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Bellone driven to run since childhood

Steve Bellone, Democratic candidate for Suffolk County executive,

Steve Bellone, Democratic candidate for Suffolk County executive, addresses the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island in Hauppauge (Oct. 25, 2011). Photo Credit: James Carbone

Steve Bellone's political aspirations began taking shape on Marcy Street in North Babylon, nearly a decade before he could even vote.

He grew up across the street from Richard Schaffer, who became the Suffolk Democratic chairman. Down the block was Bellone's classmate and best buddy Bob Stricoff, now head of the town Democratic Party and Babylon's Industrial Development Agency. Another classmate from the block, Dennis Cohen, is a Suffolk District Court judge.

And it was on Marcy Street where a young Bellone, talking politics with his best friend as they often did on the way to Belmont Elementary School, told Stricoff that one day he would run for office.

 

Political beginnings

Having already achieved that childhood dream, first as a Babylon Town councilman elected at 28 and then as the four-term Democratic town supervisor, Bellone, 42, is reaching higher -- as the Democratic candidate for Suffolk County executive.

Described by supporters as a policy wonk and big-picture visionary, Bellone is passionate about pushing through his projects. Supporters say Bellone, who won each of the past two elections with more than 70 percent of the vote, has the experience to lead a county of 1.5 million people that is facing a budget deficit of $135 million and more than 710 layoffs.

Critics warn that after 10 years on a majority-Democratic town board, Bellone is unaccustomed to the partisan wrangling he would be sure to experience with a divided county legislature in Suffolk.

William "Matt" Groh, a Republican and Conservative candidate for Babylon Town board, said Bellone "has never been tested. . . . With a two-party system in existence in Suffolk . . . he will be dealing with specific challengers to his practices, an accounting he has never been confronted with in Babylon Town."

But Schaffer, a lifelong mentor to Bellone, said Bellone is prepared for the county executive's seat.

"Ten years ago, I don't know if I would have said he was ready for this," Schaffer said. "But there's no doubt in my mind that he's ready now. He's good, he's better than I thought he was."

Bellone said his 10 years as supervisor "gives me the kind of experience needed to run this giant operation."

While his nearly $3 million war chest has many Democrats and Republicans declaring him the favorite in the race against Republican Angie Carpenter, the county treasurer, Bellone, who has not run for office outside Babylon, still has to introduce himself to much of the county.

Those working with him on the campaign quickly became aware of one characteristic: Bellone's attentiveness to his wife, Tracey, who was appointed Suffolk's deputy parks commissioner by County Executive Steve Levy in 2004, and his two daughters, Katie, 3, and Mollie, 2.

Even in the midst of an intense drive to show his face in every corner of the county, Bellone takes time off from campaigning to be with his family, as he did this summer when he cleared his schedule to fulfill a promise to take his daughters to Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa.

"The two things that would make me leave public life are if I couldn't keep my integrity or if I couldn't spend time with my family," he said.

Bellone said he first was inspired to explore a career in government during a fourth-grade trip to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. "I was so moved by the great things that had happened in our country, the history that was made there," he recalled. In his Town Hall office, Bellone keeps a souvenir from the class trip: a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence.

 

Democratic influences

The son of a New York City correction officer and a mother who was a homemaker, Bellone wasn't part of student government at North Babylon High School but played football and tennis, and was an editor on the school newspaper. At that point he was considering a journalism career, and didn't decide to focus on a government career until he was elected president of his freshman class at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.

Despite being raised in a Republican household, Bellone was influenced by his grandfather, an Irish Catholic immigrant whom he describes as a "die-hard Democrat." Bellone recalls visits to his grandfather's Brooklyn home, where, he said, every room contained a picture of two people: Jesus and John F. Kennedy.

After high school graduation, Bellone worked on Schaffer's campaign for county legislature and, two years later, on his re-election bid.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Queens College, a master's from Webster University in St. Louis and serving in the Army as a communications specialist, Bellone returned home in 1995. Schaffer, then Babylon supervisor, asked him to work as an aide. Bellone, who was attending Fordham University Law School at night, soon was joined in Town Hall by Bellone's future wife, Tracey, a community service aide in Schaffer's office and Stricoff, who was hired in 1997 as an aide in constituent services.

In 1997, Bellone decided to run for town board, even as five Schaffer staff members were under indictment by Republican District Attorney James Catterson Jr. on charges of falsifying documents to hide a budget deficit. Bellone calls the incident a "political persecution," by Catterson.

"Some people came to me and said maybe this isn't the best time for you to be launching a political career," he said. "But I felt very strongly that this was exactly why I wanted to be in government. There are people who are there for wrong reasons and not doing the right thing and we need good people in government."

Bellone said three of the five officials are "still some of my closest people," including chief of staff Ron Kluesener and town consultant Doug Jacob, the only one convicted. Jacob was convicted of eight misdemeanors and sentenced to probation but cleared of felony charges.

 

'More work to be done'

Bellone was elected supervisor in 2001, beating Republican Paul F. Sauberer and Green candidate Ian S. Wilder. He touts a list of accomplishments since taking office that includes the Green Homes program, which allows residents to make their homes more energy efficient and pay off the work through a special assessment on their tax bills.

The program has served as a model for other municipalities and has received national recognition. Bellone also has enforced strict green building requirements for all new large commercial and industrial construction in the town.

Patricia Burkhart, a Deer Park environmental activist, applauded the efforts but said other measures, such as a pedestrian and bicycle safety initiative, have not been fully implemented.

"There's a lot of disconnect," she said. "He passes all these resolutions but then doesn't follow through on them."

Bellone acknowledged that there is "more work to be done" on some issues but defended his green record, calling it "very substantive" and pointing to accolades from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability in the design, construction and operation of buildings.

Bellone also cites his Wyandanch Rising initiative, a 60-acre downtown redevelopment project he began working on soon after taking office in 2002. The project aims to create a thriving downtown with mixed-use retail, housing, a transit hub and open green space. Major construction on the $500 million public/private project is at least a year away.

Bellone also says he has made government more efficient in Babylon by reducing the number of town positions by 24 percent through job cuts and attrition. One example: Bellone says he cut the number of full-time public safety officers from 12 to one, in part by using a federal Homeland Security grant that covered the installation of Wi-Fi in the town's parks and downtowns. As part of the project, Babylon had to install 24-hour security cameras, which are monitored centrally

 

Charges of secrecy

But some residents complain that town government often operates in secrecy, providing little information at town board meetings.

Groh, a frequent critic who has confronted Bellone at board meetings, said he's experienced "denial and berating" while pressing Bellone on matters related to the sewer line for the Wyandanch development. He questions why board meetings are not broadcast on government access television, as they are in all other Suffolk towns. Nassau towns do not broadcast their meetings.

"One has to ask, what is he hiding?" Groh said.

Bellone said the town has been a leader "islandwide, statewide and even nationally" on many issues so "there's bound to be one or two that we're not in the lead on."

Groh and other residents also have long criticized how Bellone runs board meetings.

Even when there are speakers, board meetings typically last less than 30 minutes and sometimes as little as 10. In that time, Bellone burns through dozens of resolutions; most receive unanimous approval.

Bellone said 99 percent of resolutions are formalities, such as authorizing parades, and don't require "a ton of discussion." While there are no work sessions before meetings, Bellone says that if board members have concerns about particular issues, he talks to them in advance to "build a consensus before bringing the issue up during the meeting."

"We've all seen the kind of nonstop partisan bickering that's gripped Washington and Albany and quite frankly some other governments on Long Island, and we just don't have that," Bellone said. "And I know that makes some other people unhappy that we're not fighting with each other."

 

Intense and focused

Colleagues, friends and even former high school teachers described Bellone as intense, driven and focused. Yet they say he'll be able to work cooperatively with the county legislature because he knows how to keep his ego in check.

Town Councilman Lindsay P. Henry, an Independence Party member who has been on the board since 2002, was a vocal opponent who ran against Bellone in 2003. Henry said that when Bellone first started as supervisor "there was a lot of head-butting" between the two of them. "But we were able to reach a very happy medium and govern collectively."

But Burkhart said Bellone and Levy, the Republican county executive, aren't far apart in leadership style. "They're both very strong and stubborn and God forbid you go against them," Burkhart said.

Town Republicans and Conservatives struggled to come up with criticisms of Bellone -- with many saying privately that they found him to be personable and a hard worker.

Bellone had expected to run against Levy this year until Levy backed out of the race and surrendered his $4 million campaign fund to prosecutors after they raised questions about his campaign financing.

However, Republicans are sharply critical of Bellone's record on taxes. Since he first voted on a budget as a councilman in 1998, town taxes have gone up 51 percent; since Bellone became supervisor, town taxes have risen 16 percent.

Tony Pancella, chairman of the Babylon Republicans, said the county executive race is "all going to be about taxes." Bellone has been "very successful here in Babylon . . . but on a grander stage, he's going to have a record he's going to have to defend."

Bellone argues that he should be judged for his time as supervisor, and that total taxes since 2002 have risen less than the 21 percent cumulative rate of inflation. Despite the 13 percent general fund tax increase this year, taxes for 2011 were down by 5 percent, or $4.3 million, because of a large decrease in garbage fund taxes, Bellone said.

"If you look at my tax record as supervisor, we've kept taxes really low during my tenure," he said. "What I intend to do as county executive is to do what we've done here in Babylon, which is keep taxes low and deliver a tax cut, cut debt and reduce the size of government."

 

Bellone's biography

 

 

Age: 42

Home: West Babylon

Family: Wife, Tracey, daughters Katherine Ann and Mollie Elizabeth.

Education: North Babylon High School; bachelor's degree in political science and communications, Queens College; master's degree in public administration, Webster University; law degree, Fordham University

Career: U.S. Army, communications specialist; aide to Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, 1995-97; elected to town board, 1997; town supervisor, 2002-present.

 

Five things you may not know about Steve Bellone

 

1) Worked as a waiter at Beefsteak Charlie's while attending law school.

2) Has only had one cup of coffee in his life -- four years ago in Israel during a group visit with Ethiopian refugees that included Nassau Republican leader Joseph Mondello and salsa legend Willie Colón.

3) Spent three years in speech class because he slurred his s's.

4) Has written regularly in a journal since high school.

5) Has driven cross-country twice.

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