Politics & Policy

How a Political Machine Crushes Conservatism — and Democracy

Nassau County executive Edward Mangano following his arraignment in October 2016 (Reuters photo: Shannon Stapleton)
The Nassau County GOP leadership dispenses jobs and contracts — and intimidation to any who seek to challenge it.

Nassau County, N.Y. — We are often mistaken in life when we assume that the grass is greener on the other side, but those of us who have seen the politics of Nassau County up close can truly say that about politics beyond our county lines. Despite being one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, Nassau has the dubious distinction of imposing (along with New York’s Rockland and Westchester Counties) the highest property-tax rates in the country while simultaneously being unable to make ends meet. The county government is alone among New York’s 62 counties in having been subject to a fiscal control board for the past six years, and local government in America is rarely if ever more expensive than it is here, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans. Wherever the Republican party fails to provide a fiscally conservative alternative to the Democratic party, those residents who do not move to more fiscally attractive locales will, in all likelihood, continue being fleeced by the government.

Not coincidentally, Nassau is also one of the most corrupt counties in the nation, home to perhaps the last large-scale, boss-dominated, patronage-driven political machine outside Chicago, which, unsurprisingly, also suffers from chronic maladministration. Unlike other county Republican organizations, the Nassau GOP has a rigid, top-down organizational structure with absolute power vested in its chairman, who for the past 34 years has been Joe Mondello.

The chairman’s power endures amid a culture of sycophancy and clannish distrust of anyone outside his inner circle of party bosses. Such a culture leads to government run by influence peddlers and special interests. The Nassau GOP’s nominating “conventions” are scripted rubber stamps of Mondello’s picks to run on the party line — and back-room bullying usually deters anyone who would consider a primary.

Unchallenged in primaries, Republican bosses are glad to split the power with Democratic bosses. (Edward Mangano, Nassau’s Republican county executive, openly endorsed Democrat Andrew Cuomo in New York’s 2014 gubernatorial election over Republican Rob Astorino.) Nassau may well be the least (small-d) democratic county in the least democratic state in the country — the indictments of four of the top elected Nassau Republicans over the last two years (Dean Skelos, Mangano, John Venditto, and Edward Ambrosino) have not chastened the bosses.

Take the largely unreported story of Efraim Spagnoletti, a two-term member of the city council in Nassau County’s North Shore community of Glen Cove. Spagnoletti is a staunch conservative Republican, but party bosses, determined to oust him, refused to endorse him for reelection in 2015. He fought an excruciating Republican primary anyway and won, aided by his incumbency and Glen Cove’s smaller voting base. Despite his primary victory, the Nassau GOP circulated sample ballots instructing voters not to vote for Spagnoletti that November. He won that general election, but this year, as he is again up for reelection, the machine again decided to oust him — endorsing as a Republican city-council candidate in his place the leader of the Glen Cove Democratic party.

New York’s unusual electoral system includes what is known as fusion balloting, in which a candidate can run simultaneously under more than one party line; a major-party candidate may therefore seek to have his name appear as the candidate of any number of third parties. Nearly every candidate who runs as a Republican in New York also seeks to run on the line of the state’s Conservative party.

A majority of the executive committee of the Nassau Conservative party acts as Mondello’s rubber stamp — they are at his mercy, because as GOP boss he dispenses municipal government jobs and contracts.

In theory, the Conservative party exists to discourage the Republican party from nominating non-conservative candidates. But in practice, a majority of the executive committee of the Nassau Conservative party acts as Mondello’s rubber stamp — they are at his mercy, because as GOP boss he dispenses municipal government jobs and contracts. (Most executive committee members hold municipal jobs in Nassau.)

Accordingly, the Nassau Conservative-party leadership endorsed the Glen Cove Democratic leader and, exploiting an arcane provision of New York’s election law, barred Spagnoletti’s name from appearing on the ballot under the Conservative-party line, denying registered Conservative voters the opportunity of a primary to choose their own nominee. In 2014, a group of principled Conservatives had attempted to enlist enough Conservative-party committee members to replace the bought-off leadership of the county party so that it would no longer get away with blocking anyone who was not Mondello’s pick. But there were enough patronage workers within the Conservative party’s ranks to quell the coup.

What had Spagnoletti done to earn his party’s enmity? He endorsed my campaign for Congress in 2014, after which the Glen Cove GOP leader immediately instructed him not to attend future GOP leadership meetings. I had first run for the House seat, which sits entirely within Nassau County’s borders, in 2010, after building the kind of grassroots campaign that candidates do all over the country. But here, Mondello’s vice-chairman warned machine leaders that if a perceived outsider like me won the seat, it would encourage other Republicans not picked by Mondello to step forward to run for other offices in Nassau. (The horror!)

People who had municipal jobs or contracts to lose were then intimidated into not supporting me. Initially supportive Conservative-party leaders, fearful of losing their livelihood, blocked my name from their ballot. I was no longer permitted to speak at local Republican clubs. I was defeated in a low-turnout Republican primary in which patronage workers disseminated fraudulent campaign literature. As Deroy Murdock noted at NRO, the machine’s flyers called me, a lifelong conservative Republican, an “ultra-liberal” and a Democrat. The primary winner, Mondello’s handpicked candidate, was then largely abandoned by the machine in the contest against the Democratic candidate in November.

If I tried to run again, I expect this same process would repeat, because it happened each of the three times I ran.

Why care about such “inside baseball”? Because these dynamics do much to determine how well local government serves the people. The party bosses who prosper understand that to control the nominating process is to control the government, and to control the government is to be able to use it as their personal piggy bank.

The party bosses who prosper understand that to control the nominating process is to control the government, and to control the government is to be able to use it as their personal piggy bank.

Few voters know the stories of Efraim Spagnoletti and the Glen Cove primary of 2015, my congressional campaigns, and the failed 2014 Nassau Conservative-party insurgency. But you can bet that elected officials in the county know, and they get the message: Follow the bosses, because it is the bosses and not the people who decide whether they will serve as elected officials. This year, there might be one more rare Republican primary in Nassau if James Coll, a New York City police detective trying to run for an open seat in the county legislature, submits a sufficient number of petitions to establish his candidacy. His machine-designated primary opponent would be John Ferretti Jr., Mondello’s nephew.

Although many Republican officeholders privately admit they are unhappy with Mondello’s rule, they dare not act on it for fear of the consequences. Consider how different things would be if more Republicans ran primaries against the worst of the machine candidates and won. Every time a potential independent Republican candidate declines to run, the bosses effectively win a silent primary without having to earn a single vote. That is the surest means of keeping a place reform-proof.

The tragedy — but also the hope — is how easily voters could turn this around if they voted in primary elections. A Coll victory, local as it would be, could open the door to cleaning up Nassau’s corrupt system. It could have the effect of inviting more primaries in the future and emboldening the elected Republicans to overcome their timidity and repudiate the bosses and the rent-seeking special interests attached at their hips. It would be a sweet victory for democracy if voters were the agents of reform, finishing the job the prosecutors have started.

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Frank Scaturro is vice president and senior counsel to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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