Craig Johnson, then-Democratic State Senate candidate, in January 2007.

Craig Johnson, then-Democratic State Senate candidate, in January 2007. Credit: James A. Escher

Daily Point

When Craig Johnson's win chipped away at GOP State Senate control

Hard-fought special elections in the cold of February to represent northwest Nassau County in a chamber where majority control is on the cusp of change have a what’s-old-is-new-again ring.

Nearly 17 years ago, on Feb. 6, 2007, there was a special election to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of GOP State Sen. Michael Balboni who left to become deputy secretary for public safety in the administration of newly elected Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat.

In what was then the 7th Senate District and fully inside what is the much larger 3rd Congressional District in play now, Democrats held an enrollment edge but never the seat.

Nassau Democrats choose a popular young county legislator, Craig Johnson, and the Republicans picked Maureen O’Connell, a well-regarded former Assembly member who was and still is the Nassau County clerk.

“Democrats wanted to chip away at Republican control of the Senate where they had a two-seat majority,” Johnson told The Point. He won, becoming the only Democratic senator from Long Island at the time, a crack in what was the famed Long Island Nine GOP delegation and the foreshadowing of the GOP losing control of the chamber in 2010.

“The fight was couched as a fight for control of the Senate and though a [GOP] loss would not mean a flip, it would certainly give Democrats momentum for the next election,” recalled Balboni, who also noted the enormous sums of money spent then and what will be spent now.

Today, the fight is over who will complete the congressional term of the expelled George Santos, but it’s also the start of the national battle to win control of the House of Representatives in 2024. Democrats have placed their bets on former seat-holder Tom Suozzi in the Feb. 13 special election, while Republicans are still evaluating their options for an election that is just 67 days away.

And, as is expected in the next weeks and months in Nassau, the parties back in 2007 spent lavishly and brought out the big guns, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“I remember one weekend I was in Elmont doing an event with Hillary, and Maureen was at the Floral Park train station with Rudy Giuliani, and they were crushed because everyone wanted to meet America’s mayor,” Johnson said.

Michael Bloomberg, then a Republican and the mayor of NYC and at war with Spitzer, donated $75,000 to the Nassau GOP in 2007. Overall, an astronomical amount of $4 million was spent in several weeks on a State Senate race. Spending in the upcoming House race is projected to be $20 million, in what would be another milestone in special election spending.

“There are a lot of parallels between then and now,” said Rich Azzopardi, Johnson’s deputy director of communications during that campaign who now heads his own public relations firm. “This is a very consequential race for making Hakeem Jeffries the Speaker and it includes some of the very same people who were involved in 2007,” he said. “Suozzi was a big pillar in Johnson’s coalition,” he said. In 2007, Suozzi was the Nassau County executive who had just lost a gubernatorial primary to Spitzer, which reverberated last year when Suozzi lost a gubernatorial primary to Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Johnson later lost in 2010 to Jack Martins, then the mayor of Mineola, in a race that was in part about high taxes; Democrats had approved the reviled MTA payroll tax. Martins’ victory came two years after his run at a congressional seat held by Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed in the LIRR massacre in 1993. On a second try for the House, Martins lost to Suozzi in 2016. Martins, now back in the State Senate, is one of the names being mentioned as the possible GOP contender against Suozzi but there’s a sense that he doesn’t really want to see whether the third time is the charm.

Balboni, now the head of RedLand Strategies, a government consulting firm, had another insight into February special elections. In 1990, he won a special election to fill the Assembly seat vacated by Kemp Hannon. “It could be cold,” he said.

Johnson had the same warning. “You need to walk door to door to win a special and that’s good because you need to keep your legs moving to stay warm.”

— Rita Ciolli rita.ciolli@newsday.com

Pencil Point

For the last Time

Credit: Columbia Missourian/John Darkow

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Final Point

Seeking 'pro-housing' communities

Just six Long Island communities have expressed interest in becoming “pro-housing” communities — the new designation established by New York State that provides municipalities with a leg up in the competition for various existing pots of state funding.

Those communities have 90 days to officially apply and be reviewed for certification, state officials told The Point. Once the certification process is complete, the state will publicly announce which communities have been certified.

State officials would not disclose which communities have expressed interest. But The Point confirmed that Mineola and Patchogue — both communities that already have built hundreds of housing units — are among them.

Mineola Mayor Paul Pereira told The Point he had no doubt about applying for the designation.

“Of course we should do it,” Pereira said. “They’d probably be hard pressed to find anyone on Long Island that’s as pro-housing as the village of Mineola. We thought it was a no-brainer to get the designation because we kind of already have it, as it’s already self-imposed.”

According to Pereira, Mineola has built 1,200 housing units in the last decade, 500 of which have come in the last five years — and an additional 700 units are approved and already in the pipeline.

Pereira said he’s particularly focused on the state’s NY Forward and Downtown Revitalization Initiative programs, which offer a total of $14.5 million to award to municipalities looking to add housing and otherwise improve their downtowns. He noted that Mineola is seeking state funding to help upgrade its infrastructure in areas like water, sewer and roads. While in Suffolk County, some municipalities are looking for sewers they’ve never had, in Nassau, officials are talking about the need for upgrades to infrastructure that’s aging.

“We should be the example that they’re using for everybody else, that this is how it’s done,” Pereira said. “We’ve done it without a lot of recognition, and more importantly, without a lot of financial support, from the state. We could use it now.”

Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri Jr. at the "New Village" development in...

Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri Jr. at the "New Village" development in the downtown area, where the village added multifamily housing and retail space, in 2015. Credit: Steve Pfost

In Patchogue, Mayor Paul Pontieri has been well-known for his work in building housing; the village has added about 700 units over 15 years, with another 300 units to come. But Pontieri said he applied for the pro-housing certification “with trepidation.”

“The amount of documentation you’ve got to put together of what you’re doing and what you’ve done and what your plans are is tremendous,” Pontieri said. “It’s more complicated than it needs to be.”

Pontieri said a simpler process would likely result in interest from more local municipalities.

“We’re pro-housing. We built it. We say we’re going to do it and we do it. We do all the things they want us to do,” Pontieri said. “Just take a look at what we’ve done.”

Other local officials said they weren’t entirely surprised that more Long Island communities hadn’t applied for the pro-housing designation because some of the available pots of money aren’t applicable to every local municipality. One local official familiar with the pro-housing program said the designation had limited impact for communities that had already won or wouldn’t necessarily seek the DRI or NY Forward grants.

“I think they were rushing to put something in place, to say they were doing an incentive-based approach, and it may not have been well thought out,” the official said.

For Pereira, however, it’s a simpler calculation.

“Why not [apply]?” he asked. “It’s something we can hang our hat on … I don’t understand the downside.”

— Randi F. Marshall randi.marshall@newsday.com

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