The fix was in from the start.
Everything people hate about politics in general, and Suffolk County politics in all its dirty particulars, was wrapped up in last month’s Republican primary for county sheriff. And when GOP voters rejected their party’s nominee in favor of an outsider, they took a striking stand against cross endorsements, races rigged by party bosses, and backroom deals for Election Day patronage spoils.
Now it’s voters all over Suffolk who need to do the right thing, again, in the Nov. 7 general election. Because the swamp still stinks.
Lawrence Zacarese, 42, of Kings Park, the assistant chief of the Stony Brook University police department and its director of emergency management, is the GOP outsider who defeated State Sen. Phil Boyle in the primary. Boyle, who had no law enforcement experience, got the backing of the Conservative Party and used that as leverage to get the Republican and Independence designation. He also was poised to get the Democratic nod as well in a bit of convoluted deal-making between Democratic Party boss Richard Schaffer and de facto Conservative head Edward Walsh.
Schaffer agreed to lie low in return for his goodies — including a split of Supreme Court judgeships by cross-endorsing each other’s candidates — because the contest was important to Walsh for two reasons. Walsh wanted to get rid of current Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, a registered Conservative who supplied the evidence that led to the federal corruption conviction of Walsh, a former corrections lieutenant. And the county jail has been a power base for Walsh, who influenced assignments, promotions and overtime, and who also once jettisoned a sheriff, Al Tisch, when he wouldn’t play ball.
Zacarese’s primary win upended the odious revenge plan and cast an illuminating spotlight on the party bosses’ shenanigans. So Schaffer and Walsh shifted gears but kept plotting, this time by exploiting state election law and nominating their sheriff picks for judgeships. That’s allowed when the nominees are attorneys like Boyle, the Conservative choice, and former Huntington Town Councilman Stuart Besen, the Democratic placeholder who was keeping the seat warm for Boyle. Nominating each for a Supreme Court judgeship on the Independence line, yet another backroom deal, freed up their ballot lines for another candidate for sheriff.
Enter Democrat Errol Toulon Jr., 55, of Lake Grove, who now has the well-oiled backing of the Democratic, Conservative and Independence parties. Having served 25 years in two stints with New York City’s Department of Correction, the last three years as deputy commissioner of operations before his resignation in January, Toulon at least has paper credentials. But even apart from the way in which he was nominated, his party has pulled so many strings for him over the years that he now is constricted by them.
Between his two city stints, Toulon was hired by the Democratic administration of County Executive Steve Bellone as an assistant deputy county executive working on public safety. He also was appointed to a paid position on the board of the Suffolk County Water Authority, and ran unsuccessfully for the county legislature and State Senate. And at least one family member has gotten jobs from Toulon’s party connections. Toulon admits that after his January resignation from his job as a deputy commissioner on Rikers Island, he asked Schaffer whether the chairman had a job for him. But Toulon also says he never was interested in the sheriff’s position until Schaffer approached him after Boyle lost the GOP primary. Given the way the Democrats are now touting Toulon’s qualifications, why wasn’t he the first choice all along, not the fourth pick?
Toulon cannot turn out a corrupt system because he has benefited repeatedly from it. His argument that his late entry into the race means he is not beholden to anyone does not hold water. No matter his qualifications, he hasn’t shown he has the independent streak to say no to these powerful party leaders and purge the sheriff’s office of its rot.
Zacarese, on the other hand, is a true political outsider making his first run for elected office. He took on his party’s designee and won. He owes no one. He has extensive law enforcement experience in his job at Stony Brook and as an NYPD officer for 11 years before that. A former firefighter and paramedic, Zacarese also earned a law degree while working at Stony Brook.
He’s also done his research on the sheriff’s position. Zacarese has a detailed knowledge of the job, the department’s budget, the deputies he would supervise and the jail system he would run. We like his warning that people in patronage positions might be reassigned and his promise to institute a culture change — give eight hours of pay for eight hours of work and make assignments, promotions and overtime based on merit.
He wisely wants to keep and strengthen the many good programs started by DeMarco, while shoring up deficiencies in technology and personnel training; many corrections officers, he says, lack CPR training and have not been recertified in firearms. He wants to start planning for an anticipated wave of retirements in 2018; that includes finding ways to attract a better class of recruits, given that starting salaries are too low, and to get the newcomers trained. He also wants to use his grant-writing experience to aggressively seek outside funding for programs and initiatives.
Mostly, we like that Zacarese says he does not want to be a one-term sheriff, but that he’s willing to pay that price if that’s the consequence of not playing politics.
Republican voters lobbed the first grenade into business-as-usual in their primary last month. Next month, county voters can make another statement for independence and decency and start draining the swamp that is Suffolk County politics.
Newsday endorses Zacarese.