Nassau County Republicans have found success in branding themselves as "Tax Revolt" candidates, both on ballot lines and in the party's ubiquitous campaign signs posted each fall.
But the value of the label -- created in 2009 to boost Edward Mangano's unlikely, but ultimately successful, county executive bid -- now faces its first real test. In recent months, Nassau's top elected leaders, including Mangano, Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto and Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, raised property taxes to help plug budget holes.
Veering from the anti-tax platform that contributed to his overwhelming re-election in 2013, Mangano in September proposed a 3.4 percent property tax hike in his 2015 county budget to raise $31 million as an offset to plummeting sales tax revenues. Early this month, Mangano vetoed the county legislature's removal of the increase.
In Hempstead, Murray and the GOP-led town board adopted a budget in October that cuts total spending, but raises town property taxes by 3.3 percent.
And last week, Venditto and his board passed an unannounced 8.8 percent property tax hike -- after adopting an increase of the same amount for 2014. The 2015 town spending plan debated at a previous public hearing had no tax increase.
Political experts say the recent actions of those local GOP standard-bearers could have stripped the "Tax Revolt" tag of some of its authenticity.
"After this, people may recognize that the designation really doesn't mean that much," said Stanley Klein, a political-science professor at LIU Post and a Suffolk GOP committeeman. "It may no longer be as valuable."
But Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello, who often cites the effectiveness of the "Tax Revolt" slogan, said in a statement last week that his town and county candidates -- including those who proposed the 2015 tax hikes -- have a "proven tax-fighting record that has earned them the right to run on the Tax Revolt Party line.
"One vote, to meet the fiscal realities of one budget, does not negate years of sound, conservative fiscal stewardship," he said.
Party line's strong start
The "Tax Revolt" party was founded in 2009, when Mangano, then a Nassau County legislator, was challenging two-term Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who had twice raised property taxes and supported a new home energy tax. Mangano had only the Republican line, while Suozzi had the Democratic, Independence and Working Families party lines.
Another candidate, Steven Hansen, a deputy county attorney under Suozzi, had the Conservative Party endorsement.
Mangano submitted nearly four times the required 1,500 petition signatures to create an independent party line. He ended up with 5,900 votes on the new "Tax Revolt" line as he upset Suozzi by merely 386 votes.
Since then, nearly all Nassau GOP members, including U.S. Congress, State Senate, town supervisor, town board and county legislature candidates, have been "Tax Revolt" designees, either with a dedicated ballot line or with the words under their names on the Republican line.
In 2013, with Mangano running for re-election against Suozzi, Mondello summed up the party's campaign strategy by saying, "It's all about taxes, taxes, taxes. People don't want to pay any more money to government . . . Our party is telling people it's not going to happen."
Holding or flouting the line?
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs accused Republicans of "hypocritical governing," saying the "Tax Revolt" designation represented the "core" of how GOP candidates "convinced people to vote for them, and the people, I imagine, would have to feel hoodwinked."
David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in Manhattan, said such third-party ballot lines are "a way for single-interest groups to indicate what's important to them -- but I'm not sure they're all that meaningful."
Still, Birdsell said a shift on an issue that is so clearly designated under a candidate's name can "make it easy for a primary challenger to hang you out to dry."
Venditto representatives did not respond to requests for comment, but Murray and Mangano aides said voters will recognize their larger accomplishments.
"Her record, overall, has been clearly that of somebody who's fiscally conservative and shows regard for taxpayers," said Murray spokesman Michael Deery, noting that Hempstead cut taxes for three consecutive years before the planned 2015 increase, which was meant to make up for losses in sales and mortgage tax revenue. "I think she obviously would be proud to continue to run on the 'Tax Revolt' line."
Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said all of the county executive's prior budgets held the line on property taxes. Nevin added that homeowners earning less than $500,000 a year would receive a rebate for the amount of the 2015 county property tax increase under a state program.
"County Executive Mangano has led the taxpayer revolt by freezing property taxes for those earning under $500,000 annually for six straight years, while also having eliminated the county energy tax on electricity, natural gas and oil bills," Nevin said.
Mangano isn't up for re-election until 2017, but Murray and Venditto would be on the ballot again next year, along with the GOP town board members who supported their budgets.