Column: Negative politics wins in Suffolk

Steve Bellone was reelected Suffolk County executive in the leading race in this year’s election in Suffolk. Mr. Bellone won, but the campaign he conducted was highly negative, the most negative I’ve ever observed for the position. And I’ve covered campaigns for Suffolk County executive since the 1960s when H. Lee Dennison was the first to hold the job.

Relations have long been contentious between Democrat Bellone and the Republican challenger he defeated, County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., but after this race and its torrent of Bellone attack ads, we can expect their relationship to be even more rocky.

Towards the end of the contest, the Kennedy campaign mailed out a flier, declaring: “Why Is Steve Bellone Shovelin’ Mud At John Kennedy And His Family? Because He Doesn’t Want You To Know About His Disastrous Record As Suffolk County Executive.”

Mr. Kennedy as comptroller, the county’s fiscal watchdog, and previously a Suffolk legislator, has been highly critical of Mr. Bellone’s financial management as county executive.

Mr. Bellone has blamed the situation on what he describes as the financial situation the county was left in by his predecessor, Steve Levy, whom he succeeded in 2012.

But years afterward — this year and last — the office of New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (a Long Island Democrat) has identified Suffolk County government as the “most fiscally stressed” county government in all of New York State.

Mr. Bellone’s handling of finances was the central issue of the Kennedy campaign.

In conceding the race to Mr. Bellone on Election Night, Mr. Kennedy blamed his loss on the large Bellone campaign war chest, many times that of his own, and Mr. Bellone’s “vile” campaign ads that included one depicting Mr. Kennedy and his family as pigs at the trough.

“It’s amazing what a $2 million campaign full of lies and misrepresentation can do,” Mr. Kennedy told a crowd of about 200 supporters. “I kept it clean, unlike my opponent.”

He vowed as comptroller to continue to fight “vigorously” against waste, fraud and fiscal abuse in county government. Mr. Kennedy declared: “Bellone better keep looking over his shoulder.”

So that’s ahead in the relationship between the Suffolk County executive and Suffolk Country comptroller.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bellone could have more conflict ahead in his relationship with the Suffolk County Legislature because of last week’s election.

A vote recount is underway, but if Legislator Bill Lindsay III (D-Bohemia), indeed has lost (results on Election Night had him defeated by 223 votes) to Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville), that would mean Republicans will hold eight seats on the legislature.

The current Democratic majority would be reduced from 11 to 10. There are matters on which 12 votes are needed for legislative passage, including bonding resolutions.

It will “make it harder” with a reduced majority of 10 for Democrats to get to 12 votes, said a legislative source last week. Getting support of one GOPer would not be enough; two would be needed.

Further, the Democratic leadership of the legislature is independent. Mr. Bellone years ago pushed for an ally, then Legislator Louis D’Amaro (D-North Babylon) to become the presiding officer over DuWayne Gregory. Presiding Officer Gregory, a Democrat, recently put together a nine-member Budget Working Group composed, notably, of both Democratic and Republican legislators.

Another remarkable happening in last week’s election was the defeat of Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. In 2017, she was elected the first female supervisor of the town in its 226-year history. But Democrat Jens-Smith lost last week to Republican Yvette Aguiar. Ms. Aguiar has an unusual background: she is the retired supervisor of the New York City Police Department’s Counterterrorism Division.

She will be the first Latina town supervisor in Suffolk County history.

Importantly, she put a focus in her campaign of going door-to-door. “I knocked on over 11,000 homes,” said Ms. Aguiar. “I spoke to everyone.”

Interestingly, Mr. Piccirillo said something identical to that on Election Night. He attributed what might be his victory to knocking also on 11,000 doors, and also 10,000 two years before when he ran against Mr. Lindsay, but narrowly lost. He said “21,000 doors in two cycles is a lot of doors.”

Former county executive Levy was a county legislator first elected at age 26. And then as a state assemblyman, he was a pioneer in Suffolk campaigning by going door-to-door. He emphasized that as a Democrat in heavily Republican Islip Town, that person-to-person contact was key.

Clearly it can be. But attack ads, sadly, can also be a winning strategy.