Local parents and children from the Jericho School District hold...

Local parents and children from the Jericho School District hold a rally to speak out against the conversion of a local hotel into an 80-unit homeless shelter, a first-of-its-kind project in the region on Aug. 8, 2020 in Jericho. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Daily Point

School elections could be a political canary

School board elections often are plagued with low turnout, hum-drum issues and candidates without opponents.

But this year, there are a couple of races worth watching for what signals are sent about the larger cultural-political currents on Long Island.

In Jericho, four candidates are running for two open seats. In recent days, the race has become more heated, with the involvement of two key community groups that became active last year in response to a controversial proposal to bring transitional housing for up to 80 homeless families to the district.

One of the candidates, Old Westbury resident Jennifer Vartanov, last year led the effort to stop Nassau County’s plan to shelter families, through housing that included mental health services and more, at the Hampton Inn in Jericho. Vartanov, through a group called Concerned Jericho Parents, raised $87,587 in a GoFundMe for the effort. Vartanov said she is focusing on creating "an open and honest relationship" between the school district and area residents, citing the transitional housing debacle as one instance where communication was lacking.

The effort last summer, she told The Point, led to her current interest in the school board.

"I found another passion in my life I’m trying to follow," said Vartanov, 39. "Having that open dialogue with the community has really fueled my energy."

Concerned Jericho Parents, meanwhile, also has endorsed candidate Sam Perlman, 52, a Brookville resident and investment manager.

On the other side, a group called Support Jericho Families has endorsed candidates Tom Taubes, 53, who heads the Jericho Athletic Association, and Chris Foresto, 45, the assistant chief of the fire department. In pointed personal social media posts Monday, the group called Vartanov "dangerous."

But The Point found that the issue – and the race as a whole — is not quite so clear. Foresto and Taubes told The Point they initially signed on with Vartanov’s group last summer, as they were worried about the lack of information they had about the housing plan, and Foresto said he worried about it from a fire safety perspective.

Both said they’ve since come to support the facility, although Foresto said the pair didn’t solicit backing from Support Jericho Families.

"Jericho in my mind represents tolerance, inclusivity and diversity and that’s what we want to portray," Foresto said. "If people find that in line with their own personal beliefs, I could see how they might want to support us."

Candidates told The Point they’re trying to focus on other issues, too. Taubes said his first priority is making sure the schools have what they need to open fully in-person come September. Perlman focused on the need for more institutional knowledge and financial management skills.

Nonetheless, if the run-up to the May 18 election continues to play out on social media, it might just become a referendum on the Hampton Inn plan, which remains in litigation.

—Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall

Talking Point

Pro-Trump, Zeldin group turns its attention to Smithtown school board elections

When the Facebook group "Long Island Loud Majority" was founded about six weeks before the 2020 presidential election, the focus was mainly on presidential politics, with members coming together online and in real life to support Donald Trump, police officers and the #Bluelivesmatter culture, and "America First" values.

That push and consistent rallies allowed it to build a big following (the private Facebook group has 21,000 members) and took it through the post-election controversies, culminating in a big cohort from the group attending the Jan. 6 rally-turned-insurrection in Washington.

Kevin Smith, a co-founder of the group, said he was at the Capitol that day but never got close to the action inside.

After Trump left office, the group, angered by COVID-19 restrictions, switched its focus to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Their MAGA hats and shirts, they proclaimed, suddenly stood for "Make Andrew Go Away," and their page declared that Rep. Lee Zeldin would be the state’s next governor.

That push will continue, members say, but for now they are focused on a new, hyperlocal agenda: getting a slate of three candidates elected to the Smithtown Board of Education in the election later this month.

The Smithtown school district has been rocked by both COVID-19, as parent groups formed to push for full-time in-person learning in all grades, and a recent appearance by Broadway actress Diamond Essence White. She talked to students about the importance of literacy and read from the children's book "Not Quite Snow White" in a video that was pre-screened by the district, and she never mentioned current events. But some parents were furious that she had been allowed to speak to the kids because her social media supports Black Lives Matter and she has been outspoken in her attacks on policing.

So why the Smithtown play?

"A few moms reached out to us to tell what was going on, with the district pushing Critical Race Theory and anti-police rhetoric, and we thought we ought to get involved," Smith, who founded the group along with Shawn Farash and Heather Liebman, said. "All politics is really local, these are the races that matter."

Critical Race Theory argues that institutions are inherently racist and function to maintain social, economic and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites that are particularly punishing to Black people.

District officials have apologized for inviting White but not for helping students access challenging and controversial ideas. In a statement about White’s event, Superintendent Mark Secaur wrote, "Going forward, the District's goal will not be to disallow people with strong views ... we actively teach our students the importance of debate and civil discourse. People are entitled to their opinions and political views, and there is a time and place to have an appropriate conversation between people with differing views on important subjects, but must be careful to do so in the proper setting."

Smith is 31, lives in Lindenhurst and delivers groceries for Stop and Shop. He said his issue is the politicization of the curriculum even for young students, a claim district representatives dispute.

"I think school should be about learning reading and writing and math," Smith said. "I don’t think an eight-year-old needs to be a social activist."

—Lane Filler @lanefiller

Pencil Point

Superheroes in the age of COVID-19

Andy Marlette

Andy Marlette

For more cartoons, visit www.newsday.com/nationalcartoons

Final Point

Fleming and others gear up to compete for CD1

Democrats across the board are getting the maneuvering started early for a potential CD1 primary in 2022.

Suffolk County Legis. Bridget Fleming made her campaign official with a Monday launch at which she touted the personal support of Suffolk County Democratic chair Rich Schaffer, Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer Robert Calarco, and a slew of town Democratic chairs, with John Durso’s Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW thrown in.

The early show of strength is a step up from the 2020 campaign, when Fleming didn’t get into the congressional primary until after winning her November county legislative election, by which time 2018 nominee Perry Gershon and eventual 2020 nominee Nancy Goroff had a long headstart in fundraising and campaigning.

Fleming is earlier this time, but other Democratic hopefuls are already running or circling, given the good chance that Rep. Lee Zeldin will still be running for governor rather than again donning the mantle as the GOP incumbent and four-time-victor in the eastern Suffolk district.

Others include John Atkinson, who works at a company that helps people with developmental disabilities and is branding himself as a progressive choice, with a website that supports issues like a federal jobs guarantee and promises he won’t take campaign donations from corporations or political action committees. Atkinson announced his campaign on Saturday and plans a formal virtual launch this week.

Fleming’s legislative colleague Kara Hahn and 2020 nominee Goroff have both told The Point they’re considering a run. And even as Fleming was lining up her party-leader support on Monday, Goroff was the beneficiary of a poll blasted out by the chemist’s old friends 314 Action Fund, a pro-scientist group that is encouraging her to run again. The April poll of 652 likely Democratic primary voters in CD1, conducted by Public Policy Polling on behalf of 314 Action, found that 37% would support Goroff and 22% would support Fleming in a head-to-head matchup, with Goroff having higher favorables — though that’s after Goroff’s campaign spent millions last cycle. The poll also found Fleming with lower unfavorables and also more room to grow with people who weren’t sure.

For her part, Fleming, who has a legislative and prosecutorial background, told The Point that a few things give her a better chance this time around. She had to aggressively defend her seat in the county legislature in 2019 ahead of the even-year congressional race — she has to defend that seat again this year but she said she’s "not aware" whether her GOP opponent is actively campaigning. Her launch at the end of 2019 for the 2020 race was followed by the onset of the pandemic, making it harder to reach voters.

"The combination of those things really made it very challenging to compete with the millions of dollars that were put up by my primary opponents," said Fleming.

Given all the early action in CD1, get ready for another expensive cycle.

—Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano