When Richard Nicolello became leader of the GOP-controlled Nassau County Legislature, he brought a businesslike demeanor and a willingness to work with new County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat.
In his first six months as presiding officer, Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) and his caucus supported nearly every Curran administration hire, approved her requests to borrow half of a $45 million legal judgment and to unfreeze the tax rolls for the first time in seven years, while also allowing her to make major changes to the way commercial tax refund payments are made.
Previously, Democratic proposals rarely made it onto the legislative calendar and meetings were unruly and politically divided. Under Nicolello, proposals that had been blocked for years — such as raising the age to purchase tobacco products — have been reconsidered and, after cordial debate, passed unanimously.
“I’m trying to avoid the partisan rancor that occurs. Over the years, we eventually would get to a place and then waste an incredible amount of time with partisan bickering. My goal is to get as much done while we are here,” said Nicolello.
Nicolello, 57, an insurance attorney, has been in the legislature since it was formed in 1996, He took the helm at the same time Curran became the third Democrat in history to occupy the county executive's office on Jan. 1. His mission is to make sure Nassau's Republicans hold on to legislative power and he is seemingly doing it while avoiding confrontation and enjoying a good working relationship with the county executive's office.
"It's a complicated dynamic because the playing field in Nassau County has changed," said political analyst Hank Sheinkopf, referring to November's election of Curran and Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen, also a Democrat.
Too much public confrontation will turn off voters, he said.
"You don't want to look confrontational if you are the Republican leader of the legislature because you will lose the argument by being overly combative," said Sheinkopf. "And she [Curran] loses if she's churlish about it. . . . Even if they don't like each other, they are joined together by the county's fiscal problems."
Nicolello undoubtedly needs to walk a line, said Joseph Cairo, new chairman of the Nassau County Republican Committee.
“He’s got a lot of responsibility now that he’s presiding officer. His job is to speak up on behalf of the caucus, but they [GOP and Democratic legislators] all must work together,” Cairo said. “As long as we have one party in the executive office and another party in the majority on the legislature — what are we going to do? Stop government for four years?”
Democrats say Nicolello has improved their ability to communicate ideas between the two parties. But many bills introduced by the minority are still getting blocked, they say.
"He's approachable and accessible. The lines of communication have improved significantly," said Legis. Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview). "What I am still frustrated about is that we are not able to get our bills assigned to a committee and discussed in a public forum. Inviting public comment on these issues — that's what a democracy is about."
A lifelong resident of New Hyde Park, Nicolello graduated from local schools, went on to St. John's University and then Fordham Law School, and has been a practicing attorney since 1986. He was counsel to the Board of Education of the New Hyde Park-Garden City Park school district for more than 20 years ending in 2009, and is well-known among the civic associations and local organizations in his southwest Nassau district.
With Democratic enrollment rising, Nicolello is trying to hold on to Republican voters. His late father-in-law, John "Jack" Dunne, a former Republican leader, tried to do the same in the 1980s.
Dunne, of Manhasset, a state Supreme Court justice, was also a North Hempstead Town Board member and the Republican leader at a time when the area was a GOP stronghold.
In 1989, however, Democrat Ben Zwirn defeated incumbent John Kiernan. North Hempstead has not had a Republican supervisor since and party enrollment is now heavily Democratic. There are only two Republicans on the town council.
"He has seen that town elect a Democrat and it is probably going Democrat forever," a county source said.
Nicolello helped persuade Republicans to approve the Curran administration’s request to authorize $23 million in county borrowing to help pay a $45 million legal judgment to two men wrongfully convicted of a 1984 rape and murder of a Lynbrook teenager.
Nicolello told his caucus members he didn’t want to appear as if they were being unhelpful to the new county executive as she was figuring out how to pay the large sum in her first week in office. He told the Republican caucus behind closed doors he didn't want them to be seen as “obstructionists,” a county source said.
But after learning the county executive did not take the necessary steps to follow through with borrowing the money, Nicolello at an April 24 legislative meeting sharply criticized Curran and her administration for unilaterally “going in a different direction.”
“To come back and now ask us to have the residents of Nassau County pay more in fees, when the money is already there to pay this judgment, . . . you have eroded whatever good faith exists," Nicolello said. " . . . We will be very skeptical as we go forward for the rest of this year.”
Nicolello joined many Republican and Democratic legislators who opposed Curran’s proposal to raise fees for residents to use ballfields, beach cabanas and golf carts.
“It’s funny, every county executive since I’ve been here looks at the legislature as just a nuisance and an inconvenience, and tries to get around us. Laura was a legislator. Ed Mangano was a legislator. But as soon as they step into that office, their whole mindset changes. My job is to say, ‘Nope, you are not gonna get around us and we are part of the government here,'” Nicolello said.
And Nicolello took a second look at a bill — proposed repeatedly by Democrats over the years — to raise the age for buying tobacco products to 21. The Republican majority reintroduced the legislation, which passed unanimously in May and was signed it into law in June. Despite the late Democratic Legis. Judy Jacobs’ attempts to get attention for the measure for a decade, it had never been publicly discussed among legislators until Nicolello put it on the calendar in late April.
Republicans and Democrats say Nicolello represents a stark contrast from predecessor Norma Gonsalves, who earned a reputation for openly scolding residents who took to the podium during the public comment period. Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) was appointed presiding officer in 2012 after the sudden death of longtime legislator Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa). Gonsalves chose not to seek re-election.
“Every legislature is an organic, living, breathing creature and has its own dynamics,” said Legis. Vincent Muscarella (R-West Hempstead). “People deal with different situations and issues in different ways. Rich is steady, a very even-keeled and extremely organized individual. He is a gentleman . . . almost in that Atticus Finch way. At this point in time, it’s manifesting itself as a calm legislature that wants to get down to business and do the people’s work.”
Muscarella and Nicolello are the only lawmakers who have remained on the legislature since its creation in 1996. (For more than 90 years before that, Nassau County was governed by a six-member board of supervisors).
Muscarella said Curran’s “honeymoon period” with the legislature is perhaps being extended longer than usual because of the relationships she built with members of the Republican caucus when she was a legislator representing Baldwin. As legislators, Curran and Nicolello got along well, both have said.
“Any time I need to speak with him, he’s there. We will not always agree, but we can always have a civilized conversation, and that is important. I have a lot of respect for him and I enjoy our conversations,” Curran said. “I hope we can show Washington a thing or two about how to disagree respectfully.”