Had Nassau County Democratic party head Jay Jacobs had his way, it would have been Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, not former County Executive Tom Suozzi, who challenged County Executive Edward Mangano for the county’s top post.
Jacobs, in a wide-ranging interview with Blank Slate Media on his party’s subpar showing in last Tuesday’s elections, said he approached Rice as his first choice to lead the Democratic ticket, but that she declined in favor of seeking re-election as District Attorney.
“My first idea was the ask Kathleen Rice, who I thought had the best chance,” Jacobs said. “I thought Tom [Suozzi] had the second-best chance.”
Rice was one of the Democrats to win a countywide race on Tuesday, handily defeating Republican challenger Howard Sturim in her re-election campaign. Suozzi lost his comeback bid against Mangano by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, with fellow Democratic challengers Howard Weitzman and Laura Gillen also falling in the comptroller and county clerk elections.
Jacobs said he considered Rice, Suozzi, Suozzi’s primary opponent Adam Haber, former Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman and himself for the county executive race, looking at each candidates’ strengths and weaknesses before concluding that Rice was the party’s best shot at retaking the county.
But, Jacobs said, the race would have been hard-fought regardless of the candidate, and Rice, who has been making waves statewide as a member of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission, chose to stick with her current office.
“You don’t know when push comes to shove how it would come out against Mangano,” Jacobs said. “She made for her the decision she felt was best.”
Suozzi’s defeat was a blow to the Democratic party, Jacobs acknowledged, and cast doubt on the campaign’s strategy and messaging.
“First of all, the Suozzi loss for me is extremely disappointing. It was never completely out of the realm of my thinking because I always viewed us from the beginning as the underdog,” Jacobs said. “Certainly when you have an outcome like this the obvious answer is you have to have done things differently.”
The campaign was initially unwilling to focus on Suozzi’s record in his first term, preferring to hit Mangano on his policies’ future impact on Nassau – a choice, Jacobs said, that allowed Republicans to define Suozzi in terms of the 23 percent tax hikes he signed early in his first term in an effort to stabilize the county’s finances.
“It was the collective view that re-litigating the past was not the way to win the future,” Jacobs said. “We let it go until too late.”
The campaign’s messaging also did not strike a chord with county voters, Jacobs said, focusing too much on complex financial critiques that paled in comparison to Mangano’s bread-and-butter campaign on freezing the county’s property taxes.
“You just can’t motivate large swatches of voters on local issues. You’ve got to keep it short and sweet,” Jacobs said. “The fact is, Mangano from the start had a better headline. ‘I didn’t raise your taxes.’”
Internal debate in the party led to a shift in strategy late in the race, when Suozzi began to hammer Mangano on claims that his policy of aggressively settling tax assessment challenges had led to a large spike in school tax rates.
Jacobs said the change in messaging was a reaction to polling and public sentiment, but also faltered due to residents’ skepticism that the county executive could control school tax bills.
“You have to go to what you’re hearing and seeing on the ground,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs did tout one bright spot for county Democrats – the loss of just one legislative seat after a redistricting process that Democrats feared would lead to a major shift towards the GOP. With an 11-8 margin in the Legislature Republicans will still need Democratic votes to authorize bonding, which gives Democrats leverage, Jacobs said.
“It’s a very big win,” Jacobs said.
Democrats are willing to work with Mangano in the upcoming term but would use the bonding issue to pressure Mangano into negotiating in what Jacobs termed a “fair manner,” he said.
“That gives us some juice at the negotiating table and we need that,” Jacobs said.