If you are a Republican in Nassau County who feels that the party’s influence is waning, you’re not alone. When Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello took the reins in 1983, the party enjoyed a 3-to-2 registration advantage over Democrats. By 2017, the Republican juggernaut had evaporated, with the opposition party boasting an edge of 397,859 to 336,208. As of Jan. 1, three of the four countywide elective posts — executive, district attorney and comptroller — are held by Democrats.
Losses suffered in recent elections by Republicans should be a wake-up call for the party of Abraham Lincoln in the county of Theodore Roosevelt. Yet what Mondello has defined as “cyclical,” those of us more grounded in reality would define as “seismic.”
From the federal criminal cases pending against Dean Skelos, Edward Mangano and John Venditto, the term “Nassau Republican” has become synonymous with corruption, nepotism and cronyism. Republican Anthony Santino didn’t earn the trust of taxpayers when he made questionable moves to protect town appointees as he ended his term as Hempstead supervisor. And then his party found him a $170,000-a-year job at the county Board of Elections.
It is not a question of whether the once-vaunted Nassau County GOP machine is dead. It is a question of whether we will recognize the rotting corpse soon enough to prevent the ancillary infection from causing collateral damage that keeps costing us at the polls.
The problem is that our local party leaders have little desire to espouse Republican Party principles — fiscal responsibility, promotion of the general welfare, effective service administration and adherence to the law. They act, instead, as if they have a largesse of goodwill from the electorate. Throwing away opportunities to develop a competitive farm team in favor of shortsighted appointments and endorsements of friends and family members has damaged the party’s prospects.
Yet before we place all the responsibility on the hierarchy, Republicans in Nassau who are not part of the leadership also should point a finger at ourselves. Our complacency has permitted their hijacking of our party. The solution is simple, but not easy. We must decide to take back the future from those who no longer represent a direction we believe in and support.
The best way to remove power from the leaders who have led us down a path to extinction is to wage primaries against their endorsed candidates or defeat them in special elections. A lack of faith in their own choices can be measured in the lengths the Nassau GOP will go to avoid Republican voters being provided with alternative choices at the polling place.
I know firsthand. My own campaign last year for a seat in the county legislature was greeted with questionable tactics by the GOP, including a lawsuit that temporarily removed me from the ballot before the decision was unanimously overturned. Although we were ultimately unsuccessful in the last election cycle’s only GOP primary challenge waged against an establishment-endorsed candidate — Mondello’s grandnephew, to be precise — the experience demonstrates a way to challenge a machine that would rather wage court battles to deny ballot access than discuss issues facing our county and state.
To stand for something beyond nepotism and corruption, individual party members must do more than shake our heads at the often distasteful and sometimes illegal activities that have defined the party. Local GOP leaders have neither the capacity nor the inclination to shift their strategy of supporting the party’s hierarchical structure to enhance the party’s future. Perhaps an optimistic glimmer can be found in the fact that the fate of Nassau’s elections rests in our hands, not theirs.
James Coll, a registered Republican, is an adjunct professor of constitutional history at Hofstra University and the founder of ChangeNYS.org, a not-for-profit advocacy group.