Experts say that Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman has been using his office to bolster the Republican Party ahead of upcoming elections. NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland and Candice Ferrette report. Credit: Newsday/Drew Singh; File Footage; Photo Credit: AP/Jeenah Moon

In May, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman went to Manhattan, stood behind a podium featuring the county seal and led a rally to support Daniel Penny, a former U.S. Marine facing manslaughter charges for fatally choking Jordan Neely, a mentally ill homeless man, on the subway. 

Eight days later, Blakeman's administration went to court to try to stop an outdoor concert associated with Hot 97's Summer Jam hip-hop festival at UBS Arena in Elmont. The court filing cited "riot-like behavior and criminal violations that plagued previous Summer Jams," dozens of arrests at some of those events and a performer who "incited the crowd" with incendiary remarks against police.

Political analysts say Blakeman, a Republican from Atlantic Beach, is playing to his party's conservative base as it tries to build on wins in 2021, when the Nassau GOP flipped top countywide offices, and in 2022 when it took two congressional seats historically held by Democrats. 

Some Black leaders and Democrats also expressed concern that Blakeman may be trying to follow a political playbook that attempts to stoke fears of crime by using language that feeds on racial stereotypes.

Arthur Mackey, senior pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church Cathedral in Roosevelt, said Blakeman's statements about the Penny case, and the language in the Summer Jam court filing, "are extremely disturbing." The controversy in the Penny case: The defendant is white and the deceased is Black.

Mackey, who emphasized he has known Blakeman for more than 20 years, said: "I have a lot of respect for Bruce Blakeman. I don’t disrespect him, but I disagree with him on these topics. I think he’s falling into the trap of racism, sexism and classism and kind of following in the steps of the governor of Florida, and that’s not the direction we want to go in here in Nassau."

Blakeman denies race is a factor in his support of Penny or the Summer Jam lawsuit. In both instances, he said his views stem from a concern for the safety of residents. 

"My job is to protect the people of Nassau County," he said in an interview. "I represent a county that is larger than 10 states, and I think I reflect the values of the residents. I think people appreciate my candor and I have heard from Democrats in Nassau who believe their party has gone too far."

Experts say Blakeman's rhetoric may offer a preview of how Republicans will campaign in elections for Nassau County Legislature and other local offices this fall, and in 2024 and 2026, as they try to build on their victories in countywide and House races since 2021.

Republicans say they are hoping to pick up another seat on the Nassau County Legislature in November for a supermajority, which would allow them to approve certain borrowing, the appointment of the county's inspector general and last-minute legislation without Democratic votes. 

Republicans statewide are eyeing the 2026 race for governor after former Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, of Shirley, made a strong showing against Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2022.

National Democrats already have launched a campaign to take back two Nassau House seats Republicans captured in 2022, and two others in New York State the GOP picked up as they won control of the House last year.

“There is a very clear effort to have Republican-elected officials at the state and local level become aggressively 'anti-woke,'” said Mitch Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. The term has been used by conservatives to spotlight what they see as overreactions to racial and social justice issues.

"I'm certainly anti-woke," Blakeman said. "I think the vast majority of Nassau County is anti-woke, too."

Blakeman, 67, is a former attorney, business consultant and Port Authority commissioner. A former presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, he has run unsuccessfully for New York State comptroller, New York City mayor, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. He was a Town of Hempstead councilman when he used a tough-on-crime approach to narrowly defeat Democratic County Executive Laura Curran in 2021.

The Nassau GOP in 2021 also picked up from Democrats the offices of county district attorney and comptroller, one county legislative seat and the North Hempstead Town supervisor's post.

In all their campaigns, Republicans criticized Democrat-backed state criminal justice reforms, such as a new law that reduced the number of crimes for which a judge could set bail for defendants.

Blakeman railed against pandemic mask and vaccine mandates in his first year in office and has continued supporting issues popular with the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.

On June 15, he appeared on "Fox and Friends" for a second time to defend Penny. A Manhattan jury had indicted the West Islip native a day before in the chokehold death of Neely, who witnesses say had been acting aggressively on the subway. A Blakeman spokesman said he did not know Penny or his family beforehand.

"There's something rotten about this prosecution ... Daniel Penny is a good Samaritan," Blakeman said on the television show. "It defies logic that he's being prosecuted."

Blakeman continued: "People that have criticized me about speaking out about Daniel Penny, I look them in the eye and say, 'Let me ask you a question: Would you want Daniel Penny on a subway with your daughter, or would you want Jordan Neely?' And that shuts them up right away."

Fred Brewington, a Hempstead-based civil rights attorney, said: “I think that either Mr. Blakeman is deeply confused or intentionally disregarding the fact that this man is accused of killing a mentally ill African American man and turning him into a hero. Last I understood, vigilantism is not allowed."

Blakeman's administration backed off its Summer Jam court petition in a last-minute deal with UBS Arena and concert organizers who agreed to pay some of the costs for Nassau County police at the June 4 event. 

Nassau County Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Lawrence), who represents the area surrounding the arena, complained the administration's legal filing "fanned the flames of racial animus and exploited hot-button issues" by using "dog-whistle rhetoric."

Blakeman said he was motivated by concerns over safety and security costs.

"I never raised an issue of the content of the concert," Blakeman said.

Legis. Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview), speaking on behalf of legislative Democrats, said the overall "theme of [Blakeman's] message is concerning. [It's] not reflective of how the 1.4 million residents of this county feel and could be interpreted as racially insensitive.” 

“Our county executive needs to stay in his lane, in my opinion," Drucker said. "It’s not appropriate for him to run off to Manhattan for a rally in support of someone who exercised vigilantism."

Bishop Phillip Elliott of Antioch Baptist Church of Hempstead said he and 14 other Black clergy meet monthly with Blakeman and recently shared their views on his support of Penny.

“There were people at the table who felt like he should’ve touched based with us maybe before he does these things," Elliott said.

But "I do think safety and cost were the major issue in the Hot 97 case," Elliott said.

Elliott said Blakeman "allowed for us to voice our concerns very strongly."

Elliott added: “When is he speaking as Bruce Blakeman or when is he speaking as the county executive? That’s the problem here.”

Former Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) said of Blakeman's overall political style: "Maybe Bruce pushes the envelope a bit, but it is how many people feel on Long Island."

King continued: "I think Bruce is saying that if you're against crime, you're not a racist — you're just against crime."

But Moss asked, “Why would a Nassau County executive have a position on a crime that happened on the New York City transit system?”

Politicians long have used race to appeal to voters' fears and anger, in subtle and overt ways, and through policy issues such as crime, criminal justice reform, immigration and policing.

In 2022, for instance, Blakeman objected to Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul's proposal to expand affordable housing by requiring local governments to change zoning laws.

"We cannot let the governor destroy suburbia, nor turn Nassau County into the sixth borough of New York City," Blakeman said.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Manhattan-based political strategist who has worked for Democratic and Republican candidates, said Blakeman is “stoking the feeling of suburban paranoia and the fear of the city seeping in.”

“It’s not so much about race directly — race is a vehicle to capture the anger and anxiety," Sheinkopf said.

“When there is a right-wing reaction to disorder of any kind, there tends to be an angle of race or gender or social class," Sheinkopf said. "You see these racial overtones all the time. It’s nothing new.”

Gerald Benjamin, a retired political scientist at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a longtime observer of state politics, noted that while Republicans recently have fared better in local elections, they haven't won a statewide contest in more than 20 years and are outnumbered 2-1 in the New York State Legislature. 

“They are trying to find a place and an argument that gives them power and purpose,” Benjamin said of the GOP. “This struggle plays out in some elements” of discussions of crime and culture, he said.

King said Blakeman's comments connect with blue-collar conservatives.

"Some Republicans can have an offensive tone, but he's striking a good balance in pushing back against a progressive movement in Albany that is overly restrictive," King said.

Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff said Blakeman's comments about issues such as the Penny charges may appeal to many Republican voters, but focusing on cultural divisions can be risky in a blue state such as New York.

“The risk is overplaying it. If it becomes a pattern, then it will be perceived differently politically,” Miringoff said.

Noting issues such as book bans, Miringoff said: “The New York electorate will not welcome activities of the sort that’s occurring in other states."

With Yancey Roy

In May, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman went to Manhattan, stood behind a podium featuring the county seal and led a rally to support Daniel Penny, a former U.S. Marine facing manslaughter charges for fatally choking Jordan Neely, a mentally ill homeless man, on the subway. 

Eight days later, Blakeman's administration went to court to try to stop an outdoor concert associated with Hot 97's Summer Jam hip-hop festival at UBS Arena in Elmont. The court filing cited "riot-like behavior and criminal violations that plagued previous Summer Jams," dozens of arrests at some of those events and a performer who "incited the crowd" with incendiary remarks against police.

Political analysts say Blakeman, a Republican from Atlantic Beach, is playing to his party's conservative base as it tries to build on wins in 2021, when the Nassau GOP flipped top countywide offices, and in 2022 when it took two congressional seats historically held by Democrats. 

Some Black leaders and Democrats also expressed concern that Blakeman may be trying to follow a political playbook that attempts to stoke fears of crime by using language that feeds on racial stereotypes.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman's rally to support Daniel Penny, and a lawsuit his administration filed to stop part of the Summer Jam hip-hop festival, have raised questions over his rhetoric.
  • Political analysts say Blakeman is trying to build on Republicans' recent wins. Some Black leaders and Democrats expressed concern that he's following a political playbook that attempts to stoke fears of crime by using language that feeds on racial stereotypes.
  • Blakeman denies race played a factor in his recent words and actions and says his primary concern is the safety of Nassau residents.

Arthur Mackey, senior pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church Cathedral in Roosevelt, said Blakeman's statements about the Penny case, and the language in the Summer Jam court filing, "are extremely disturbing." The controversy in the Penny case: The defendant is white and the deceased is Black.

Mackey, who emphasized he has known Blakeman for more than 20 years, said: "I have a lot of respect for Bruce Blakeman. I don’t disrespect him, but I disagree with him on these topics. I think he’s falling into the trap of racism, sexism and classism and kind of following in the steps of the governor of Florida, and that’s not the direction we want to go in here in Nassau."

Blakeman denies race is a factor in his support of Penny or the Summer Jam lawsuit. In both instances, he said his views stem from a concern for the safety of residents. 

"My job is to protect the people of Nassau County," he said in an interview. "I represent a county that is larger than 10 states, and I think I reflect the values of the residents. I think people appreciate my candor and I have heard from Democrats in Nassau who believe their party has gone too far."

Experts say Blakeman's rhetoric may offer a preview of how Republicans will campaign in elections for Nassau County Legislature and other local offices this fall, and in 2024 and 2026, as they try to build on their victories in countywide and House races since 2021.

Republicans say they are hoping to pick up another seat on the Nassau County Legislature in November for a supermajority, which would allow them to approve certain borrowing, the appointment of the county's inspector general and last-minute legislation without Democratic votes. 

Republicans statewide are eyeing the 2026 race for governor after former Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, of Shirley, made a strong showing against Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2022.

National Democrats already have launched a campaign to take back two Nassau House seats Republicans captured in 2022, and two others in New York State the GOP picked up as they won control of the House last year.

“There is a very clear effort to have Republican-elected officials at the state and local level become aggressively 'anti-woke,'” said Mitch Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. The term has been used by conservatives to spotlight what they see as overreactions to racial and social justice issues.

"I'm certainly anti-woke," Blakeman said. "I think the vast majority of Nassau County is anti-woke, too."

Blakeman 'pushes the envelope' 

Blakeman, 67, is a former attorney, business consultant and Port Authority commissioner. A former presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, he has run unsuccessfully for New York State comptroller, New York City mayor, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. He was a Town of Hempstead councilman when he used a tough-on-crime approach to narrowly defeat Democratic County Executive Laura Curran in 2021.

The Nassau GOP in 2021 also picked up from Democrats the offices of county district attorney and comptroller, one county legislative seat and the North Hempstead Town supervisor's post.

In all their campaigns, Republicans criticized Democrat-backed state criminal justice reforms, such as a new law that reduced the number of crimes for which a judge could set bail for defendants.

Blakeman railed against pandemic mask and vaccine mandates in his first year in office and has continued supporting issues popular with the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.

On June 15, he appeared on "Fox and Friends" for a second time to defend Penny. A Manhattan jury had indicted the West Islip native a day before in the chokehold death of Neely, who witnesses say had been acting aggressively on the subway. A Blakeman spokesman said he did not know Penny or his family beforehand.

"There's something rotten about this prosecution ... Daniel Penny is a good Samaritan," Blakeman said on the television show. "It defies logic that he's being prosecuted."

Blakeman continued: "People that have criticized me about speaking out about Daniel Penny, I look them in the eye and say, 'Let me ask you a question: Would you want Daniel Penny on a subway with your daughter, or would you want Jordan Neely?' And that shuts them up right away."

Fred Brewington, a Hempstead-based civil rights attorney, said: “I think that either Mr. Blakeman is deeply confused or intentionally disregarding the fact that this man is accused of killing a mentally ill African American man and turning him into a hero. Last I understood, vigilantism is not allowed."

Blakeman's administration backed off its Summer Jam court petition in a last-minute deal with UBS Arena and concert organizers who agreed to pay some of the costs for Nassau County police at the June 4 event. 

Nassau County Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Lawrence), who represents the area surrounding the arena, complained the administration's legal filing "fanned the flames of racial animus and exploited hot-button issues" by using "dog-whistle rhetoric."

Blakeman said he was motivated by concerns over safety and security costs.

"I never raised an issue of the content of the concert," Blakeman said.

Legis. Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview), speaking on behalf of legislative Democrats, said the overall "theme of [Blakeman's] message is concerning. [It's] not reflective of how the 1.4 million residents of this county feel and could be interpreted as racially insensitive.” 

“Our county executive needs to stay in his lane, in my opinion," Drucker said. "It’s not appropriate for him to run off to Manhattan for a rally in support of someone who exercised vigilantism."

Bishop Phillip Elliott of Antioch Baptist Church of Hempstead said he and 14 other Black clergy meet monthly with Blakeman and recently shared their views on his support of Penny.

“There were people at the table who felt like he should’ve touched based with us maybe before he does these things," Elliott said.

But "I do think safety and cost were the major issue in the Hot 97 case," Elliott said.

Elliott said Blakeman "allowed for us to voice our concerns very strongly."

Elliott added: “When is he speaking as Bruce Blakeman or when is he speaking as the county executive? That’s the problem here.”

Former Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) said of Blakeman's overall political style: "Maybe Bruce pushes the envelope a bit, but it is how many people feel on Long Island."

King continued: "I think Bruce is saying that if you're against crime, you're not a racist — you're just against crime."

But Moss asked, “Why would a Nassau County executive have a position on a crime that happened on the New York City transit system?”

Effectiveness of strategy

Politicians long have used race to appeal to voters' fears and anger, in subtle and overt ways, and through policy issues such as crime, criminal justice reform, immigration and policing.

In 2022, for instance, Blakeman objected to Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul's proposal to expand affordable housing by requiring local governments to change zoning laws.

"We cannot let the governor destroy suburbia, nor turn Nassau County into the sixth borough of New York City," Blakeman said.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Manhattan-based political strategist who has worked for Democratic and Republican candidates, said Blakeman is “stoking the feeling of suburban paranoia and the fear of the city seeping in.”

“It’s not so much about race directly — race is a vehicle to capture the anger and anxiety," Sheinkopf said.

“When there is a right-wing reaction to disorder of any kind, there tends to be an angle of race or gender or social class," Sheinkopf said. "You see these racial overtones all the time. It’s nothing new.”

Gerald Benjamin, a retired political scientist at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a longtime observer of state politics, noted that while Republicans recently have fared better in local elections, they haven't won a statewide contest in more than 20 years and are outnumbered 2-1 in the New York State Legislature. 

“They are trying to find a place and an argument that gives them power and purpose,” Benjamin said of the GOP. “This struggle plays out in some elements” of discussions of crime and culture, he said.

King said Blakeman's comments connect with blue-collar conservatives.

"Some Republicans can have an offensive tone, but he's striking a good balance in pushing back against a progressive movement in Albany that is overly restrictive," King said.

Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff said Blakeman's comments about issues such as the Penny charges may appeal to many Republican voters, but focusing on cultural divisions can be risky in a blue state such as New York.

“The risk is overplaying it. If it becomes a pattern, then it will be perceived differently politically,” Miringoff said.

Noting issues such as book bans, Miringoff said: “The New York electorate will not welcome activities of the sort that’s occurring in other states."

With Yancey Roy

Trump on trial … Westhampton Beach outdoor dining … Tulip festival Credit: Newsday

Doctor facing sex abuse lawsuits ... Trump on trial ... LI Planned Parenthood workers unionize ... Mascot ban

Trump on trial … Westhampton Beach outdoor dining … Tulip festival Credit: Newsday

Doctor facing sex abuse lawsuits ... Trump on trial ... LI Planned Parenthood workers unionize ... Mascot ban

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