Tuesday night, election returns rocked Long Island and the nation as Republicans notched extraordinary gains. In Suffolk County, where the GOP had hoped to seize a thin margin of control in the legislature in part by nabbing an open seat in Huntington, they instead secured a comfortable majority.
As that became clear, the immediate political conversation centered on a potential feud between Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and the legislature’s Republicans, likely to be led by current minority leader Kevin McCaffrey. In that new majority there could emerge a separate power bloc of Republicans, of whom Robert Trotta is the most consistently vocal, that could grow in size and power, slowing progress, too.
But then, Wednesday’s vote on the county budget ended in an 18-0 "yes" tally that included Trotta’s first "Aye" on an annual spending plan in his legislative career. With that, and declarations from electeds of both parties that they would work together, hope emerged that the county’s power split would not mean two years full of infighting and devoid of accomplishment.
In Nassau, where Democratic County Executive Laura Curran is likely to lose to Republican Bruce Blakeman pending a final count, and Republicans could gain a legislative supermajority, partisan bickering will be harder to avoid. Blakeman ran promising to negate many of Curran's initiatives, but it would be wrong to govern reflexively on that rhetoric. He needs to take a fresh look at issues, like the assessment overhaul, where promising big changes made for good campaigning but would likely be poor governance.
The challenges Suffolk County faces are not particularly partisan. There is no need for political divides to impact their resolution.
Lawmakers must make a conscious, consistent effort to tamp down the mood of confrontation that fueled Tuesday’s results and informed much of the energy around the election, particularly in Suffolk, if they want to guide the county through a moment filled with both perils and opportunity.
And they can. McCaffrey is no flamethrower. A career in union leadership with the Teamsters has taught him to fight hard, then compromise. He will need to think twice about continuing his role as a union president. Presiding officer is a big responsibility, and it's unlikely to go well with a key elective union position.
Bellone usually doesn’t go out of his way to pick fights, either, and Trotta, who sometimes seems to, now says the areas of agreement between the factions far outweigh the conflicts. That's promising.
So what’s the blueprint?
BUDGET COMES FIRST
The first and primary challenge to competent governance is the budget, and for Suffolk right now budgetary planning is a fine showcase for potential pitfalls and advances. The books are balanced and the coffers are overflowing, thanks to windfalls from federal COVID-19 relief and opioid settlements and sales tax revenue that has exploded. But the bailouts and settlement money are not recurring. That means prudent spending must address problems like addiction, COVID recovery, and protection of both ground and surface water via sewering and improved septic systems, but in ways that don’t create expenses in perpetuity.
Caution is needed because an unprecedented 20% increase in sales-tax revenue this year could easily be followed by a big drop in 2022, because much of that increased revenue comes from sales tax on sky-high fuel prices that we hope will drop quickly and soon, and because rampant inflation could lead to both an economic crisis and demands from county workers for big pay hikes.
After the budget, working together on infrastructure and water quality has to be the biggest priority. Sewer projects across the county, including but not limited to Smithtown, Kings Park, Patchogue, Babylon Town, and Oakdale, must move forward. One area of potential conflict, the contested efficacy of expensive sewage treatment systems homeowners now must install when they build new construction or change the footprint of an existing home, has to be argued on facts and reason.
Another crucial challenge is the selection of a police commissioner by Bellone, and the nominee's approval by the legislature. Suffolk managed quite well the job of bringing all sides together to author a state-required policing reform plan. The new leader must be dedicated to implementing it. He or she also must lead a continuing effort to improve the culture and conduct of a department that has too often been insensitive to the community, cavalier in its approach, and accepting of improper conduct.
Then there is redistricting, which is certain to create a kerfuffle in a legislature where power is so finely balanced. It has to be bipartisan and fair, putting the needs of communities that deserve to have and share a voice ahead of political opportunists who'd draw gerrymandered caricatures of districts to advance their own needs.
The process that led to that police-reform plan, much like Wednesday’s 18-0 budget vote, is an indicator that the sides can get along. The issues and circumstances would certainly allow it.
The only reason to have a huge political fight in Suffolk is politics itself, and the desire to score points via conflict. But that does nothing for residents. Nor, as voters become more and more frustrated, for elected officials who court conflict.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.