Laura Gillen’s performance in her first term at the helm of the Town of Hempstead has to be graded on a curve, because she was presented with a staggering challenge. Evaluated on that basis, she’s done well.
Even before the Democrat took office in 2018, it became clear Gillen would face extraordinary obstacles in her efforts to confront a Republican power structure that had reigned for 100 years in New York's most populous town. Hempstead’s leaders regularly put partisan politics over good governance and used the jobs and contracts in the town's $437 million annual budget to maintain control and reward loyalty.
Gillen, a 48-year-old attorney from Rockville Centre, won in 2017 in part because Republican voters followed the path of two GOP council members, Bruce Blakeman and Erin King Sweeney, who turned on then-Supervisor Anthony Santino. But after Gillen won and before she took office, Santino and his most loyal allies on the board approved nearly 200 transfers, raises and promotions and granted the town’s unions a no-layoff clause. It was a brazen and irresponsible power grab intended to buy the loyalty of GOP patronage hires and employees and smooth the road for a Republican return to power in future elections.
Gillen sued to rescind the board’s actions, winning on the no-layoff clause and losing on the raises and promotions. But Santino’s gambit and Gillen’s suit, which named every board member, set the tone for a mostly chilly term only occasionally thawed by meaningful progress.
But Gillen did have substantial wins. She can count as some of her triumphs ethics reform that cut down on nepotism and conflicts of interest, increased transparency highlighted by online posting of town contracts, a law to require bidding on all professional services contracts of more than $10,000, a broad reduction in town spending on political mailers masquerading as informational literature and massive increases in road repaving and repairs. She can count among her noble failures attempts to force special elections when board members leave office midterm rather than letting the board appoint new members to give them the advantage of incumbency, pass more robust ethics reforms and impose fully transparent budgeting practices.
Opponent offers no plan
Gillen’s opponent, Republican Town Receiver of Taxes Don Clavin, has run an efficient and effective office for 18 years. He’s known for being responsive to residents’ needs and his department got strong reviews for its handling of a wave of people trying to pay their taxes early as federal changes limiting deductions loomed at the end of 2017.
But Clavin, 50, of Garden City, doesn't provide any plan for putting the town on a better trajectory. He says he wants to cut spending and highlights eliminating take-home cars for nonunion employees as a key idea. But he can’t say how many such cars exist. He can’t say how much the move would save. And he can’t say why he only recently turned in the keys to his town-provided car, a perk he's enjoyed for 18 years.
Clavin also says he wants to modernize and improve town operations, but has few examples beyond remodeling the entrance to the building department and decrying Town Hall's dated décor. His promise to demand the resignations of all commissioners and department heads seems like more of a gimmick than a substantive tactic. He cannot bring himself to condemn Santino’s end-days staffing manipulations. And he seems to have no strong feelings about cozy town deals with Butch Yamali, a powerful and politically generous concessionaire, or the $1.1 million paid over 10 years to county Republican chairman Joseph Cairo and his son for work related to the town-owned Malibu Beach Club. Yamali’s contract extension and rent reduction on the club came without board approval while Yamali was in deep arrears for unpaid rent. Clavin says if a federal investigation finds wrongdoing, it will be punished, but he has nothing to say about the climate that fostered such problems.
Clavin’s response to that scandal mostly has been to point the finger at Gillen for employing as her chief of staff James LaCarruba, who appears to have received improperly generous payouts upon leaving jobs in the City of Long Beach, twice. Clavin certainly has grounds to question LaCarruba’s behavior in Long Beach and Gillen’s judgment in employing him, but it’s crucial for Clavin to confront potential wrongdoing and systemic corruption in Hempstead.
Clavin has focused much of his campaign on attacking Democratic Nassau County Executive Laura Curran’s reassessment plan. It’s an understandable strategy. While Curran’s efforts to straighten out the county’s property-tax system are necessary, there is much uncertainty for many taxpayers and alarm from those homeowners whose taxes could rise. But Clavin’s attacks are disingenuous, both because he will not have the power to affect Nassau’s system if he wins and because he did nothing to address that assessment system when county Republicans were letting it be destroyed by then-County Executive Edward Mangano's freeze of assessments. Hundreds of thousands of taxpayers overpaid and tax-grievance firms generous to Republican causes made hundreds of millions of dollars. Clavin’s news conferences didn’t come until Curran began implementing a fix to the problem, and in fact, in a 2009 op-ed published by several Long Island newspapers, Clavin suggested a multiyear freeze of assessments might be a good idea.
But while Clavin is running a campaign based mostly on fear, Gillen can point to accomplishments on her watch that came about because she was able to work with allies at the state and county level, and at times even her adversaries in the town. It's these initiatives, along with her efforts to clean up the town's way of doing business, that justify her request to the voters for another term. For decades, politicians promised to revitalize Baldwin, but under Gillen, the project received a $10 million state grant in August. The downtown will get a makeover, with improved traffic flow and parking, pedestrian walkways and development combining apartments and businesses. Another $8 million in county and federal funding will go to repave a 1.4-mile stretch of Grand Avenue and add drainage, decorative lighting and benches.
Progress at the Hub
At the Uniondale Hub, Memorial Sloan Kettering opened a cancer center and 450-spot parking garage in April, and Gillen is pushing forward on a $1.5 billion plan to develop the 70 acres into residential units, office and retail space, much-needed hotels, green spaces and walkable streets.
Faced with political opposition and a system resistant to change, Gillen's energy and intensity have never flagged, and her results have been notable.
Clavin says if he’s elected, he’ll be able to make changes because he’ll have the town board on his side. That doesn't ring true. The changes still needed are the ones Gillen has fought for and will continue fighting for, the ones board members supporting Clavin in this race have stymied, the ones Clavin either cannot articulate or does not support. They are solutions to problems Clavin never publicly exposed or addressed in 18 years as an elected town official.
Voters who support progress in Hempstead would be wise to get Gillen more Democratic allies on the board. Board members old and new would be wise to start working with Gillen to move Hempstead forward.
Newsday endorses Laura Gillen.