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Kaiman's profile gets boost with NIFA appointment

North Hempstead Town Supervisior John Kaiman, who is

North Hempstead Town Supervisior John Kaiman, who is leaving office to become disaster recovery czar under Governor Andrew Coumo, works in his office at Town Hall in Manhasset. (Sept 4, 2013) Credit: Howard Schnapp

North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman refers to himself in the third person, drinks coffee from a mug bearing his own name and is a confessed micromanager with a penchant for verbal combat.

Now, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's decision naming Kaiman to dual high-profile posts -- the non-salaried chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority overseeing county spending and the $150,000-a-year superstorm Sandy recovery czar for Long Island -- gives him the platform and the power to match his ambition and oversized personality.

Kaiman's ascent, and the sway he will hold over Nassau and the Island, fits the career narrative the Democrat has crafted for himself.

"I have confidence that I do good things and should be doing bigger things," said Kaiman, 51, who decided against seeking re-election for town supervisor earlier this year. "But maybe it's true, maybe it's not."

It's looking truer than not for Kaiman, viewed at once as a shrewd politician with a quick temper and as a policy wonk preoccupied with the details of government. But even with the power of the two roles, the transition from chief executive to Cuomo's man brings with it fresh challenges.


Leaving North Hempstead

NIFA has had a contentious relationship with Republican County Executive Edward Mangano, who is seeking re-election. Kaiman has said his goal is getting the job done.

"I have an obligation to my new boss not to make things about me," he said.

Kaiman's new jobs -- bringing resources to Sandy-stricken areas of Long Island just as he polices Nassau County's spending as head of the state oversight authority -- affirm to him his place in a world beyond North Hempstead.

"I have the power to influence my community, now my state," he said. "That's kind of a nice place to be. It's not historic yet, maybe. Maybe it will be someday."

The state positions are the latest roles for which Kaiman has been a contender. Kaiman was said to be the top pick to head the Long Island Power Authority before its response to superstorm Sandy prompted Cuomo to shrink the utility and place it under control of PSEG of Newark.

In addition to exploring a bid for Nassau County executive, Kaiman made a short-lived run for Nassau district court judge, a position he previously held.

Going from political candidate to state appointee won't be a problem for Kaiman, said Democratic state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who first got to know him when Kaiman was skipping law-school classes at Hofstra to work on Mark Green's 1986 U.S. Senate campaign.

"He evolved very effectively from being a firebrand candidate to being a hands-on nuts-and-bolts government leader," DiNapoli said of Kaiman.

During Kaiman's 10 years at the town, his administration:

Created the first suburban 311 call center in the country, replacing the confusing, inefficient way residents had interacted with the town.

Began Project Independence, supporting seniors who want to continue living at home as they age.

Built New Cassel's $26 million "Yes We Can" community center, the name reflecting the 2008 campaign slogan of President Barack Obama, whom Kaiman tried to entice to the opening last year. (It didn't work.)

But Kaiman has his share of critics, such as Frank Moroney, the current town Republican leader who ran against him during Kaiman's first race for supervisor in 2003. Moroney said Kaiman has been seen as condescending to his political opponents, and secretive as a government official.

"He has absolutely no desire and understanding of what transparency's about," Moroney said, citing Kaiman's unsuccessful two-year battle to keep Republican county comptroller George Maragos from auditing the town-operated Clinton G. Martin Park District as one example. "I think he ultimately became almost Nixonesque in his trying to keep things from the public."

Kaiman dismissed the criticism as political. "I think my record over the years speaks for itself," he said.


Kaiman, micromanager

Kaiman inserted himself into nearly all aspects of town government, walking through municipal buildings to quiz employees about town business, spending hours at community fairs he helped create, and even driving back from Albany the day he was appointed storm-recovery czar by the governor to preside over that night's town board meeting. These are among the things that make up town government and politics, he said.

"I'm drawn to the energy, the excitement, the substance, the opportunity," he said.

At times, though, his control becomes nearly absolute. For the past 10 years, not a mailing has been sent, a flier posted or a full-time employee hired without first passing through Kaiman's office.

Recently, he pored over a concert announcement produced by the town's communications department, editing the document with a marker before returning the sheet to be redone. Kaiman wants to get the details right, even if it sometimes means taking on tasks that could be delegated.

This can also backfire: When Kaiman ran one of Hofstra's undergraduate newspapers, he said, his entire staff grew so annoyed by his micromanaging that they quit, leaving him to spend the next 72 hours producing and even delivering the issue himself.

While Kaiman believes he's toned down his intensity over the last few years, he's still quick to parry challenges with a lawyer's courtroom indignation.

Kaiman said former town Democratic leader Joseph Galante, noting Kaiman's eagerness for verbal combat, once came up with this wry slogan: "Jon Kaiman: Fighting With the People."

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies, said Kaiman can harness his drive for self-promotion into success, both for himself and the government.

"Jon Kaiman will make the most of his job, not just for his own career, but to accomplish the task at hand," Levy said. "He's smart enough to know that the best way to improve your political chances is by doing a really good job for the people who make those decisions -- whether it's a very powerful governor or the voters."


Jonathan Scott Kaiman


Age 51

Married to wife Kim. Three children: Shaun, Jared and Iyana

Lives in Great Neck

1984: Received a bachelor's degree in political science and history from Hofstra University

1988: Earned law degree from Hofstra University

1988-1998: In private law practice

1998-2000: Public safety commissioner in North Hempstead

2000-2002: Nassau district court judge

2003: Elected North Hempstead Town supervisor

July 2013: Named Long Island storm-recovery czar. Salary: $150,000

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