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In third term, Bellone to act on voters' mandate, forcefully implement agenda

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone spoke to Newsday on Wednesday about his reelection and discussed the plans for his new term.   (Credit: Barry Sloan)

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who secured a third term Tuesday by defeating GOP County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., said voters gave him a "mandate" to forcefully implement his agenda, from economic development to water quality and government reform.

Bellone, 50, fresh off his election night victory, was back in his Hauppauge office at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, anxious to move past the contentious election and look ahead to the next four years — his final in office because of term limits.

The West Baylon Democrat plans to continue a path he charted in 2011, he said, focusing on development projects to keep millennials in Suffolk, while continuing to battle the scourge of opioids and MS-13 gangs.

"To me, this was a clear mandate from the public," Bellone said in an interview. "The public is very smart. And they deliver messages in different ways. But I think last night's decisive win was a clear message that the work we've been engaged in — they want to see that continue."

Suffolk GOP Chairman Jesse Garcia said Bellone's victory was less impressive than it appeared. Kennedy, he said, entered the race late, was outspent more than 4 to 1 and ran competitively amid a blitz of negative Bellone advertisements.

And he pointed to other GOP victories across the county, from a potential GOP pickup on the Democrat-controlled County Legislature to wins in the towns of Brookhaven, Islip and Riverhead.

"The county executive and his road show may have hoodwinked voters," Garcia said. "But I don't think it's a mandate by any means." 

Kennedy, who did not respond to requests for an interview Wednesday, has blamed his 12-point defeat on Bellone's "vile" campaign ads, including one he said that depicted him and his family as pigs at the trough.

He told supporters in Patchogue on Tuesday night that he would continue to serve as a vigorous watchdog of the county's finances and that "Bellone better keep looking over his shoulder." 

Bellone said he had yet to speak with Kennedy but was anxious to turn the page on the campaign. He hopes to sit down with his GOP rival in the coming days and talk through lingering issues. 

"My message is: The campaign's over," Bellone said. "Let's put the politics aside and let's work together."  

Among the top issues, Bellone said, is expanding development at the Ronkonkoma Hub, including a convention center and sports arena, and spending nearly $400 million in state and federal money for sewers and state grants for nitrogen-reducing septic systems.

The county, however, will face fiscal restraints. A state comptroller's report recently found Suffolk had the highest level of fiscal stress of any county in the state in 2018. Bellone said the county's finances were stabilizing and would improve further in 2020.

But he acknowledged Suffolk could be on the hook for millions in a lawsuit for the wrongful conviction of Keith Bush, who served 33 years in prison for the sex-related killing of a Bellport High School teenager following a neighborhood party in January 1975. 

The civil liability suit, Bellone said, may be the price Suffolk has to pay for a "culture of corruption" in the district attorney's office that dates back decades.

In 2017 former District Attorney Thomas Spota and chief aide Christopher McPartland were charged with helping to cover up the beating of a suspect by then-Police Chief James Burke, a Spota protégé. Spota and McPartland are scheduled to go on trial next week on federal corruption charges.

"There is a corruption tax that is associated with this kind of conduct," Bellone said. "It's unfortunate. It's terrible. And if you want to prevent it in the future it's important that the truth come out."

The term-limited Bellone did not shut the door on a run for higher office.

"Certainly if an opportunity presents itself I would look at that," Bellone said. "And if it's something that I could contribute, and really serve and make a difference, I would absolutely look at that."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has indicated he will run for a fourth term but political experts speculate that he could be line for a Cabinet position if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020.

Nonetheless, Suffolk Democratic Party Chairman Richard Schaffer doubts Bellone would be next in line for the governor's mansion.

"There are a number of people ahead of Steve," said Shaffer, pointing to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and State Attorney General Letitia James.

If his political career ends in four years, Bellone said he had no regrets.  

"If this is my last campaign I am very comfortable that we've always tried to do the right thing here and really led the county through some difficult times," he said. "And over the next four years we are going to continue that progress."

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