A highly competitive State Senate race between two Nassau County legislators provided an unseen backdrop to last week's debate over a series of controversial county fee hikes.
Legis. Michael Venditto (R-Massapequa), who is seeking the South Shore seat vacated last year by Sen. Charles Fuschillo, was the only Republican to oppose GOP County Executive Edward Mangano's plan to raise $15 million through new fees and increases on services including golf passes and home repair permits.
Venditto's opponent this fall, Legis. Dave Denenberg (D-Merrick), was the most vocal critic of the fee bills, most of which passed the GOP-led legislature by 10-9 votes -- with Venditto and all Democrats dissenting.
The candidates' opposition came though both of them previously supported similar Nassau fee increases.
Neither Venditto nor Denenberg would acknowledge that the contested 8th District race -- which could help decide control of the State Senate -- was a factor in their votes. But leaders in both parties said it appeared to be the case, especially because Republicans only needed 10 of their 11 caucus members to vote "yes" to pass the fee hikes.
"Anybody would be naive if they didn't believe he was thinking about his run," Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said of Venditto. "Why give Dave political ammunition if you don't have to?"
Deputy Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) noted that Denenberg repeatedly labeled the fees "backdoor tax increases" despite having supported such hikes when Democrats were in power.
"We understand you don't have to vote for the increases when you're in the minority," Nicolello said. "But he was really going out of his way to hammer home the point that he considered them 'backdoor taxes,' which was really inconsistent with his prior record."
Poised to attack?
Denenberg was likely to attack Venditto for supporting the fees, had he voted for them as initially expected. The legislature's Republican majority almost always votes together -- more so than either political party in the Suffolk County Legislature -- and almost always supports Mangano initiatives.
The first hint that Venditto would distance himself from the GOP stance came June 2, when he missed the Finance Committee vote that approved many of the fee increases.
Last Monday, Venditto cast his "no" vote at the full legislative session without comment, even after a Democratic activist challenged him to explain his committee absence. Later last week, a spokesman for legislative Republicans said Venditto, son of Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, was not available for comment.
In November 2012, at his first meeting after winning a special election, Venditto supported many new small-business license fees meant to raise $1.6 million for the county over two years. He didn't publicly explain his vote.
Of Venditto's recent vote, Nassau Republican Committee spokesman Tony Santino would only say, "It was purely a governmental decision."
At the legislative meeting last week, Denenberg declared to GOP lawmakers who supported the fee increases: "What you're doing today is a backdoor tax increase and it's on our veterans, on our seniors and it's on our volunteers."
Nicolello responded by reading a list of fee hikes proposed by then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, and approved by Democratic lawmakers from 2002-2009. "Legislator Denenberg: Can we quote you that every one of those was a 'backdoor tax increase?' "
'The here and now'
"Let's talk about the here and now," said Denenberg, who later noted that those increases were needed to rescue Nassau from a fiscal crisis caused by a previous GOP administration.
Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works primarily for Republicans, said residents shouldn't be surprised when political ambition affects officials' work.
"They'll both say politics has nothing to do with their government decisions, but, of course, it's impossible for politics not to infiltrate the halls of government," Dawidziak said.