Long Island and New York City sit side by side, but the Island’s two county executives and the city’s mayor aren’t close in the least — even though they are all Democrats.
The number of meetings and phone calls between Nassau’s Laura Curran and Mayor Bill de Blasio and between Suffolk’s Steve Bellone and de Blasio can be counted on one hand, according to the executives’ aides, the mayor and a review of his private schedules obtained by Newsday under the state Freedom of Information Law.
De Blasio has never met one on one with either Bellone or Curran, although the mayor and Bellone were among dozens of regional officials at a meeting in New York City Hall’s Blue Room a few years ago. Curran and de Blasio have talked on the phone, the mayor said.
Both Bellone and de Blasio are in their second terms. Curran took office Jan. 1.
“Not much to say,” Curran’s spokesman Mike Martino said in an email when asked about the relationship between the county executive and the mayor. He added: “They ran into each other one time during [Curran’s] campaign and exchanged pleasantries.”
The contact between Bellone and de Blasio is strictly about business, said Jason Elan, Bellone’s spokesman.
“Other than the normal course of government operations,” Elan said, “there is no personal relationship with the mayor.”
For de Blasio, the relationship with both county executives “could be better,” said spokesman Eric Phillips.
“The relationship could be stronger and closer and more comprehensive, and we intend to make it that way,” Phillips said.
When the mayor himself was asked about meeting with his Long Island counterparts, he said: “We’re certainly going to be looking to do that going forward more.” The mayor said he had tried a couple of years ago, without success, to meet with “the different county leaderships to work on some common concerns.”
New York City and the region have many shared interests and goals, de Blasio said. Already, the city and Nassau and Suffolk point to joining forces on several fronts, such as policing and transit.
“I think there is a lot of common ground between the city and the counties around us,” the mayor said. “I think there is a lot we need to do together. I think there’s some important issues to work through too; there are water issues, for example, affecting Queens and Nassau that I would love to find some common ground on.”
Suburban policy expert Lawrence Levy echoed de Blasio’s point about common ground — from roadways to homeland security to hurricane preparedness — but pointed out that the Island and the city are rivals, too. They compete against each other for state and federal dollars in many of the same areas, such as transit and public schools.
Historically, there has been “really no interaction at all, and that’s really too bad, because more and more it’s clear that New York City can’t afford to go it alone, just like Long Island can’t believe that it’s capable of going it alone on dealing with a range of issues that need to be dealt with on a regional scale,” said Levy, who heads Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.
The lack of regular contact between de Blasio, Bellone and Curran mirrors the relationship that the city’s two past mayors and their Island counterparts had, according to private schedules and interviews with former county executives and their aides.
Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) was Nassau County executive from 2002 to 2009. He recalled speaking to Michael Bloomberg a few times during his tenure, but meeting the three-term billionaire mayor one on one only once, and also in a small group when they traveled to Albany together to talk Medicaid with state lawmakers.
That’s more than Steve Levy, who was Suffolk County executive from 2004 to 2011.
“We never had a one-on-one,” said Levy, a Democrat, who today practices law and runs a think tank. “I rarely spoke to Bloomberg. He did call me once to thank me after one of the major storms.”
Levy’s predecessor, Robert Gaffney, a Republican, had a warmer relationship with his counterpart in the city, Rudy Giuliani, he recalled in an interview. Giuliani didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In 1994, when Giuliani took the oath of office for the first time, he became the first Republican to lead the city in more than two decades, and he was looking for GOP staffers he could trust, said Gaffney, who served from 1992 to 2003. Giuliani would go on to be re-elected twice, closing out his time in 2001.
“He came into a long-term, established Democratic city and was concerned about, I think, where he would find people that he could rely upon or whom he could trust to carry out the business of New York City,” Gaffney said. “He came into a city where the entire political infrastructure was Democrats — and perhaps were not on his side necessarily.”
The men grew closer, meeting every month or two, sometimes more, Gaffney said. Giuliani would travel to Suffolk with an eye toward bringing the county’s programs west — from the welfare-to-work initiative to the off-track betting parlor system, which was faltering in the city.
Giuliani sometimes convened the meetings at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Giuliani lived with his then-wife and their children.
The men, sometimes with aides and other officials, walked past a swingset and a Big Wheel toy tricycle, through the living room and into what Gaffney recalled as a dining room to sit around a big table to talk.
“It struck me that we walked into a house that was basically his living quarters,” Gaffney said. “At the time, he was married; he had a son and a daughter and their toys.”
Together, Gaffney said, the men presented a “combined front” on issues of mutual interest.
“It was important, because on any given occasion, there were interests that intersected. The entire downstate region — it doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” he said. “Issues that affect Suffolk County affect Nassau and New York City as well.”