When Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer introduced Steve Bellone at a fundraiser earlier this month, he told the crowd a poll the next day would show that "our great county executive holds a 33-point lead over his opponent."
But just as quickly, Schaffer told them to ignore it. "It's wonderful," said Schaffer, but added, "Take the page, turn it and forget about it. It doesn't mean a thing. . . . All that matters is who shows up on Election Day."
Bellone, 46, then took the podium at the Huntington Hilton and also warned the 350 backers not to be overconfident.
While saying the county has made "tremendous strides" in cutting a deficit of more than $500 million that he inherited, he warned of public dissatisfaction, fueled by Washington gridlock and "those watching the Donald Trump show."
"There's a frustration about government today, a frustration with politics that turns people off," Bellone said. "They feel in many ways government is not working."
As Bellone enters the final week of his campaign for re-election, he and his supporters are confident but not completely comfortable.
Bellone, of North Babylon, says he is running on his record that includes cutting 1,100 jobs from the county payroll, privatizing county health care centers and shutting the county nursing home to save money.
He says he has repaired tattered relations with Albany, freeing the county of $112 million in state-mandated spending on jail construction, and committed $383 million for sewers and shoreline protection.
However, Bellone after four years has yet to close the structural budget gap between county expenses and recurring revenues. In the past two weeks, a Wall Street rating agency downgraded county bonds. Also, sales tax revenues have come in under budget by $51.8 million, according to legislative budget analysts.
Bellone's Republican opponent, James O'Connor, has labeled him "Bellone the Borrower," and has assailed contracts with police unions that will raise detective annual salaries to $227,000 a year by 2020.
John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, says Bellone's budgeting has been a "complete catastrophe," relying on one-shot revenues and more than $200 million in borrowing to pay county pension costs.
A 'powerhouse' candidate
Bellone backers say his personal popularity and the fact that O'Connor, a former one-term North Hempstead town board member, has never run in Suffolk will make the county executive tough to beat.
"He's a powerhouse," Frank MacKay, state and Suffolk Independence Party chairman, said of Bellone. "Even in a Republican-leaning year, I don't think anyone really expects that he will have a troublesome race."
Bellone isn't without critics.
Some say that since taking office in 2012, Bellone sometimes has had trouble coping with the larger county government and a sometimes prickly legislature after years as Babylon supervisor with near total control of town government.
Some high-level county sources recalled that, early in his term, Bellone spent more time at a Panera Bread restaurant than in the office. Some in the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, where Bellone has the top-floor suite of offices, have dubbed him "Bellone alone."
Some sources also say he has become embroiled in what they consider needless fights with his mentor Schaffer, past and present legislative presiding officers and various Republicans -- although the clashes seem less long-lasting and less personal than those his combative predecessor, Republican Steve Levy, engaged in.
"Bellone is learning to pick his battles, where Levy picked every battle," said Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon). Bellone aides cite as an example Bellone's recent decision to agree to sell the former John J. Foley county nursing home in Yaphank to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital, even though he initially had wanted to take a higher offer.
Bellone also is a formidable campaigner, with a trademark wide grin. He lost 70 pounds after taking up marathon running following superstorm Sandy in 2012. The running theme dominates his first television campaign ad.
Those who know him say Bellone sees himself as a big-idea policy wonk. He likes to immerse himself in big projects such as Wyandanch Rising, a mixed residential-commercial project begun during his decade as Babylon town supervisor and now well into construction.
As county executive, Bellone has proposed a Connect Suffolk initiative, a bus rapid-transit plan to improve north-south connections between downtowns and research centers and colleges. Bellone sees it as a way to reduce reliance on automobiles and attract young people to improve the local economy.
In conjunction with Islip Town officials, Bellone has called for a new airline terminal on the north end of Long Island MacArthur Airport to create synergy with the planned Ronkonkoma Hub, a transit-related development centered around the Long Island Rail Road's largest station in Suffolk.
Noting his three young children, Bellone said, "I want them to have a great future in Suffolk. That requires not just thinking about what will get us through the next election cycle. You have to look at what the place is going to look like in 10, 15, 20 years. We have to focus on the long-term challenges."
Growing up in Babylon
The roots of Bellone's political career date to his childhood on Marcy Street in Babylon. Bellone grew up across the street from Schaffer, and his best pal, Robert Stricoff, later would become Babylon Democratic leader.
Bellone's father, Michael, was a New York City correction officer, and his mother, Margaret, a homemaker. It was a Republican household, but Bellone's grandfather, an Irish Catholic immigrant, was a "die-hard Democrat" who had pictures of President John F. Kennedy in every room, Bellone recalled.
After graduating from North Babylon High School in 1987, Bellone volunteered on Schaffer's county legislature campaign and later his re-election. Bellone was a go-getter early on, once collecting 1,100 signatures on Democratic Party nominating petitions, when most committee members bring in 20.
After college and a stint in the U.S. Army, Bellone returned home to work for Schaffer as a Babylon Town aide, attending Fordham University School of Law at night.
While working in Babylon, Bellone met his future wife, Tracey, then a community service aide. Tracey Bellone worked as Suffolk's $110,000-a-year county parks commissioner before Bellone took office, but he included her among 260 layoffs he made shortly after taking office, and while she was on maternity leave. She now works as deputy parks commissioner in Babylon.
As another signal that he was serious about tackling Suffolk's budget problems, Bellone reduced his own salary to $187,000, $4,000 less than what predecessor Levy had received and below the $208,000 they could have received by law. He has promised to keep his pay unchanged next year if re-elected.
Still in budget shortfall
Suffolk's fiscal woes continue to bedevil Bellone after nearly four years in office.
He has taken money-saving steps such as merging the treasurer and comptroller's offices, transferring county park police into the county police force and creating a traffic court to bring in more revenue. He touts the fact that the county property tax levy has stayed within the state's 2 percent tax cap and kept the county general tax rate flat -- although police district taxes have climbed by a total of 10.5 percent since he took office.
On Oct. 8, Standard & Poor's dropped Suffolk's bond rating by a notch and warned that two more downgrades could occur in the next two years if the county does not close its structural deficit. Bellone puts the deficit figure at nearly $100 million a year, but GOP critics say it's double that amount.
Bellone aides say the county executive will not hike taxes just to win Wall Street approval.
An outside consultant in September also found that the county's self-insured employee health plan, which was supposed to achieve $34 million in savings over the past two years, saved only $15 million. Bellone said the contract is working because the unions still are obliged to come up with the savings.
Bellone also defends the police union contracts, saying the county got a better deal than if it had gone to binding arbitration. The contracts will cost $269 million, but Bellone notes that the county will save $43 million by avoiding two years of retroactive pay increases and that lower starting salaries for new officers will produce more savings over the long run.
"It allows us to change the dynamic moving forward, making new cops more affordable," Bellone said. "If you compare the cost to neighboring jurisdictions, we are doing pretty well."
Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a retired Suffolk police detective, said taxpayers can't afford the contract and that salary concessions will run out before many new officers are hired.
"I wish we could pay them $400,000, but we can't afford to pay what they are getting now. It's unsustainable," Trotta said.
Bellone acknowledges the county's efforts to return the budget to structural balance have been slower than he had expected. He attributed the delays to the cost of dealing with historic storms and lagging sales-tax revenues caused by lower gasoline prices and buying over the Internet.
"If sales tax had come in at levels experts were predicting, we would have been on the verge of structural balance right now," Bellone said. He said he expects revenues and expenses to come into balance without extensive use of one-shot revenues in his next term, but could not be more specific.
'I don't hold grudges'
As for reports of political battles with Schaffer and others, Bellone said they are overblown and unfounded.
"I've never been out to get anybody," he said. "I'm here to do a job for people of this county to make it a better place to live . . . I don't hold grudges."
Schaffer acknowledged "some bumps in the road" with Bellone. "But neither he nor I allow it to interfere with our jobs . . . I know what my job is and that is to work to the best of my ability to get him elected."
Schaffer said Bellone has grown in the job. "He charges hard for his agenda, but he's learned to pivot better whether he wins or loses."
Bellone said his biggest accomplishment has been defusing divisions and partisanship that plagued Levy's administration and have paralyzed other levels of government. "We're not engaged in the back and forth you normally see in Washington and Albany as standard fare," he said. "What we do very methodically is work together, identify the problems and continue to move the ball forward over some of the greatest challenges this county has faced."