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The task now for Democrats is to govern

Democratic Nassau County executive-elect Laura Curran, Hempstead Town

Democratic Nassau County executive-elect Laura Curran, Hempstead Town Supervisor-elect Laura Gillen and Town Clerk-elect Sylvia Cabana celebrate their victories Tuesday night in New Hyde Park. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The house that the Nassau Republican machine built over generations has gone from diamond to fixer-upper.

For only the third time since the office was created in 1938, a Democrat will serve as Nassau County executive. And for the first time in Nassau history, that county executive will be a woman. Democrats also won a hard-fought race for comptroller (an office once held by my former colleague, now-Rep. Peter King).

And stunningly, the Town of Hempstead — long viewed as impregnable to Democrats — now has a Democratic supervisor for the first time since 1905 (when Theodore Roosevelt lived in the White House).

Now the task for Nassau County’s new leaders is to govern, and to govern well.

It won’t be easy. The local political upheaval coincides with global economic, cultural and demographic changes. In this new age, our suburbs are changing rapidly, and local governments must either get in front of those changes or watch an inexorable decline.

For 16 years, I watched the changes from Congress. One of the most important projects of our national intelligence agencies is a regular assessment of global conditions in the next few decades. “Global Trends” is produced for every incoming or re-elected president. It doesn’t attempt to predict the future, but outlines several possible megatrends and game-changers that will shape the world.

What do county executive-elect Laura Curran, Hempstead Supervisor-elect Laura Gillen and other new leaders confront?

First, massive change in demography and population. We’re about to witness one of the largest growth rates in the elderly population in history. That means that local governments will need to focus on the delivery of innovative services for constituents living longer than anyone expected. Former North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman created Project Independence to help aging residents remain in their own communities by coordinating services with many local partners. We’ll need to build on that innovation.

Second, people leaving suburbs for cities. Today, 50 percent of the world population awoke in a city. Within two decades, it will grow to 60 percent. County and town governments will need to rethink decades-old zoning and planning policies and build local consensus on new ways of retaining our population. That means revitalizing downtowns, incentivizing workforce housing near train stations, and more. Continued migration of young families to cities means those of us remaining will be paying higher taxes.

Third, an economy changing radically. Globalization, automation and migratio have buffeted the middle class. A new economic development strategy will need to focus on the job disrupters of the next few decades: cyber defense, robotics, artificial intelligence, health sciences and more. That means a coordinated effort with our local schools to make sure they are teaching the skills necessary to get the job that will be available instead of the job that’s extinct.

The very nature of where and how we shop will change. Driverless cars will mean smaller retail parking lots; online shopping will reconfigure retail sprawl. Yesterday’s big-box retail developments could be tomorrow’s abandoned, boarded-up hulks. By imagining the economy of 2030 now, we can grow into success or decline into wasteland.

Even our weather is likely to change. Whether or not you accept the science of climate change, the fact is that we’re witnessing weather events that are more intense and less stable. These impacts are particularly severe on an island. We’re still dealing with the impact of superstorm Sandy in 2012. Planning and building codes will need to emphasize resiliency. That means opportunity: smart economic development will focus on modernizing our grid, designing new housing and building materials, advancing energy efficiency and developing resilience technologies.

Sound daunting? It isn’t.

Nassau County was America’s first suburb. We transformed potato fields and pumpkin farms into the defense capital and then aerospace capital of America. We educated, researched, developed, engineered, assembled, and landed Americans on the moon. Those priorities made us a model of an American middle class that was productive, prosperous and stable at a time of wrenching change.

Those feats required vision, planning, and effective leadership.

That is the task of governing in this new age. If we do this right, America’s first suburb will once again be a model to all the others.

Steve Israel is a former Democratic congressman from Huntington.

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