On the campaign trail, Nassau County Executive-elect Laura Curran pledged repeatedly to fill jobs based on “what you know, not who you know.”
She said it so often in assailing long-standing county patronage practices — calling them symptomatic of a “culture of corruption” — that she set an unusually high bar for her administration.
“I’m expecting scrutiny because of the campaign, and I’d expect nothing less,” Curran, a Democrat, said in an interview last week.
But even before she announces a single hire, Curran already is facing some of that scrutiny.
Her 35-member transition team is chaired by Nassau Democratic Committee vice chairman Thomas Garry, prompting questions about what role the party will have in shaping her staff.
Garry has said that the party will not have an outsized influence over Curran and that he will not be taking a government job.
Although the team is a diverse mix of Republicans, Democrats, business, religious and community leaders, the county legislature’s GOP majority already has compiled a list of 14 transition members who gave a total of more than $60,000 to Curran’s campaign.
“It is disappointing that Laura Curran’s assertion her administration will not look to party contributors in selecting people to serve in her administration has already been abandoned,” Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), who is retiring, said in a statement.
Curran says county residents should judge her on whom she ultimately hires, not whom she has asked to help with the transition from the administration of GOP County Executive Edward Mangano.
She says her administration will be representative of the entire county, not just the Democratic Party, as she embarks on an agenda centered on ethics and contracting reform.
“It’s about what’s on the resume and not who gave it to me,” Curran said. “At the end of the day, it’s me who is going to be making the decisions.”
Needed: Ability to say no
Political party leaders typically recommend people for government jobs on Long Island and elsewhere, and contributors often get roles on transition teams.
But Curran made a point of calling out Mangano, who is fighting federal corruption charges, for “blatant” patronage and rewarding political donors.
Curran has pledged to bar her appointees from holding leadership positions in political committees or clubs, and from contributing to her campaigns. She also wants to pass legislation to limit what county vendors can contribute to county officials’ campaigns.
“People believed in the change that Laura was advocating,” said Patrick Halpin, a Democrat who served as Suffolk County executive from 1988 to 1992, and now a lobbyist at Mercury Public Affairs in Manhattan. “And if the party wants to continue to be successful they should embrace it.”
Halpin said Curran must be prepared to say no to some aides who were part of her campaign and leaders of the Nassau Democratic Party who may come seeking jobs.
“She has to disappoint some folks who feel like it’s their time,” Halpin said. “But the proof will be in the pudding.”
Brandon Muir, executive director of the Reclaim New York Initiative, a government watchdog that has criticized Nassau’s ethics and fiscal policies under Mangano, said Curran faces an “uphill challenge” in ridding the county of patronage and nepotism.
“Patronage in Nassau is much more of a terminal cancer than a common cold,” said Muir, who called for residents to pay close attention to the new administration. “Patronage happens everywhere in the state but Nassau has taken it to new levels.”
Rebekah Mercer, daughter of Long Island billionaire and conservative political contributor Robert Mercer, chairs Reclaim New York’s board.
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said he has no doubt that Curran will keep her campaign promises. But Jacobs also bristled at the suggestion that the hiring of any party loyalists would mean that Curran had broken a promise.
“Involvement in the party is not some sort of heresy,” Jacobs said. “Our party is not one that’s ever been accused of institutionally being built around the concept of self-interest and self-enrichment.”
Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello said he was willing to give Curran a chance.
“I am sure she will attempt to do what is right for Nassau County,” Mondello said in statement.
Vetting job candidates
Curran’s transition team, under Garry, met for the first time last week as it began to vet job candidates.
“I thought he ran a professional meeting, nothing of a partisan nature was discussed,” Long Island Association president Kevin Law, a member of Curran’s transition team who has also served in the same role for numerous governors and county executives, said of Garry.
“She’s going to need her people confirmed, and she’s going to need to pass legislation with Republican support, so she can’t just appoint partisan people and she’s not going to,” Law said.
Law also worked as chief deputy for former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat-turned-Republican who served from 2004 to 2011.
In an interview, Levy said Curran likely won’t want to get off on the wrong foot by filling her administration with unqualified political operatives, because the beginning of an administration is often the easiest to pass major initiatives.
“You really don’t want to waste that honeymoon,” said Levy, who works as a lawyer and consultant.
Levy, who was a Democrat when he took office, said Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer did not exert much influence over the people he chose for top positions. He said that allowed him to pick people like Law, who then was running a large law firm and also had worked in Halpin’s administration.
Schaffer said he generally recommends that elected officials find people that understand government and politics.
“That’s just the system we’re in,” Schaffer said in an interview. “Part of it is managing and doing a good job and the other part of it is being able to talk to the electorate.”
Curran acknowledged that party participation, either Republican or Democratic, “does not exclude” applicants from jobs in her administration. But she stressed that if they’re qualified, they would have to give up their political leadership post.
“I’m not looking at any kind of quota, or anything like that,” Curran said when asked if she would cap the amount of hires with ties to the parties.
Still, even if Curran does put more politically connected people on her staff than her campaign suggested she would, Schaffer said he thought voters wouldn’t hold it against her.
“People just don’t want their county executive getting arrested,” he said.