The Breakfast Table

The Nassau County GOP Machine Blows a Gasket

As long as we’re making of list of people who are not running for president next year, I think we can safely add the names of all the Nassau County Republicans who got ousted from office this week. I’ve been thinking how amazing it is, after nearly a century of Republican rule here on Long Island, that the voters finally got fed up enough to buck the system. These Republicans were so well entrenched that they made Mayor Richard Daley’s machine in Chicago look amateurish. What finally did them in was making a financial muck of the county’s budget, getting the county’s bond rating downgraded, and proposing a big county tax increase this year.

I’ve always thought that the history of the ascent–and now perhaps, fall–of the Nassau GOP would make a wonderful nonfiction book. Fraught with intrigue, double-crossings, party leaders who went to jail, demands that loyal followers tithe 1 percent of their salary to the system. I saw this quote this week in the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, in which a GOP loyalist was boasting publicly about how well organized a “machine” the Republican Party was in getting out the vote.

I remember, when I used to cover county politics for Newsday, how frustrating it was to run up against that implacable wall of united party loyalty. The Republicans used to hold these “informal” private meetings where all the issues would be decided in a conference room. Then they would emerge to take a “public” vote at meetings, often with little or no discussion of even the most complicated topic. If anyone attending the public meeting raised a question about this procedure, the Republicans would react in shock–and belligerence–at the idea of being challenged.

The Republican machine in Nassau is a real throwback politically to the way things used to be done routinely; the fact that it’s survived so long is amazing. It’s like the political equivalent of one of those tribes of wholly isolated people that explorers stumble on from time to time in the jungle. Over the years, as the world around the Nassau Republicans changed and got more sophisticated and subtle, the GOP just hunkered down protecting a philosophy of backroom business as usual.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the county executive, a Republican named Gulotta, who is widely credited with the budget fracas, comes up for election next. He’s enjoyed a comfortable decade or more in office.