Republican Bruce Blakeman's last period in elected office, as leader of the newly formed Nassau County Legislature in the late 1990s, came during a tumultuous four-year span marked by ballooning budget deficits and frequent battles with his own party to cut spending.
Now, as Blakeman faces Democrat Kathleen Rice, the Nassau County district attorney, for the 4th Congressional District seat of retiring Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), Republicans and Democrats still have sharp assessments of his record as the first presiding officer.
GOP leaders, while crediting Blakeman's "courage," lament that the tax hikes he shepherded to help balance the budget led to the party abruptly losing its legislative majority in 1999 — when Blakeman also was defeated.
Democrats claim he was too slow to attack the county's massive fiscal problems, proposing the most significant fixes only at the very end of his tenure.
Political experts, meanwhile, say Blakeman's county service, for his use or his opponent's, may be of limited value because of all the time that has passed. Blakeman himself has spent more time on the campaign trail discussing national issues and tying Rice, the Nassau district attorney, to Democratic President Barack Obama, who polls show is unpopular in the district.
A Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll published yesterday showed that Rice led Blakeman 52 percent to 42 percent, with 6 percent undecided or saying they had no opinion. The survey of 628 likely voters was conducted Oct. 16-20, with a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.
The poll also showed that nearly half of the respondents still didn't know or had no opinion of Blakeman, compared with 13 percent who said that about Rice.
"It's good for his resume to say he was presiding officer, but you really have to reintroduce yourself," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works primarily with Republicans. "People may recall your name — but they're not going to recall anything particular about your tenure."
Blakeman, 59, who in succeeding years has been a lawyer and consultant, and served on the Port Authority board, said his two terms as presiding officer, from 1996 to 1999, "is relevant to the extent that it shows I have legislative experience and that I can work with Republicans and Democrats to get things done."
He cited bipartisan efforts to fund downtown business district improvements and to establish a breast cancer resource center.
"We were a new government. We met all of the tests," said Blakeman, who also has the Conservative, Independence and Tax Revolt ballot lines this fall.
$300M deficit when he left
Still, chronic imbalances in Nassau's budget created a $300 million shortfall by the end of Blakeman's time in office. He says that he and the GOP majority cut more than $100 million from Republican County Executive Thomas Gulotta's annual spending plans over four years — but it still had limited effect.
"Unfortunately, in those days, there weren't the controls in place now, and the county executive could spend with impunity," Blakeman said. "The county wouldn't be in the situation it's been in for 15 years if the budgets we passed were followed."
Rice's campaign has often criticized Blakeman for proposing two tax hikes — while now calling himself an anti-tax candidate. They say his unsuccessful runs for other offices — state comptroller in 1998, New York City mayor in 2009 and U.S. Senate in 2010 — show he's a political opportunist.
"Blakeman was a tax-raiser who's run for a million offices in New York City and beyond, and now expects us to believe he will protect our pocketbooks and that he's committed to our district," said Rice spokesman Eric Phillips.
Blakeman responded that Rice "has no record of achievement when it comes to anything of a legislative nature. She's a career prosecutor."
In 1996, Blakeman became the first presiding officer of the legislature, which voters had created to replace the board of supervisors after a court order that said the board violated the principle of one-person, one-vote. He had served for three years on Hempstead's Town Board and was close to Republican U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato.
"He came in at a really tough time," said longtime Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello. "The board of supervisors had some clout in terms of dealing with the county executive, and then we move to a legislature with a bunch of new people coming in without the kind of backing the supervisors had."
The GOP majority under Blakeman challenged Gulotta's spending from the start, cutting $5 million of the $20 million in the 1997 budget for "personal service" contracts that the county executive could award at his discretion.
Gulotta's tax cuts OKd
The legislature nonetheless approved Gulotta's tax cuts for 1997 and 1998, reducing them slightly but still widening the deficit. Lawmakers also largely accepted Gulotta's uncertain revenue projections, mostly from land sales that didn't materialize.
By then, the county budget shortfall had risen to the record $300 million, and Nassau's credit rating was at a step above junk status for the first time since 1992.
Blakeman and his majority were more aggressive with Gulotta's 1999 budget. They eliminated a property tax freeze for 1999, instead passing a 3.6 percent hike. They also trimmed $51 million for employee hiring and equipment purchases.
At the time, Blakeman was running for state comptroller, and some GOP officials said the tax increase might have been larger had the party not had to worry about his campaign. Blakeman lost to Democrat H. Carl McCall by more than 30 percentage points.
Revisions to Gulotta's 2000 budget were more severe. Lawmakers cut $58 million in spending, and increased property taxes by 9.4 percent, part of a plan to raise $47.5 million.
That action, taken days before the 1999 election, sparked an uproar among residents. They voted out Blakeman and four other Republicans, giving Democrats control of Nassau's legislative body for the first time since 1917.
Mondello said then that voters had not bought into lawmakers' argument, which he backed, that the tax hike was responsible governing.
"The people came out and they spoke. And they said, 'Don't fool with our wallets,' " Mondello said after the loss.
In the recent interview, Mondello said: "It might not have been the political thing to do, but Bruce made the right decision for the people."
Blakeman insisted then he "wouldn't do anything different," and says the same today.
He noted that the administration's spending — despite legislative cuts — had damaged county finances to the point where one of the few alternatives to a tax hike was reducing county police patrols.
"I believe that taxes should never be raised, unless in extreme situations, and unfortunately, we found ourselves in an extreme situation," Blakeman said. "What we need in Washington is elected officials who have the courage to make tough decisions."
Another decision Blakeman made before leaving office had significant repercussions.
In 1999, he called legislative hearings to review the quickly rising costs of a contract with private health care provider Benefit Plan Administrators. County lawmakers were concerned that BPA, which had replaced Nassau's state-run Empire Plan in 1997, wasn't producing savings as promised.
$70M loss on contract
Testimony caught the attention of federal prosecutors, leading to the conviction of Robert McDonald, a top Gulotta aide who took $150,000 in bribes to steer the contract to BPA. McDonald pleaded guilty in 2002 to receipt of bribes, money laundering and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to a year in prison.
All told, Nassau lost $70 million on the BPA contract.
While the BPA hearings and Blakeman's battles over the budget attracted significant attention at the time, political experts say the fact that his record in office ended in the 1990s lessens its impact.
"If he had been in office in 2001 or '03 or '05, at least it's in this century, but this is the last century," said Stanley Klein, a political-science professor at LIU Post and a Suffolk GOP committeeman. "It makes it much less relevant."
Mondello acknowledged, "the fact he's been out of the public eye for as much time as he was takes its toll."
But James Campbell, a political-science professor at the University at Buffalo, said a record at least 15 years old "can be played either way."
Campbell said if he were advising such a candidate, "I'd say you were 'bringing the best of both worlds to the table: You've had the perspective of being an insider and an outsider.' If I were advising the opposition, I would say, 'This person is now out of touch and the experience is old and not applicable.' "
A candidate's past public record can be relevant, Campbell added, "depending on what the candidate had been doing in the interim."
After losing his legislative seat to Oceanside Democrat Jeff Toback, Blakeman founded Madison Strategies, a Valley Stream consulting firm.
In 2001, Gov. George Pataki nominated Blakeman to the board of the Port Authority, where he served until 2009. Blakeman also worked as a partner in his family's law firm, Robert M. Blakeman & Associates, and the Lake Success law practice of Howard Fensterman, a Democrat who crossed party lines to support Blakeman's 2010 Senate run.
Blakeman finished third in the Republican primary behind winner Joseph J. DioGuardi and David R. Malpass.
As an attorney, Blakeman in 2006 brokered the deal to keep Canon's North and South America headquarters, and the nearly 2,000 workers there, on Long Island in a new facility in Melville.
"It was an accomplishment," Blakeman said. "But I think my service on the Port Authority was much more important because I was dealing with regional and national issues that had a material effect on people of the 4th Congressional District."
Blakeman served on the Port Authority's finance, audit and World Trade Center committees. He said it helped him gain national security experience.
Short run for NYC mayor
Now of Long Beach, Blakeman lived in Manhattan after leaving office in Nassau. In late 2008, he announced a run for New York City mayor, but bowed out quickly after city term limits were extended to allow Michael Bloomberg to seek a third term.
But he kept a hand in Nassau issues, serving in 2007 on a bipartisan commission to study raises for the part-time county legislators. The panel backed an increase in lawmakers’ salaries from $39,500 a year, the level set in 1996, to more than $70,000, bringing pay more into line with Suffolk. Nassau lawmakers balked at voting raises for themselves, and the increases were never approved.
Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), who in 2000 succeeded Blakeman as presiding officer, appointed him to the panel.
Jacobs recalled that Blakeman worked well with commission Democrats. But she disagreed with Blakeman’s assessment that he had fostered a bipartisan atmosphere as legislative presiding officer. Jacobs noted that GOP staffers often told her they weren’t allowed to communicate with Democratic aides and lawmakers.
“Maybe he’s matured, and it’s been a lot of years, but I hope he realizes you can’t get anything done without working together,” Jacobs said.
She acknowledged that Blakeman opposed some Gulotta spending, but said he “did not do enough” to curb county borrowing. Nassau’s total outstanding debt increased from $3.4 billion to $4.4 billion between 1995 and 2000, according to a 2007 state comptroller’s report.
Legis. Francis Becker (R-Lynbrook), who served with Blakeman, argued Blakeman had to build a branch of government from scratch while still doing the necessary work of putting together annual budgets.
“He had a lot on his plate,” said Becker, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against McCarthy in 2010 and 2012.
“We banged heads with the county executive in establishing our own separate body, and you had to deal with the unions and each individual legislator,” Becker recalled. “You had a lot of people coming at you, but he brought it all together and it was a terrific achievement.”
Blakeman said he believes the legislature’s efforts to cut spending from the county executive’s annual budgets look better in light of the problems Nassau continued to have after he left office. Subsequent spending increases and revenue decreases over several administrations led to the return of a state fiscal control board in 2011.
“I think history has vindicated us,” Blakeman said.