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Laura Curran seeks new milestone: Nassau County executive’s job

Laura Curran, Democratic candidate for Nassau County executive,

Laura Curran, Democratic candidate for Nassau County executive, greets potential voters at the Baldwin LIRR station, on a rainy evening, Oct. 24, 2017. She is the first woman from a major political party to run for Nassau County executive. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Laura Curran delivered her first political speech when she was 8 years old, addressing a large crowd in a South Miami square to rally for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have banned discrimination based on gender.

Wearing a green jumpsuit — the color of pro-ERA signs — Curran was the final speaker, delivering a five-minute speech on equality and justice.

Four decades later, Curran, 49, a second-term Democratic Nassau County legislator from Baldwin, finds herself as the first woman from a major political party to run for Nassau County executive.

Curran, a former newspaper reporter and Baldwin school board president, faces Jack Martins, a former Republican state senator from Old Westbury, for Nassau’s top office.

For the first time since 2001, the race is without an incumbent as County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican from Bethpage, is not seeking a third term as he fights federal corruption charges.

Gender, however, so far has been a footnote in a campaign dominated by public corruption after the indictment of lawmakers and political leaders from both parties.

At street fairs, railroad stations and senior centers, and in mailers and TV ads, Curran has pledged a more honest government free of nepotism and backdoor deals with politically connected county contractors.

“I’ve had a front-row seat to the corruption, the dysfunction and to the mismanagement in our county government and I want to fix it,” Curran said at a candidate’s forum this month.

Curran has risen from the Baldwin school board to county executive nominee in seven years.

After working as a part-time press officer in former Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi’s administration, Curran won a school board seat, getting more votes than her two opponents combined. After serving for three years, she was elected to an open seat on the GOP-controlled county legislature.

Democrats bypassed more experienced candidates and picked Curran as their county executive nominee. In September, she beat Nassau Comptroller George Maragos in a Democratic primary.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), whose district includes Baldwin, describes Curran as a “regular person” who makes neighbors, colleagues and constituents feel at ease.

‘Listens more than talks’

“Laura is a very salt-of-the-earth person,” Kaminsky said. “And she listens more than she talks. Which is a rarity in politics.”

But Martins said she’s been reluctant to forcefully criticize Democrats accused of wrongdoing.

“She’s made ethics the hallmark of her campaign but didn’t offer a single initiative until deciding to run for county executive,” Martins said.

The younger of two siblings, Curran was born in Ontario, Canada. Curran’s dad, Len Williams, was a department store manager, and the family moved frequently for his job. Her mother, Catherine Williams, was a housewife who worked later as a newspaper reporter.

The Currans moved to Belgium when Laura was 2, and Hollywood, Florida, when she was 5. They also lived in Woodmere, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where she attended Edmund Burke School, a prestigious preparatory school.

Curran moved to Baldwin in 1997 with her husband, John Curran. He is a former assistant United States attorney in the Eastern District of New York who works for the Manhattan law firm of Walden Macht & Haran in their white-collar and investigations practice.

Curran said her peripatetic childhood taught her adaptability.

“I am able to make things work, no matter what kind of situation I am in,” Curran said in an interview.

Williams described her daughter as “conscientious and honest to a fault” with a deep belief in right and wrong.

“Laura always had a profound sense of justice and fairness,” said Williams, who lives in Manhattan.

Curran’s parents divorced when she was 12. The following year, Curran’s brother, Michael Williams, 17, who had Tourette syndrome, ran away from home while living with his father in San Diego. He was never seen again and is presumed dead.

“It’s just very hard,” Curran said. “I miss the future we never had.”

Curran received her bachelor’s degree in humanities from Sarah Lawrence College and did some graduate work in American studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Worked as a reporter

Curran started her career at a social service agency recertifying foster homes. She wrote an internal newsletter for an advertising agency, taught journalism at SUNY Purchase and worked as a reporter at weekly and daily newspapers, including the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Writing under the name Laura Williams, she covered education, crime, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and even Martins’ tenure as Mineola mayor.

In 2006, during the Suozzi administration, Curran was hired as a part-time Nassau County press officer. Her duties included coordination of activities between county agencies.

“I got to parachute into every agency . . . and got a crash course on just about every department,” Curran recalled.

Curran left the Suozzi administration in 2008, shortly after the birth of her third daughter, and spent several years as a stay-at-home mother.

In 2010, Curran won an open seat on the Baldwin School Board. The district faced major challenges, including a $4.7 million deficit, falling state aid and declining enrollment.

Joel Press, now Baldwin school board president, worked with Curran on the board in 2013 and recalls her efforts to bridge divides with competing factions.

“Laura is very pragmatic,” said Press, who is an assistant business administrator for the North Babylon School District. “She listened to both sides and decided on what was in the best interests of the students.”

After months of contentious public meetings and a task force study, the board voted unanimously in 2012 to close two elementary schools with low enrollment. The district cut teacher positions and funding for music, art and sports. Funding for the programs was later restored, officials said, in part through increases in state aid.

Curran said the cuts, while painful, were necessary to help the district restore its footing.

“I am proud that we were able to navigate through some pretty rocky shoals,” she said. “Even though we had to make some cuts and make some tough choices, and people were angry with me, I found that people could still respect me for the choices that I made.”

Curran’s county political career began in 2013 when Democratic Legis. Joseph Scannell announced he would not seek re-election in the 5th District. Curran was picked as the party’s nominee and won the race in the predominantly Democratic district. She easily won re-election in 2015.

Although she’s in the minority, Curran secured a handful of legislative victories. She partnered with Leg. William Gaylor (R-Lynbrook) on a bill to direct more county contracts to veterans. She also teamed up with Legis. Steve Rhoads (R-Bellmore) on legislation allowing superstorm Sandy victims to avoid paying county fees on home repairs and new construction through the end of 2017.

Curran also cites other achievements, including obtaining a speed indicator sign near Baldwin High School after a ninth-grader was hit by a car, and securing funds to convert vacant land near Grand Avenue into a community garden.

Broke ranks with Dems

Last October, Curran broke ranks with Democrats and sided with majority Republicans to approve $50 million in capital borrowing for road and environmental repairs that had been held up for months in a political stalemate.

The vote occurred after 11 p.m. in an empty legislative chamber. Democrats, who were not advised in advance about Curran’s vote, accused her of operating in self-interest. One of the projects was $445,000 for streetscaping in Baldwin.

Curran argued that all the projects had a matching state or federal grant that would have been lost without the borrowing.

Democrats responded by barring Curran from the caucus’ meeting room and stripping her of access to the caucus’ senior staff for six months.

Curran said the vote illustrated her independence, but concedes she should have been open with her party colleagues. “I could have handled it better,” she said. “People were angry. And they had a right to be angry.”

After the vote, Democratic Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said Curran “sold out,” but now says, “She was in a tough position and didn’t want to be categorized as voting against her district. But I never felt personally betrayed.” Abrahams has endorsed Curran.

Curran announced her run for county executive in November 2016. During the past year, she has crisscrossed the county, pitching ideas to overhaul county ethics policies, balance Nassau’s budget and repair its property assessment system — all while pledging to hold the line on tax and fee hikes.

At the Baldwin Long Island Rail Road station on a rainy evening last month, Curran distributed campaign pamphlets to commuters.

Joe Margolin, 57, of Baldwin, a registered Republican, chatted with Curran for nearly five minutes about economic development projects.

“She’s very effective,” said Margolin, who works for a Manhattan credit card processing company. “I wasn’t very informed about the race. But she may have won my vote.”

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