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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Dems Avoided Big Question

From the first moment back in February when Tom Suozzi said he’d be running for Nassau County Executive again, the most common question I’ve been asked is this: Why is he doing this? The debt, the taxes, the coliseum, the whatever, we know, we know. A hundred different people could adequately complain about what. But why? Why should Tom Suozzi be the county executive again?

And his campaign never answered that question to the satisfaction of a lot of voters.

The exact same campaign, with the same marketing, the same everything, probably would have worked better with a candidate who was running for the first time. Eight years of incumbency builds up a lot of baggage. Campaigns for third terms are frequently the hardest. Even harder are comeback campaigns for the same office. The people around Tom Suozzi made themselves believe that 2009 was a fluke. After casting blame in every direction, the party line finally settled on this: By accident, a lot of Democrats forgot to vote.

Looking back, this unhealthy denial was evident throughout this fall’s primary campaign. Wisely allowing his opponent’s campaign to sink of its own weight, the Suozzi operation concentrated on Ed Mangano. Most of the Suozzi advertising didn’t mention the primary, and much of the literature was mailed to Republicans. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the Suozzi general election campaign is the lack of any attempt to inoculate against what was coming, and the lateness in mounting a defense against any of it.

I’m holding 13 pieces of Ed Mangano campaign literature that was mailed to my home this fall (I’m not counting taxpayer-funded mail from county agencies). 13 mention taxes, 12 mention pay raise. Some of the wording is lifted from Suozzi’s primary opponent’s literature. This wasn’t any kind of whisper campaign.

Tom Suozzi may have had very good reasons for supporting a one-fifth increase in one-fifth of the typical property tax bill, during two terms in which the county portion of that bill was reduced by about 30 percent. Perhaps bankruptcy was prevented. Perhaps the county could continue to make the lives of children at risk a little easier.

That’s at least as compelling an argument for leadership, a reason to own and be proud of making the toughest decisions in a time of crisis, than “He took the pay raise, too.” Who knows? The Suozzi campaign never gave supporters ammunition. The choice was made to pretend and plough forward.

On Nov. 4, I received 17 automated “robo-calls” delivering endorsements or pleas. I never received a call making sure, in a redistricting year, I knew where to vote or how I could get a ride to the polling place. The memory and priority of that basic political function — make sure your people know where, when and how to vote — has faded away.

Like the “cargo cultures” found on Pacific Islands after the war, in which islanders went through elaborate motions to make the big cargo planes come back, these are “cargo campaigns.” They go through motions without really knowing why. Actually talking and listening to voters, or even gleaning input and field information from the ranks is gone. No percentage in it.

At least 22,000 more voters cast ballots this year than in 2009, but voters with active enrollments climbed 46,000. Turnout was actually down. The first-ever campaign between two county executives should have offered stark choices and captured voter imagination. Why it didn’t is a critical question we all should ask.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net