By Michael Tobman, Publisher
At his campaign headquarters a few weeks ago, Jack Martins and I had a wide-ranging talk about the state of affairs in Nassau County government and its finances, politics generally, education and schools, the possibility of bipartisanship in addressing serious problems, and a real-life version of kick-the-can. I walked into our meeting skeptical about whether any candidate could have a clear vision of the enormity of the issues facing the diverse suburban community to New York City’s immediate east, but walked out rooting for the Republican candidate’s success. As such, in the race for Nassau County executive, New York Jewish Life enthusiastically endorses Jack Martins.
Since 2000, Nassau County has been operating under the watchful eye of a state authority that must, by law, approve budgets, spending plans and government reform. The Nassau County Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) was created by Governor Pataki and the State Legislature in response to a dire fiscal situation that, back then, could have easily careened into enormous calamity. In the interest of disclosure, I’ll share that I was deputy counsel, and then chief of staff, of the Nassau County Legislature when these issues were being addressed, and was involved in the intergovernmental effort that created NIFA. That, however, was a long time ago.
“NIFA was useful then, no doubt,” Martins agreed, “but now it’s a bit of a dictatorship,” he insisted. “They would say a benevolent dictatorship, which is a too-kind self-assessment in my opinion, but it’s a dictatorship nonetheless, with unelected officials making decisions for 1.4 million people based on faulty presumptions that are no longer operative.
“NIFA also encourages a lack of consensus,” Matins continued, “because ultimate decisions rest not in Nassau County’s neighborhoods and not in Mineola, but in Albany. So it has increased partisan rancor, and decreased productive discussions and deliberations at the local level. You don’t govern as a Republican or a Democrat, you don’t lecture and you don’t condescend. NIFA has stunted Nassau County politics.”
As a state senator, Jack Martins supported Scholarship and Education Tax Credits to assist tuition-paying families who also pay significant taxes for schools they don’t use. Asked about the strong opposition teachers’ unions have to this proposal, he lamented the unfortunate tendency towards binary policy thinking:
“There are bright lines that need not be there. A dollar for these families is not a dollar less for public schools; budgeting simply doesn’t work that way. The unions have an ideological opposition to tax credits, and that’s their position, but they’re also attributing motivations to supporters of this aid that don’t exist. We see this negativity in too many discussions across a range of issues. For one side to win a debate doesn’t mean the other side has to lose. It’s not even really about winning or losing—it’s about finding commonality in the middle that emerges from exchanges between people who just do not agree. Ultimately, tuition-paying families need help just like all other parents.”
On the economy, Martins was equally clear: The uncertainty created by NIFA’s oversight is a major contributing factor to, for example, there not being a single Fortune 500 company headquartered in Nassau.
“For businesses to plan, there has to be a certain expectation of consistency, and NIFA prevents that,” he said. “It’s not the entirety of what’s holding us back, but it’s a large part of it….We don’t know how well we can do, it’s been so long.”
As a former state senator, Martins believes he is well positioned to negotiate a new situation concerning NIFA. He has accumulated a reservoir of goodwill in Albany and knowledge of how things get done in the state capital on that issue, and on infrastructure, education funding, transportation and environmental concerns, of which Nassau County has many.
On Congressman Tom Suozzi, against whom Martins ran for the House, he says he will have an excellent working relationship. “We’ve run out of road to kick the can down. Big decisions need to be made which will require all levels of government.”
I asked Jack about the often-repeated conventional wisdom concerning voters’ making their Election Day decisions based on slogans and little information. He disagreed:
“People—voters—are receptive to information. They want to hear detail; they want to hear how you’re going to get things done. Slogans fit on posters and are necessary, sure, but ideally those slogans remind people of information they’ve already taken in.”
To my mind, as a publisher familiar with politics, campaigns and with the specifics of Nassau County, the Democratic candidate for county executive, Laura Curran, has been running a negative campaign that is thin on specifics. The Curran campaign appears to be clumsily executing against a tired playbook, repeating contrasts that are already obvious. Recent attempts to tie Martins to former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, for example, misunderstands the deep affection Nassau residents still have for their former representative, and voters’ understanding of what that case was really about.
“Nassau County is suburban,” Martins started to conclude. “Our shared suburban priorities are quality of life, our families and children, schools and public safety, access to outdoor space as we protect the environment, and whether we’re taxed fairly. We need to move from a 20th- and in some cases 19th-century governing infrastructure to modern systems. We need property assessment reform; we need to implement town-based—instead of county-based—assessment. We need to aggressively tackle the backlog of tax grievances in a way that’ll keep them from returning in similarly large numbers. We need to get to work right away.”
Wrapping up our talk, I asked Jack Martins about outgoing County Executive Ed Mangano’s corruption indictment and needed good-government reforms.
“It’s sad; it’s a stain on government; everything about it is troubling,” he said. “But let’s agree that Ed Mangano isn’t on the ballot. If my Democratic opponent wants to talk just about Mangano, that’s a disservice to the voters. Folks will be impressed with the governmental reforms I’ll champion as county executive, and I’ll always make them proud.”