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Why Laura Curran, other Democrats lost in Nassau County

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, lost

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, lost her reelection bid to GOP rival Bruce Blakeman by 2,150 votes. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Around 1 p.m. on Election Day, Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs set up a conference call with county legislators from minority communities that are traditional Democratic strongholds.

Spotting a wave of red in early turnout numbers, Jacobs hoped to spur a 3 p.m. surge of Democratic voters.

The half-hour call, part of an effort to boost the reelection chances of Democratic County Executive Laura Curran, included legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) and Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Lawrence), along with some clergy members.

"We put out a call to everybody, and emails and the rest, just to let them know we need them to spring into action," Jacobs, also the state Democratic chairman, told Newsday.

Jacobs recalled saying on the call: "The numbers are falling short, we need to step it up and do whatever we can to pull the vote."

But a 3 o’clock surge in Democratic turnout never materialized.

By the time polls closed at 9 p.m. on Nov. 2, 20,000 more Republicans than Democrats had turned out in Nassau County.

Last Tuesday, after the county Board of Elections had concluded its count of 22,523 absentee ballots, officials announced the final result:

Republican Bruce Blakeman had upset Curran by 2,150 votes.

After Tuesday’s results, Democrats are blaming each other for losses in marquee county races, including for district attorney, an office Republicans hadn't held since 2005.

Jacobs and some Democratic elected officials cited lethargy among Democrats in all corners of the county as the key reason Curran lost, along with higher-than-expected Republican turnout.

"I’ve spoken to many people throughout my district, some of them honestly didn’t even vote, which is shocking to me," Abrahams told Newsday.

"Some of them didn’t even know there was an election, which is kind of shocking as well," Abrahams said. "I think that lack of knowing there was an election is probably indicative of us not having any energy or juice or excitement in our base. No one felt compelled to come out for this election."

Some Democratic activists said Curran did little to motivate Black and Hispanic voters in the party's base.

The activists noted that Curran’s final police reform plan, submitted April 1 under a state executive order, did not include elements important to minority communities, including a Civilian Complaint Review Board or an independent office to investigate police misconduct.

They also said Curran, in ads and public statements, appeared to tilt toward positions of county police unions.

"When you abandon your base of supporters and pander to the conservatives, your base feels neglected," said Shanequa Levin, co-founder of LI United to Transform Policing & Community Safety. The coalition of community activist groups lobbied for police reforms after George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis last year.

"Her voters were asking for certain things and she and other Democrats decided that they were going to choose to placate conservatives, who with an option for Democrat or Republican are going to vote for Republicans," Levin said of Curran.

Republicans cited what they saw as their successful criticism of Curran's handling of the first countywide property reassessment in a decade.

GOP candidates, particularly those in the district attorney races, also attacked Democrats for passing bail reform laws in Albany that eliminated bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Overall, Democratic turnout in Nassau in 2021 was down significantly from 2017, when Curran first won office.

In 2017, the first year after Republican Donald Trump's election, 122,857 Nassau Democrats cast ballots, representing 32% of the party's 386,781 registered voters.

This year, 106,619 Democrats voted — 27% of party voters — unofficial data provided by Democratic county elections Commissioner James Scheuerman shows.

Republican turnout was up, despite a significant decline in the number of GOP registered voters.

In 2021, 40% of the 297,640 registered Republican voters cast ballots. In 2017, 38% of the 327,761 registered GOP voters cast ballots.

Some traditional Democratic strongholds, including those in minority communities, posted turnout declines this year, election board data shows.

Compared with 2017, fewer Democrats voted in legislative districts encompassing Hempstead Village, New Cassel, Roosevelt and Westbury, according to party and county election officials.

All those areas are in legislative districts represented by Black Nassau County legislators.

  • In the 1st District, encompassing Uniondale, Freeport and Roosevelt and represented by Abrahams, 8,418 registered Democrats voted in 2017, compared with 6,978 in 2021 — a decrease of 17.1%.
  • In the 2nd District, covering Hempstead Village, New Cassel and Westbury, and represented by Democratic Legis. Siela Bynoe, 6,255 Democrats cast ballots in 2017, compared with 5,161 in 2021 — a 17.4% drop.
  • In the 3rd District, covering Elmont and North and South Valley Stream and represented by Solages, 8,528 registered Democrats voted in 2017, compared with 6,648 in 2021. That represented a 22% decline.

Jacobs told Newsday that for Democrats, those districts "generally underperform the full county every single odd year," election.

Overall in Nassau, "Republicans overperformed" in 2021, and Democrats "overperformed in '17," Jacobs said.

In some North Shore legislative districts, Democratic turnout declined this year compared with 2017, while GOP turnout rose, election board records show.

The districts include the 16th, which contains Jericho and Plainview, and the 10th, where the longtime Democratic bastion of Great Neck Village has trended Republican in recent years.

Nassau Republican Chairman Joseph Cairo Jr. noted the growing population of Orthodox Jewish, Iranian American and Asian American voters in some North Shore districts where the GOP has made gains.

Cairo said in negotiations with Democrats over locations of early voting sites, Republicans agreed to drop a proposed site in the Town of Hempstead, in order to add one in Great Neck.

"We felt that based upon what we've seen in the past few years, we saw an enthusiasm up there that we would have a polling site in Great Neck," Cairo told Newsday.

Cairo said the party also worked to win votes in some areas of traditionally Democratic North Hempstead Town, including Searingtown, Albertson and Herricks.

Also, Cairo said, the party looked for Republican votes among the growing Orthodox Jewish population along Hempstead Avenue in West Hempstead.

Countywide, Cairo said, voter concerns about inflation, the global supply chain crisis and infighting among Democrats in Congress contributed to Curran's loss.

But Cairo said, "I think the two issues that really affected her most were taxes, people getting their tax bills in October. I don't think that the average fellow on the street really understands what reassessment is, but they equate it with increased taxes."

Cairo also said Curran was hurt by the bail reform issue.

Democratic and community activists said the lack of what they considered meaningful police reform helped depress turnout in minority communities that traditionally have voted Democratic.

Frederick Brewington, a longtime civil rights attorney who opposed Curran's police reform plan, said Curran ignored the groundswell of activism in the Democratic Party after George Floyd's killing in May 2020.

Afterward, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an order requiring New York municipalities with law enforcement departments to work with local communities to devise plans to eliminate bias in policing in communities of color.

This past March, the GOP-controlled Nassau County Legislature approved Curran's 424-page police reform plan, with the legislature's three Black Democratic members dissenting.

Curran celebrated the plan as "historic," citing inclusion of the county's first bodyworn camera program, racial and ethnic diversification of county police ranks and plans to collect racial and ethnic data from traffic stops.

Activists opposed the reform plan because it had no provision for independent external review of police conduct, such as a civilian-run complaint review board.

About a month before the election, Brewington and NAACP Regional Director Tracey Edwards sought a meeting with Curran to repair relations.

"It was really an attempt to heal," Brewington told Newsday. "We realized that the alternative to Laura Curran was not our preference — we made gestures and overtures to meet."

Curran’s staff responded with an invitation to meet on Nov. 16, two weeks after the election, Brewington said.

Asked about Brewington's and Edwards' request, Curran campaign manager Shelby Wiltz said in a statement: "The County Executive has always prioritized inclusivity, and makes direct investments in — and engages — Nassau's minority communities."

During the county executive campaign, Curran touted endorsements from county law enforcement unions representing superior officers and detectives. Both had received new labor contracts during Curran's administration.

The largest police union, the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association, which has not come to a contract agreement, made no endorsement in the race.

In one of the Curran campaign's television ads, a Glen Cove man places an American flag on his porch and talks about how he usually supports Republican candidates.

"Laura doesn’t play that ‘defund the police’ game, she put more cops on the beat, and made us safer as a result," he says.

Solages downplayed the impact of the police reform debate on Curran's campaign.

"Unfortunately, there is a tendency in the Democratic communities to come out to vote every four years and not every local election," Solages said.

Nonetheless, "my community understood that they could not cut off their nose just to spite their face," said Solages, who opposed Curran's police reform plan.

"Yes, there were concerns about police reforms, but they saw she delivered on the body camera issue," said Solages, referring to Curran's deal to implement the county's first bodycam program to record interactions between police and members of the public.

But Abrahams said Democrats may have failed to shore up their base of voters.

Abrahams pointed to the Nassau district attorney campaign of Republican Anne Donnelly, which sent out mailers criticizing the state bail reform law approved by Democrats in Albany.

Abrahams said his wife, a longtime Democratic voter, received a mailer from the Donnelly campaign close to the election.

For Donnelly, who defeated Democratic state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, to have mailed to, "African American women, which is probably the strongest component of the Democratic Party, I think you can do that when you're comfortable with your base," Abrahams said.

"I’m guessing the county executive was comfortable, or maybe polling told her that she should be comfortable, with the Democratic base," Abrahams said of Curran.

"However, there were tens of thousands of votes that didn’t show up," Abrahams said.

Jacobs, the county Democratic chairman, said Democrats "underperformed across the board … " in Nassau.

"The hand-wringing is in my view, the natural and unfortunate consequence of not winning," Jacobs said.

"There's always that, and some of it's opportunistic," Jacobs said.

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