Speaking to a group of campaign supporters at Eisenhower Park recently, Adam Haber, a Democrat running for Nassau County executive, made a pledge that prompted several in the crowd of about 40 people to nod in support.
"Everybody in my administration will represent everyone who is here -- from different parts of the county, from different backgrounds, male [and] female," Haber said. "I will not hire 6-foot-2 balding men who look exactly like me. That's exactly how administrations have done it in the past. I want my administration to represent the people."
Haber, 48, an East Hills businessman and Roslyn School Board member, is casting himself as a political outsider who will use his business management skills to tackle issues from growing debt to public safety.
He argues that his challenger in the Sept. 10 primary, former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, and current Republican County Executive Edward Mangano are too beholden to political party leaders and big political donors to attract new businesses and big projects to the county.
Haber, who is running without the backing of the Nassau Democratic Party, which has thrown its weight behind Suozzi, has loaned his campaign close to $3 million since December. Suozzi has amassed $1.64 million since January, and had $1.5 million on hand from prior campaigns.
In the weeks leading up to the primary, Haber has been pounding the message of a "fresh start" at train stations, civic association meetings and knocking nightly on the doors of at least 40 prospective voters.
"I'm here, I'm at your door, this is how it's done," Haber told Woodmere resident Alfredo Santos one recent night after showing up at his doorstep. "I'm a businessman. I'm involved with the school districts. I love my county and I just want to help."
Later, in an interview with a Newsday reporter, Santos, 63, said he planned to vote for Haber because he had received several of his campaign fliers, and meeting the candidate in person "shows he's dedicated."
Haber said he believes it's the one-on-one contact with voters that will give him an advantage over Suozzi's name recognition and heavyweight political endorsements.
He wastes no opportunity to create personal connections with voters. When no one answers a door, he leaves behind a personalized note scribbled on his campaign flyer such as one he recently left at a Woodmere home: "Sorry to miss you. Beautiful Flowers. Adam."
Haber began to consider the county executive race after he started attending county legislature meetings in 2011. He said he grew frustrated by the legislature's partisan gridlock, delays he encountered in obtaining public records and the increasing county debt.
He said he reviewed county budget documents and saw areas where savings could be found -- including printing costs for election materials and utility costs.
Haber said Nassau Democratic Party leaders have pressured him to drop out of the race, but on the campaign trail he repeatedly reminds voters "I'm all in."
Haber, who owns two restaurants and invests in several technology firms, described the loans to his campaign as "an investment in my community," at a recent speech before the Nostrand Gardens Civic Association in Uniondale.
"How great would it be when I'm lying on my death bed and I reflect back, and I was able to add value to everyone's life in this room, because that's the meaning of life," Haber said. "I don't need this job, I want this job."
Last year, before announcing his candidacy in February, Haber launched Nassausuggestionbox.com, a website to engage residents on county issues. They can submit ideas to improve county government, and give their input on questions about the county's finances and proposals before the legislature.
"We are busted, broke, dead broke, make no mistake about it broke -- I'm telling you, we need a vision," Haber told the Nostrand Gardens Civic Association.
He urged those in attendance to "close your eyes, dream big" before outlining his platform: hosting a 10-day summer sports festival to draw tourism to Long Island, creating a database of blighted properties for developers to review, and renting roof spaces of county buildings to solar power utility companies.
Haber said that if elected, he would give a third of his $174,000 county executive salary to youth and senior social service programs. He also plans to place county contracts online to increase transparency.
One of Haber's top priorities would be reforming the county's tax assessment system. Nassau owes some $300 million in court-ordered tax reimbursements to property owners.
He proposes reassessing residential property every three years, instead of annually as previously done by the county. The county has since adopted a four-year cycle, which has been put on hold due to superstorm Sandy damage.
Haber also said he wants to restore some 60 jobs at the Nassau County tax assessor's office cut by Mangano since 2010. Haber says that bolstering staffing levels would help the department keep pace with assessments of Nassau's 423,000 properties.
Genevieve Stennett, 80, of Roosevelt, stood by Haber's side as he delivered his assessment proposal at a Mineola news conference in July. She said she decided to volunteer for his campaign because his campaign workers had canvassed her neighborhood twice and she was "tired of politics as usual."
Stennett, a widow, said she was in the process of selling her house because she could no longer afford living on her own. She said she was considering moving to North Carolina with other relatives because the cost of living in Nassau was too high. "It seems like no one cares about the little guy," she said. "I like that he's [Haber] made the effort to be out in our community."
His path to public service
Haber, the son of a businessman and a public school teacher, grew up in Spring Valley in Rockland County, and graduated with honors from State University of New York at Albany. In 2012, he earned his master's in political science and government from Long Island University's C.W. Post Campus.
For more than 20 years, Haber traded commodities like oil, sugar, coffee and cocoa on Wall Street. He then went into commercial real estate and now owns Lula Trattoria in Mineola and Aldea, a Portuguese restaurant in Manhattan. He also invests in technology start-ups through Hicksville-based Canrock Ventures.
In 2009, encouraged by his wife, Renee, and his teenage son and daughter, Haber ran successfully for the Roslyn School Board, as the district recovered from an $11 million embezzlement scheme that had landed six officials in prison.
Haber said he encouraged the district to refinance its debt for an annual $240,000 cost savings, and worked with neighboring school districts to consolidate bus routes for students being transported outside of their respective districts to attend private or special needs schools.
Haber said he would apply some of those ideas he helped institute in Roslyn on a county level."There is money in the couch cushions we are not looking for," Haber said.
Haber said the handful of endorsements he has received from smaller civic groups come out of two years of pitching his message of running a more efficient and inclusive government.
"For 22 years I was a pit trader and all my contracts were verbal, so if you lied once nobody did business with you," Haber said. "I know you've heard these promises over and over, I can only say you're going to have to take a leap of faith and I will hopefully be different."
With Robert Brodsky
Haber's campaign proposals
Reform the county's property tax assessment system by assessing residential property every three years to account for market changes, and lobbying for a change to state law allowing for a moratorium on tax refund challenges during the second year of the cycle. Haber said he would also restore 60 employees to the county tax assessor's office that had been cut since 2009.
Restore the county's Red Light Camera Fund as a dedicated funding source for youth social service programs. Haber also said he will donate one-third of his $174,000 county executive's salary and redirect the rest to senior centers and youth programs.
Appoint a "disaster czar" who would be in charge of coordinating relief efforts in advance of major natural disasters. Contractors for disaster response would be prescreened and selected competitively.
Require merit-based hiring, prohibit campaign contributions from political appointees and limit elected workers to two official mailings per year. He would also push to place county contracts online to encourage transparency.
Create a county database of blighted areas in need of redevelopment and challenge developers to come up with a plan for those spaces.
Look at the possibility of leasing county building roof space for utility companies to install solar energy panels.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the annual cost savings for the Roslyn School District refinancing its debt. The amount is $240,000.