Thomas Gulotta, whose personal touch with voters kept him as Nassau’s county executive for 14 years before criticism over his handling of a fiscal crisis drove him from office in 2001, died Sunday. He was 75.
Word of Gulotta’s death surfaced early Monday in a statement from Nassau’s Democratic County Executive Laura Curran. “Former County Executive Tom Gulotta has passed away,” she said in a statement. “He became a good personal friend of mine and we spoke often,” she said, paying tribute to him and thanking his family for his service to the county.
“Our hearts are broken,” said Joseph Cairo, Nassau GOP chairman, who ordered party flags to fly at half-staff. Cairo, who lunched with Gulotta last week, said he had “a kind heart, a commitment to the well-being of the public and a winning smile” throughout his career.
“He left an indelible and positive imprint on the suburban experience. . . . His passing will leave a void in the lives of all who knew him,” said Cairo, who once served with Gulotta on the Hempstead Town board.
Later Monday, Nassau Legislative leaders in both parties also recognized his passing. Laura Gillen, Hempstead’s Democratic supervisor, said, “As a lifelong resident of North Merrick, Tom advocated fiercely for our communities and dedicated his life to public service. Having served his constituents on the local and state level, Tom’s experience and tenacity proved vital as he led this County for over a decade.”
Former GOP Chairman Joseph Mondello, reached in Trinidad and Tobago, where he is now ambassador, said: “I’m a little bit shocked and hurting a little bit.” While the men often clashed while both were in power, Mondello said, “We got along much better when the politics was over. . . . He was a decent soul, taken too soon.”
Gulotta rose to county executive at age 43. In early years, he had a public approval rating in polls as high as 71 percent, driven by his common touch that resonated with voters. Backers noted that Gulotta was responsible for building an aquatic center at Eisenhower Park and establishing the Cradle of Aviation Museum, the cornerstone of Nassau’s museum row at Mitchel Field. He also worked to revive Nassau downtowns.
But Gulotta in the fiscal crisis of the 1990s, saw county deficits balloon to $300 million while Nassau’s bond rating sank to the edge of junk bond status. In the end, Gulotta was pilloried by both Republicans and Democrats for fiscal mismanagement. When he left office, his approval rating was 15 percent.
It was a difficult ending for a political career so promising. Gulotta had a first-class political pedigree, the son of Frank A. Gulotta Sr., prosecutor and state Supreme Court justice. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and earned a law degree from Columbia University.
He was well-spoken, wore crisply pressed suits and shirts with French cuffs, and he had an unquenched appetite to shake hands and pose for pictures with voters, handing out an endless trail of proclamations to anyone in the county who merited any kind of recognition.
Gary Hudes, a Bellmore businessman, and former GOP Hempstead councilman, said he first met Gulotta as a Chamber of Commerce official and learned a lot from him about how to deal with the public. “When people came up to him with a problem, he would take a piece of paper out of his pocket and write down details. He never pushed them off,” said Hudes. “He showed me how public servants are supposed to deal with people they represent.”
A protégé of late Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Margiotta, who was an admirer of Gulotta’s father, Gulotta first won election in 1976 to the state Assembly.
Margiotta jumped Gulotta over other GOP contenders by appointing him to complete Alfonse D’Amato’s term as Hempstead presiding supervisor when D’Amato won a U.S. Senate seat after defeating liberal GOP Sen. Jacob Javits in a Republican primary. The party then selected Gulotta in 1987 to fill the remaining two years on the term of GOP County Executive Francis Purcell when he retired.
Critics say that many of Gulotta’s problems were caused by his refusal to raise taxes for seven years after he made an unsuccessful bid to raise property taxes 25 percent and narrowly won reelection over then-North Hempstead Supervisor Ben Zwirn.
That refusal led to increased borrowing, the use of one-shot revenues and the loss of the GOP control of the county legislature. His problems worsened when he used an outside firm, Benefit Plan Administrators, which promised to save $1 million a month in health insurance savings and ended up costing Nassau $64 million in huge cost overruns.
In a self-assessment at the twilight of his term, Gulotta said he accepted “my share of responsibility for the fiscal situation Nassau is experiencing.” But he hoped to be remembered “as a caring, sincere public official who came into office when there was lot of cynicism and mistrust,” and he added, “I bridged the gap.” In recent years, he worked at law firm Albanese & Albanese.
Nassau PBA president James McDermott praised Gulotta, saying he “will forever be remembered as a leader who helped the county become one of the safest areas to live in the nation.”
Nassau CSEA president Jerry Laricchiuta said, “Gulotta was in a class by himself. . . . His word was his bond. He respected good work and was able to give credit where credit was due.”
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who succeeded Gulotta as county executive, also had kind words for him.
Gulotta’s “death signals the official end of an era. He was a true gentleman . . . who came up in Nassau . . . during a time of growth and prosperity when politics was civil and cordial,” Suozzi said.
Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth; his brother, Frank A. Gulotta, a former State Supreme Court justice; his sister, Franca Rizzo; a son, Christopher A. Gulotta; a daughter, Elizabeth M. Amenbolare; and three grandchildren.
According to the Nassau Republican Committee, there will be a wake Wednesday and Thursday 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at the Walker Funeral Home in Merrick. The funeral will be Friday at 10 a.m. at the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in North Merrick. Burial will be at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.