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Joseph Cairo seeks to right Nassau Republican Party

Joseph Cairo at the annual Pat Cairo Foundation

Joseph Cairo at the annual Pat Cairo Foundation Golf Tournament, which raises money for cancer research in honor of his late wife, in Oceanside on July 25, 2017. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Joseph Cairo was a young lawyer waiting for a case to be called in Long Beach City Court on a slow Friday afternoon when attorney Armand D’Amato, whom he'd just met, invited him to a political gathering that night. 

At Carl Hoppl’s Valley Stream Park Inn on Merrick Road, Cairo ordered a Diet Pepsi at the bar. Cairo recalled that, just before leaving, Armand D'Amato introduced him to his brother, Alfonse, who was running for Hempstead Town supervisor.

“He called me ‘Tiger’ and asked if I would help him on his campaign,” Cairo said of Alfonse D'Amato, who later would become a Republican U.S. senator. “I really had no interest but people would say, ‘Yeah, you should do it — lawyers get involved in politics.’ Somehow I got roped in and began my career as the low man on the totem pole."

That chance meeting in 1971 marked the start of a long political career for Cairo, the new chairman of the Nassau Republican Committee. Joseph Mondello, who led the organization for 35 years, passed the baton to Cairo in late May after becoming United States Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.

The son of a union electrician raised in New Jersey, Cairo went from handing out palm cards for D'Amato at Long Island Rail Road stations to serving on the Hempstead Town Board for 19 years. Along the way, Cairo, 72, developed a reputation as an expert political quarterback, rallying GOP committeemen in parking lots on weekends to get out the vote.

Now, he faces perhaps his toughest challenge: righting the Nassau GOP. The once dominant political organization has been shaken by corruption scandals that contributed to the loss of the county executive’s office in November.

That's been coupled with fundamental shifts in voter affiliations. 

Since 2009, registered Democrats have outnumbered Republicans in Nassau and the number of nonaligned voters has grown. In 2018, there were 368,913 Democrats, 311,019 Republicans and 223,842 nonaligned voters, according to the county board of elections.

The county’s demographics also have changed, Republicans say, with more minority and women voters who tend not to vote for Republicans.  

Critics question whether Cairo is the right person to lead the party into a new era. They say the Nassau GOP doesn’t appeal to younger voters and should do more to reach out to certain groups such as Indian-Americans and Hispanic-American business owners, for example, to build back the party's enrollment.

Cairo also has had ethical problems. In 1994, the New York State Bar Association forced him to surrender his law license after he admitted diverting $394,000 from the escrow accounts of two clients. He never faced criminal charges and said his license was reinstated in 2006. 

“The day after the election he’s going to either be Mighty Joe or Joey the Joke,” said longtime Albany lobbyist Desmond Ryan. “It’s not even about picking up seats anymore but holding onto them. This used to be the finest Republican machine in the country, but the old way of doing business is just not going to cut it anymore.”

Supporters say Cairo is a formidable strategist who knows the makeup of the local electorate.  

Former GOP State Sen. Jack Martins said, “people on both sides of the aisle look up to and respect Joe Cairo.”

Martins, who lost the county executive's race to Democrat Laura Curran last November, said Republicans' fortunes in important state and federal races in November will hinge on effectively communicating: Who is best to protect the electorate and the communities here on Long Island? Martins, who has known Cairo for 20 years, says he believes the new chairman is up to the job.

“It’s going to be the Republican Party in New York State — in Albany — that is going to provide balance just given the dynamics,” Martins said. “Having a New York City-centric, urban agenda is going to hurt our Long Island communities and the Republican Party will be out there reminding people what will happen if we end up losing control of the Senate.”

Cairo says the county committee plans to reach out to younger voters through social media. But he says personal relationships and face-to-face conversations with voters — particularly in areas where a local race can be decided by a few hundred ballots — are key to the GOP's success in getting voters out in November.

“I think it’s a whole different climate today than it was 40-something years ago,” Cairo said of challenges the Nassau GOP faces in November. “When it comes to certain elections — obviously Congress, and down to the State Legislature — whether [the president is] a Republican or Democrat, and what he’s doing and how popular he is, that’s a factor to some extent."

Cairo said he is concerned about turnout in areas such as the Nassau-Queens border where voters are eager to register their displeasure with President Donald Trump. But there are South Shore communities and those closer to the Suffolk County line where aligning with the president will benefit the party, Cairo said.  

Trump “makes a strong case in some areas and makes it very difficult in others,” Cairo said. “He’s polarizing.”

Keeping the Republican majority in the State Senate is a big focus. Republicans hold the power in that chamber because Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) caucuses with them. Wins for Republican incumbents such as Sens. Carl L. Marcellino, Kemp Hannon and Elaine Phillips will largely rest on promoting the individual candidates, he believes.

“Today, people vote more not the party line but they vote the individual,” Cairo said. “How does a guy like Jack Martins or Elaine Phillips run in a district that’s overwhelmingly Democrat and win? Because people look at their record."

State Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill), who is running for re-election in November against North Hempstead Town Councilwoman Anna Kaplan, a Democrat, said Cairo “does what is best for the entire team.”  

Phillips said Cairo, "didn’t even know who I was two years ago. And the man has been kind with his knowledge, kind with his hard work and kind with his guidance for someone he’s only known for two years. I’m truly appreciative of what he and his GOP committee has done.”

Nassau County Legis. Steve Rhoades (R-Bellmore) said Cairo, “picks up the phone when you call him. He’s always there if you ever need any advice on what to do. They say showing up is half the battle. That’s what he does — he shows up.”

Cairo earns $120,000 a year as chairman of the Nassau Republican Committee and $198,000 as the president of Nassau’s Off-Track Betting Corp., a job he has held for six years. OTB, a public benefit corporation overseen by the State of New York, operates six horse race betting parlors as well as FastTrack betting terminals in select locations throughout the county. A portion of the profits goes into the county budget. 

OTB's board members hired Cairo. The board is appointed by the Nassau County Legislature, which has a GOP majority.

Cairo graduated from the University of Notre Dame in1967 and St. John's University School of Law in 1970. In 1971, he moved to North Valley Stream.

In 1976, Cairo married Pat McCormick, who grew up in North Valley Stream. He became stepfather to McCormick's two children and they had two more children together. She was a homemaker. He had a local law practice.

In 1989, Pat was diagnosed with cancer, which she battled off-and-on for years, Cairo said. She died in 1995.

“She really suffered at the end of 1993 through 1994," said Cairo, who never remarried but has a longtime companion. 

Since her death in 1995, Cairo and his children have operated The Pat Cairo Family Foundation, which raises money for research into women's cancers. The foundation also raised money for a vaccine that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent the type of vaginal cancer that took Pat Cairo's life. The foundation has donated more than $4 million to help terminally ill cancer patients, Cairo said. 

The foundation also helped push for a bill to require insurance companies to pay for admission and treatment of terminally ill patients at acute care specialty hospitals, Cairo said. Former Gov. George Pataki signed the legislation in 1999.

“I’ve tried to not make it political. My children wouldn’t let me but I wouldn’t anyway,” Cairo said. “We’ve been supported by many Republicans and many Democrats.” 

Cairo was the GOP committee's first vice chairman when Mondello tapped him to take over the party. Cairo was elected chairman at the party convention in May.

Over the past several years, Cairo has watched as prominent GOP officials — many of whom he helped elect — were charged in federal corruption cases.

Former State Senate Majority Leader Sen. Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre was convicted in 2016 of improperly using his official power to secure employment and cash payments for his son, Adam. They were both charged with bribery and extortion. The Skeloses were convicted in July in a retrial.

Former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto were indicted in 2017 on charges that include conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and honest-services wire fraud. Mangano's wife, Linda, was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI.

Venditto, who was tried with the Manganos, was acquitted on all charges. The Manganos are facing a retrial in October after their 11-week trial in U.S. District Court in Central Islip ended in a mistrial May 31. 

In discussing the cases, Cairo stressed that Venditto was acquitted and the outcome of the Manganos' case still was uncertain. 

But George Marlin, a financial executive and former member of Nassau's financial control board, said "the wounds in the Republican Party are self-inflicted. There became an entitlement mentality in the Republican organization. Their main concern is power, perks and pensions."

The November election will be the first big test of Cairo's leadership. Both supporters and critics are watching to see how he will do. 

Anthony Santino, the administrative assistant to the Nassau County elections commissioner and a former Hempstead Town supervisor, said Cairo was up to the task of getting Republican voters to the polls and will "put his own stamp on the party and how it operates.” 

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the Nassau Democratic Committee, called Cairo "a very formidable and smart political leader." He continued, “Never discount the Nassau Republicans. They are still the strongest, best organized Republican machine in the country.” 

Ryan, the lobbyist, is skeptical. 

“You have a previously disbarred lawyer who runs a gambling operation and at 72 years old is leading the 'youth movement' for the party," Ryan said of Cairo. "This makes no sense. ”

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