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James O'Connor's uphill battle to become Suffolk County executive

Jim O'Connor, Republican and Conservative party candidate for

Jim O'Connor, Republican and Conservative party candidate for Suffolk County executive, speaks in Wyandanch on Oct. 27, 2015. Credit: Heather Walsh

As James O'Connor, the Republican candidate for Suffolk County executive, walked to the center of the VFW hall in Rocky Point earlier this month, the emcee asked the crowd to "welcome Jim O'Connell."

That the announcer got his name wrong a month before Election Day didn't shock O'Connor. After all, he began his pitch that night by noting a poll that showed he trailed Democratic incumbent Steve Bellone by 33 points. More than three-quarters of the poll respondents said they didn't know who O'Connor was.

"I am here to tell you I am alive. I do exist," O'Connor said to chuckles from the 35 members of the Rocky Point Civic Association, who were sitting on folding chairs. "You can share with your friends and neighbors that there is someone running against Steve Bellone."

O'Connor, 52, is making a bid to return to Long Island elected office more than a decade after serving a term on the North Hempstead town board and conducting a brief, unsuccessful campaign for Nassau County executive in 2001. He was hired by North Hempstead in 2006 to overhaul the town's building department in the wake of a corruption scandal, and now is a partner at a Manhattan law firm that specializes in insurance litigation.

He moved to Great River, on the South Shore in Islip Town, in 2004 so he and his wife, Dr. Maureen Corry, could be closer to her cardiology practice.

O'Connor is making his first run for public office in Suffolk County. He was recommended by Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle in May after top-tier candidates including State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) declined. Next-tier candidates such as Islip Councilwoman Trish Bergin Weichbrodt and Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) also declined to run.

O'Connor has held frequent news conferences to attack Bellone on a variety of topics including campaign contributions from county vendors and unions; Bellone's former information technology commissioner, who resigned after District Attorney Thomas Spota charged him with falsifying information on a software contract; and the rise in gun crimes, gang activity and heroin abuse.

Most frequently O'Connor hits Bellone over the county's budget -- particularly police union contracts with salary and benefits levels that O'Connor characterizes as a reward for the unions' backing of Bellone's political campaigns.

O'Connor notes police district property taxes have increased a total of 10.5 percent under Bellone.

"Suffolk County government is not headed in the right direction," O'Connor told the Rocky Point crowd on Oct. 6. Saying that Suffolk is "hurtling over a financial cliff," he has called for creation of a state financial control board with the power to freeze contracts and re-evaluate tax breaks the county gives to companies that stay or locate in the county.

Still, O'Connor's campaign has had trouble gaining traction. O'Connor has raised only $172,000 since he entered the race in May, while Bellone has $1.8 million in cash on hand, according to the most recent state campaign finance reports.

O'Connor is doing his best to embrace his underdog status. He notes that he's not beholden to interest groups and unions, and that he's been able to talk about topics such as police pay -- one of the "third rails" of Long Island politics, he says.

"It's 'Mr. Smith Goes to Hauppauge,' " he said.

O'Connor was born and raised in Westbury, the oldest of four boys. Politics was a frequent topic at the dinner table, and he recalled playing devil's advocate in family debates.

O'Connor's late father, Gerard, was a pharmacist, and his mother, Carol, 77, who lives in Woodbury and Florida, was active in Nassau Republican politics. She held a series of Nassau government jobs and was district representative for Rep. John LeBoutillier, a Glen Cove Republican who served from 1981 to 1983. O'Connor also is close to his father's first cousin John O'Mara, a GOP lobbyist with ties to former New York Gov. George Pataki and former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato.

O'Connor graduated from Carle Place High School in 1981, and received a bachelor of arts in political science from Boston College in 1985 and a degree from Hofstra Law School in 1988.

O'Connor started his career as an attorney for the Long Island Lighting Company. In 1995, Pataki appointed him as the top attorney for the New York State Insurance Fund, the largest workers' compensation carrier in the state. In 2003, O'Connor was appointed deputy superintendent, with responsibility for the state program that oversees insolvent insurance companies.

O'Connor ran for North Hempstead town board in 1997, and he and another Republican, Angelo Ferrara, won seats on the then all-Democratic board.

Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro, who was town Republican leader at the time, recalled that O'Connor as a town board member, "always did his homework. He had a bright future and I knew he wouldn't stay as a councilman."

In 2001, Republican Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta decided not to seek re-election. On Gulotta's watch, Nassau's debt had climbed to more than $2 billion and a state control board had been created to monitor the county's finances. Fearing voter backlash against the GOP, better-known Republicans declined to make the race.

O'Connor, then 38, announced his candidacy on the steps of the State Supreme Court in Mineola, with his wife and 7-year-old son at his side. No party leaders were with him, Newsday reported at the time.

The Conservative Party had nominated Wall Street financier Bruce Bent, who vowed to challenge O'Connor for the Republican line.

Rather than risk a split between Republicans and Conservatives, Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello supported Bent over O'Connor. O'Connor's county executive campaign was over 48 hours after had announced it.

O'Connor also lost his re-election to the North Hempstead town board.

"That stung," O'Connor recalled.

In 2005, O'Connor and a partner started an insurance law practice that represents insurance companies, municipalities and the insured.

O'Connor returned to government the next year, when North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman, a Democrat, appointed him as commissioner of the town building department. The department was in turmoil. The previous commissioner had resigned after he and other employees were charged by the Nassau County district attorney with accepting kickbacks in exchange for issuing permits and certificates of occupancy.

"Our buildings department was in crisis, and I felt I needed a person who could be above the political fray and also handle the complex challenges we were facing at that time," said Kaiman, who now heads Nassau County's fiscal control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority. "I would say he did an extraordinary job."

O'Connor stayed in the job for a little over a year, and testified in grand jury and two court cases about corruption in the department and about six times before the grand jury.

By then, he and his family had moved to Suffolk. He and his wife have two sons: Thomas, 22, a graduate of the University of Scranton who works in Florida for a flood insurance carrier, and Matthew, 19, who is severely autistic and attends the Ascent School in Deer Park. Daughter Meghan, 13, goes to East Islip Middle School.

O'Connor has campaigned full-time since August, when he took a leave of absence from his law practice. Alone or with a single aide in tow, he crisscrosses the county in his silver BMW sedan, stopping to speak before pretty much any civic group that will have him, and greeting voters at shopping centers.

His news conferences -- intimate affairs that typically attract only a handful of reporters -- focus on a broad swath of Suffolk County issues.

He says he would limit red-light cameras to intersections where there's evidence of safety issues, but would not stop the program. The cameras can be an effective safety tool, but "shouldn't be used as a money grab," O'Connor said. The county says its engineers already pick intersections based on safety data.

O'Connor also has criticized Bellone's policy of not honoring requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants at Suffolk County jails, without warrants, until federal agents can arrest them. O'Connor says that under Bellone, Suffolk has become a "sanctuary city," and says he'd put federal immigration officials "on speed dial."

But O'Connor has spent most of his time talking about the county's "precarious" financial position. He notes that a Wall Street rating agency recently lowered the county's bond rating by a notch. And he argues that Bellone's 2016 budget proposal relies on borrowing and gimmicks, while the gap between recurring revenues and expenditures remains large at more than $90 million.

The police contracts negotiated by Bellone are more expensive in later years, so costs will grow in 2016, 2017 and 2018, O'Connor said. He has challenged Bellone to show how he'd balance the budget in future years, given the increasing contract costs. Neither Bellone's administration nor campaign officials responded to requests for comment for this story. In a News 12 Long Island debate on Oct. 22, Bellone said, "the only thing of substance he [O'Connor] has said in this campaign is he would put a fiscal control board in place."

At the candidates' night in Rocky Point earlier this month, O'Connor stood facing civic association members seated at tables in a half circle, and talked about issues including the budget and high property taxes, noting that his son Thomas -- after graduating from college -- had to move to Florida to find a job.

When the emcee asked if there were any questions, there was silence in the room, then polite applause. O'Connor said afterward that he was surprised there were no questions, but joked, "Maybe they thought, 'I don't want to bother this poor guy.' "

Nonetheless, O'Connor said he believes he has a good shot at victory on Nov. 3. He recalled a county executive upset that few saw coming: Republican Edward Mangano's victory over a Democratic Nassau county executive in 2009.

"Voters really don't focus until the last 10 days of the election," O'Connor said. "I'm hoping my campaign can get the message out there that County Executive Bellone is driving this county off a fiscal cliff."


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