarge.' You didn't want to see that side of him," longtime friend Mark Renton said. "If you push the right buttons, you'd get Sarge, and you'd be sorry for it."
His battle with his board of trustees is a case in point.
Hardwick was elected mayor along with running mates Robert Kennedy and Carmen Piñeyro as trustees. The trio had disagreements during their first budget cycle. Hardwick now criticizes them during public meetings. They no longer support him. Kennedy has changed parties to run against him.
Kennedy began campaigning in December -- much earlier than village candidates usually start knocking on doors.
Kennedy, 58, has owned a heating and air-conditioning business for 27 years, and has lived in Freeport for 12 years. A Staten Island native and Navy veteran, he is married and has three sons. He is giving up his trustee seat to run for mayor.
He said he wants to lower taxes and restore order to village meetings. Freeport, he said, needs a more positive image than what Hardwick has created. He accused the mayor of failing to listen to the trustees and to the public.
"You have to open up a dialogue, not a monologue," he said.
Piñeyro said the rift deepened when Hardwick started to have videotapes of meetings for public broadcast edited to leave a more positive impression of himself.
Hardwick, who disputed the charge, would not allow a vote on a resolution regulating the production of the tapes because, trustees said, he believed they were trying to usurp his authority. Hardwick said at the time his opposition was "about freedom of speech."
The trustees took Hardwick to court and won: He was forced to allow the resolution to go forward. It passed, 3-1, with Hardwick dissenting.
More recently, the trustees sued Hardwick over his use of the village's robocall system to criticize Kennedy. The case is in State Supreme Court in Nassau County.
"When a person clearly deviates from following the law, I don't care what party you are a member of, I'm going to call you on it," Piñeyro said.
Trustees also have criticized Hardwick for using as a driver a village employee whose base pay in 2012 was $61,832. Hardwick has said the employee is his personal assistant who performs various duties.
Hardwick has changed deputy mayors three times. The current deputy -- trustee Jorge Martinez, a member of the opposition Unity Home Rule Party -- was named only after a court ordered Hardwick to make a new appointment. Hardwick said he stalled because he didn't trust the trustees, the pool from which he must choose a deputy.
"He seems to create conflict where none is needed," Martinez said.
Hardwick, who runs under the Freeport First mantle, has rankled his own party's leader, Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs. "He has ignited a certain amount of controversy in Freeport," Jacobs said. "He has had a bumpy road in working with the others to get things done."
Hardwick, a full-time mayor who is paid $124,989 per year, has lived in Freeport for 50 years. His wife, Cherie, is an accountant, and he has four children ranging from middle-school age to early 30s. He is private about personal matters, and declined to divulge their names.
Hardwick's prior work
The seventh of 11 children, Hardwick moved with family to Long Island from Birmingham, Ala., at age 3. As a young boy, he lived across the street from the firehouse, and was given the assignment of closing the bay doors after trucks went out on a call, Renton said.
Hardwick left Freeport High School before graduating, enlisted in the Army and finished his high school diploma while stationed in the former West Germany. He served from 1974-84, with stints stateside and in Germany and Korea before returning to the States for good in 1982.
While stationed once at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, he said, he was given the task of burying military personnel. The job was brutal, he said -- his first child had just died, at 10 days old from a lung infection.
"After losing a kid, that's the last thing you want to be doing," he said in an interview.
He later worked as a supervisor for state facilities such as the state police barracks and Robert Moses State Park, operated a heating business, and served as an assistant to Freeport Mayor Arthur Thompson.
Hezekiah Brown, a member of Nassau's black political community and a golfing buddy of Hardwick's father, recommended Hardwick to former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who hired Hardwick as deputy commissioner of parks in 2002.
Suozzi declined to speak about Hardwick.
"He was loyal to the community, loyal to the job, and to family," said Brown, deputy Nassau executive under Suozzi.
Hardwick became mayor in 2009, defeating three-term incumbent William Glacken with nearly 53 percent of the vote.
Hardwick said his decision to run was influenced by his work as Thompson's assistant and by residents he met who told him they felt "ripped off" by the village's high taxes and poor services. He said he wanted to help Freeport -- where median household income of $68,194 is 26 percent less than the county average -- overcome the stigmas of poverty and urban blight.
Conflicts with other elected officials quickly followed, said Nassau Legis. David Denenberg, a Democrat who represents part of Freeport. Denenberg said he and Hardwick have clashed over several issues, including preservation of the former Brooklyn Water Works property, which Denenberg favored.
"He had a chance to be a unifying figure and instead he's found himself at the center of controversy," Denenberg said, "often over issues that shouldn't be controversial at all."
Hardwick said perceptions of him as a divisive figure stem from his status as being outside "the good old boys club here."
Hardwick has supporters in and out of village government who back his push for a forensic audit of village finances.
Other residents commend him for paying down village debt, which was $154 million when he took office. He said he has reduced it by more than $20 million; trustees say that was from standard repayment of bonds.
After Sandy, Hardwick walked flooded neighborhoods, surveyed damage and met with residents. He set up meetings where Sandy victims could get information. And he touted the rehabilitation of the LIRR station and repair of village streets.
Opponents tick off the controversies, which spark spirited debates at public meetings. Hardwick is often one of the most vocal combatants.
Hardwick says the criticism has not diminished his passion for what he calls his dream job.
"I don't have any aspirations to go anywhere else," he said.
Mayor Andrew Hardwick is an Army veteran and father of four known. A sample of his work and his clashes:
Elected first black mayor of Freeport in 2009.
Lauded for leadership after superstorm Sandy.
Led revitalization of Freeport train station area.
Criticized by trustees who said he selectively edited public meeting tapes to make himself look better.
Welcomed Salvadoran Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former anti-U.S. demonstrator, to Freeport; Hardwick later apologized.
Being sued by village trustees for using public robocall system to criticize political opponents.