Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's first two years in office saw a remarkable string of victories. But if the governor wants to keep this streak alive, he needs to tread very carefully when it comes to his idea to privatize the Long Island Power Authority. Electric utility issues are the third rail of Long Island politics. There's a long history of political fortunes made and lost here over electricity.
Republican Lou Howard was the powerful presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature until his support for the Shoreham nuclear power plant prompted a bipartisan coalition to replace him with an anti-Long Island Lighting Co. county legislator, Gregory Blass.
Blass was then recruited by the Republican Party to run for Congress in 1986, after GOP leaders deemed the re-election of Rep. William Carney (R-Hauppauge) unlikely because of his support for Shoreham. Blass lost the November election to Democrat George Hochbrueckner, an anti-Long Island Lighting Co. and former state assemblyman.
Although it damaged their political careers, Carney and Howard should both be credited for sticking to their personal beliefs in the face of overwhelming opposing public sentiment.
Republican Suffolk County Executive Peter Fox Cohalan, who was first elected in 1979 and re-elected in 1983, was considered a leader of the Shoreham opposition and roundly mentioned as a possible statewide candidate. But public opinion turned sharply in 1985 when he dropped his long-held opposition to a Shoreham emergency evacuation plan, which most public officials considered impossible to implement. Cohalan resigned to start a long, distinguished career as a judge.
A later successor, Republican County Executive Robert Gaffney, vowed to "stop LILCO dead in its tracks" and won re-election in a 65 percent landslide in 1995.
Even presidential politics hasn't been immune from Shoreham's reach. Mounting pressure from Long Island's anti-nuclear activists during the 1988 Republican primaries forced George H.W. Bush to issue a statement mollifying their concerns over his support of nuclear power.
In his State of the State address last month, Cuomo flatly stated, "When it comes to the Long Island Power Authority, it's never worked, it never will, and the time has come to abolish LIPA." He's right about the first part. LIPA has certainly never worked how it was originally envisioned.
The second part of his statement is where there's room for debate. Nobody argues that LIPA is operating smoothly; everybody agrees that something needs to be done. But is privatization the answer?
Some experts feel going back to the original plan of voters directly electing the board of LIPA is the way to go. To come up with the best possible solution, this needs to be an all-options-are-on-the-table process.
The governor should keep two things in mind: After more than 30 years of enduring controversy and debate, the voters of Long Island are smarter than the average bear when it comes to power issues. Second, Long Island has the distinction of being one of the few places in the world where local opposition halted the operation of a nuclear power plant. Most of the activists who led that effort are still around. If a majority of them feel that any proposed solution is bad for the region, the last thing privatization proponents should want to hear is, "We're getting the band back together."
The goal of any proposal should be for Long Island to finally head down the tracks to more renewable and affordable energy, supplied with the ability to manage the infrastructure. Just watch out for that third rail.
Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.