Scrapping for every vote as elections officials continue counting absentee ballots in the Nassau County executive's race this week, Tom Suozzi and Edward Mangano are seeking a post with wide, but little-understood authority.
Even Suozzi, who has held the post for eight years, said running for the office didn't occur to him until after he began his political life.
"I don't think anyone grows up and says, 'When I grow up, I want to be the county executive,' " Suozzi said. "I don't think that many people really know what a county executive does. It was easier for people to know what I did when I was mayor of Glen Cove."
In fact, the county executive posts in Nassau and Suffolk carry major responsibilities. Whoever holds the office is not only the chief executive of the county, but also the chief budget officer, the person who appoints department heads and scores of lesser officials and someone with authority to award millions of dollars in contracts.
Following is a primer on the job:
The primary job of a county executive is to propose the county's annual budget, and execute it once the County Legislature approves it. The budgets in Nassau and Suffolk, at some $2.6 billion each, are larger than those in 11 states, according to Suozzi.
"The most important thing a county executive does is prepare a budget that shapes the big priorities and ride herd over the bureaucracy," said Lawrence Levy, executive director of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies.
Budget issues are not always within the executive's control. Patrick Halpin, a Democrat who served as Suffolk County executive from 1988-91, said he typically convened twice-weekly budget meetings.
But if "the state is tight on money, they don't pay their state aid on time," Halpin said. "I'd literally be involved on what positions get filled and which ones do we hold off on."
While they don't vote on the budget or other legislation - that's the county legislature's job - executives often influence lawmakers' votes. Steve Levy regularly listens to Suffolk legislative meetings in Hauppauge from his office across the street, and is known to call lawmakers during meetings to let them know his feelings.
The county executive also wields the veto, a tactic Levy has used more often than Suozzi. Earlier this month during budget negotiations, Levy vetoed the Legislature's budget amendments that raised property taxes to fund a 200-member police class. Lawmakers overrode Levy's veto the next day. It takes the votes of 12 of 18 lawmakers to override a veto in Suffolk, and 13 of 19 in Nassau.
Francis Purcell, Nassau County executive from 1978-1987, said the rough economy has made the executive's job far more difficult than it was when he was in office.
"The economy puts people in a bad mood," said Purcell, 91, who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla. "The whole atmosphere today, nationwide, people are unhappy with government and it's not the complete fault of those who are in it."
While the recount winner in Nassau will have charge of all 8,500 county employees, his most important hires will be the police commissioner and the five deputy county executives, who serve as the county executive's top aides and oversee the county's operations.
The highest-profile appointment is the police commissioner.
Levy's top cop, Richard Dormer, has been a lightning rod for criticism from legislators and the police union for his unending defense of Levy's efforts to cut police costs. Suozzi's police commissioner, Lawrence Mulvey, has focused on removing illegal guns from the county. The Nassau County executive also appoints the county sheriff, while in Suffolk the sheriff is elected.
In addition, the county executive appoints the heads of all major county agencies: social services, which in 2009 constituted around one-fifth of each county's budget; the county attorney, who handles the county's legal affairs; and economic development, the department that seeks to bring new businesses to the county, to name three of the more important ones.
County executives have broad authority in these appointments - Suozzi even named Nassau Conservative Party chairman Roger Bogsted as his consumer affairs commissioner. For this year's election, Bogsted named Steven Hansen to run against Suozzi on the Conservative line, rather than endorsing Mangano. Hansen got more than 9,000 votes - more than enough to spark the current recount.
State law dictates that any material purchase or construction project of more than $20,000 requires a competitive bidding process, with the county obligated to award the contract to the "lowest responsible bidder," said Paul Sabatino, who worked as an aide to Levy and was a longtime counsel to the Suffolk Legislature.
County executives have more sway with contracts for consulting, legal or other professional services. The county is required to adhere to a formal procedure of its choosing - such as issuing requests for proposals - but is not obligated to award the contract to the lowest bidder. "That's where they have the widest latitude and discretion," Sabatino said.
Earlier this year, Suffolk enacted legislation overhauling the county's process for allotting $51 million in annual consulting contracts. The county now requires Levy to give lawmakers input on contracts for more than $25,000, even though the final decision still rests with the executive.