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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Bruce Blakeman makes his move

Hempstead Town Councilman Bruce Blakeman tours the downtown

Hempstead Town Councilman Bruce Blakeman tours the downtown Lawrence LIRR station on April 9, 2019. Credit: Johnny Milano

Let's skip to the chase.

Is Bruce Blakeman, the Nassau GOP's selection to run against incumbent County Executive Laura Curran, supposed to be a sacrificial lamb?

That is, is he in the race to lose the race?

Blakeman, a Hempstead Town Board member, has an answer.

But first, let's go to Jay Jacobs, chairman of the Nassau and state Democratic Party.

"I think he's a sacrificial lamb," Jacobs said in an interview last week.

"But that doesn't mean that the lamb can't best the lion."

Jacobs went on to talk about a then-unknown assembly member, George Pataki, who, in a surprise, bested former governor Mario Cuomo's quest for a fourth term in 1994.

Then we moved on to Thomas Suozzi, Nassau's former county executive, who, in another stunner, fell to a Republican county legislator, Edward Mangano. Suozzi now is a Democratic House member.

"That didn't turn out to be funny in the end," Jacobs said, stressing that the party takes Blakeman's candidacy seriously. "We don't want that surprise."

And as for Blakeman, who counts former U.S. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato as one of his role models?

"I am in this," Blakeman said last week, "because I believe I can win this."

And with that, let's move on.

It has been one quarter of a century, plus one year, since Blakeman was plucked from the Hempstead Town Board to run for a seat in Nassau County's brand new legislature, where he became its first presiding officer.

Blakeman was defeated in 1999 when reliably Republican voters, seething over the embarrassment of watching wealthy Nassau — in the midst of an economic boom — sink perilously close to insolvency, put Democrats in charge of the county legislature.

Since then, Blakeman has run, unsuccessfully, for statewide office and a congressional seat. He even dabbled, at one point, with the notion of entering a race for New York City mayor.

This time around, however, Blakeman's staking out a countywide campaign on his home turf — where his dad, a former state Assembly member, once had to run six times in four years to keep his seat because of reapportionment.

Blakeman is the first county executive candidate in memory who has served twice — albeit some 25 years apart — on the same town board.

"He's well known and respected in his district," said Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, a regional smart growth planning organization.

Blakeman's town board district stretches through the Five Towns, and includes Inwood and Lawrence, where former council member Erin King-Sweeney, along with Blakeman, championed zoning near the train station for redevelopment.

Ask Blakeman, 65, about his platform for county executive and the first subjects that pop up are reassessment and taxes.

Neither are a surprise.

Any Nassau GOP candidate nominated to run against Curran would have said the same — since the GOP has been ragging Curran on both points for years. (Quick explanation: Assessment determines the proportion of school and other taxes that property owners pay. Changes in assessment mean changes in proportions — meaning some end up paying more in taxes and others less.)

But, let's dig deeper.

What is it that Blakeman himself wants to bring to the table?

"Vision," he said. "I think that Nassau is ripe for some rethinking, and for economic development that would reach into every community."

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Blakeman went on, "we are in a transformative period."

To be competitive, Blakeman acknowledged, he must raise money. (Curran has some $2 million on hand for the race.)

He also has to appeal beyond the GOP's base — which, incidentally, has been growing in some areas, including the Great Neck peninsula — by making inroads into the county's increasingly diverse communities.

And he will have to woo Nassau's growing number of "blank" voters, who are affiliated with no political party.

As it is, Blakeman, both as a county lawmaker and during his more recent run as Hempstead Town council member, is no stranger at going against members of his own party.

In the 1990s, as legislative presiding officer, he cut spending from a budget proposed by then-County Executive Thomas Gulotta, a Republican. Later, Blakeman increased taxes in an attempt to stem the flow of red ink. At one point, he called a news conference during which he fed a Gulotta budget through a shredder.

In 1999, Blakeman called legislative hearings on a county contract with private health care provider Benefit Plan Administration. The hearings led to a federal investigation, which ended with one of Gulotta's deputy county executives pleading guilty to taking $150 million in bribes to steer the contract.

More recently, in 2017, Blakeman endorsed a Democrat, Laura Gillen, for Hempstead Town supervisor over Republican Anthony Santino.

"I cannot in good conscience support Tony Santino for supervisor," Blakeman said at the time. "His short tenure as supervisor has brought cronyism and featherbedding to levels that are unprecedented."

That was a jaw-dropping statement from one Nassau Republican about another — during a race in Hempstead, which, for decades, has been the party's home base.

Gillen, in a stunner, won, but was defeated in her quest for a second term by Hempstead Supervisor Donald Clavin.

Since then, has Blakeman made peace with county party leadership?

Blakeman's reply came quick:

"I'm the top of the ticket, aren't I?"

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