For the past 13 years, George Nolan has been Suffolk’s Legislature’s “quiet man.”
As legislative counsel, Nolan, 60, has sat at the right hand of three successive presiding officers, providing legal advice and drafting local laws and resolutions for all 18 Republican and Democrat lawmakers. In that time, he has taken part in more than 200, often marathon meetings, along with more than 1,000 committee meetings and caucuses. As of Jan. 1, Nolan will cap his career by becoming a $208,000-a-year state Supreme Court Justice.
“I have to confess I was feeling melancholy about leaving the legislature,” Nolan deadpanned at a farewell ceremony last week, “But after sitting through my 23rd pet store public hearing, I started to feel a little better.” The measure passed at his final meeting last week.
Low key and self-deprecating, Nolan may be largely unsung, but he has been vital in keeping the 11-member Democratic majority calm and largely united in a body once known as the “Dodge City” of politics. “Everyone trusted him, he had the knowledge and understood the politics and importance of the institution itself," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman.
DuWayne Gregory, the current presiding officer, said he will “sorely miss” Nolan. “I’m constantly in his office asking what do you think about this or what do you think about that. And I’ve kind of learned his body language about what’s acceptable and what’s really not,” he said. Legis. Tom Cilmi, GOP caucus leader, said Nolan has been “evenhanded to both Republicans and Democrats” and more importantly, understood the “the need to have a legislative branch that is independent of the executive.”
Even GOP Legis. Rob Trotta, often the Democrats' harshest critic, lauded Nolan as “always fair and honest” and noted that Nolan warned Democratic lawmakers in 2017 that huge fees proposed by County Executive Steve Bellone might come back to haunt them. At that time, he said, “If a case is brought challenging any fee . . . and the court finds that far exceeds the county’s cost of providing the service, there’s a good possibility a court would say the fee is excessive.”
Nolan is scion of a prominent Democratic family. His father, Philip, was a longtime state committeeman and an ally of the late Suffolk Democratic chairman Dominic Baranello. In 1982, George Nolan, at 23, started as an aide for his brother, Philip Nolan, when he was elected a county lawmaker and later became the legislature’s minority leader. His brother later became Islip Town supervisor and now is Suffolk OTB president.
Nolan himself succeeded his brother, serving one term in the legislature. “I like to tell people I achieved all my goals in my first term, there was no need for a second,” he deadpanned at last week's farewell ceremony. However, Nolan lost re-election in 1989 after then-County Executive Patrick Halpin proposed a 16 percent property tax hike that turned out to be 39 to 49 percent in western Suffolk and higher on the East End.
Knowing what it’s like to be in the minority, Nolan also understood anger from the seven-member GOP caucus earlier this year when Bellone tried to strip them of their leverage to block bonding on capital projects, which require a 12-vote, two-thirds majority, by bundling those projects with others that are popular. Nolan recommended the legislature simply vote on the bonds first and only vote on the appropriation if the bond resolution is approved. Long term, the solution also will protect future Democratic legislators should they return to the minority.
After 21 years with the legislature, Nolan called being counsel “the highlight of my professional life.” He also recalled words of his father who showed up every day in January 1988, for legislative meetings when this newly elected son was part of a 9-9 deadlock on picking a presiding officer. “He said, ‘It’s the best show in town,’ ” said Nolan. “That’s how I feel and I’ve been very happy to be a part of it.”