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One of the most clear-cut choices in the Nassau County Legislature races this fall is between two people who, in some ways, are remarkably similar on the surface. Both are young, white lawyers with rich political heritages.
Rich Nicolello, a Republican who also has the Conservative and Right-to-Life lines on the Nov. 2 ballot, is the incumbent in the Ninth District, which stretches along Jericho Turnpike from Floral Park to beyond the Willistons. His challenger is Matt Cuomo, a Democrat who also is on the Working Families and Liberal lines.
Now, about that political heritage. Cuomo's uncle, Mario, is the former New York governor. As smooth as his uncle, 31-year-old Matt Cuomo won't publicly criticize the old-school Democrats who have managed to barely hang on to only five of the legislature's 19 seats. He does, however, have plenty of ammunition, thanks to the 39-year-old Nicolello. During last May's convention of the Soviet-style Nassau County Republican Committee, Nicolello was proudly ushered into re-nomination by a speaker who noted that the candidate's "personal hero" was not Lincoln, not Reagan, but party boss Joe Mondello.
Cuomo is too savvy to acknowledge the humor in that. He just says of his opponent, "He's a yes man," adding, "He's a nice guy. I've met him. We've even represented co-defendants. And he grew up here. That's great. He's just not doing the job. Doing the job isn't waiting for Joe Mondello to tell him what to do or calling his executive leader."
Nicolello would have to call himself, because he's the machine's executive leader of New Hyde Park/Garden City Park. But it's difficult to determine whether Nicolello would even make that call; he didn't return our calls for comment.
Cuomo, who grew up in Suffolk County, denies that he moved to East Williston to run for office. "Do I look that dumb?" he asks. He'll need that sense of humor. The district was gerrymandered to be a safe GOP seat for Mondello's admirer. Cuomo says the latest figures show that 48 percent of the district is Republican and about 22 percent are Democrats, with another 22 percent "blanks," people who aren't registered in any party.
Like other Democrats, he insists that people he talks with are fed up with the machine's antics.
"They feel they've been lied to for 30 years," he says, "by a successive series of Joes." Cuomo's referring to Mondello and his predecessor, Joe Margiotta, who was county GOP boss until being sent to federal prison. "It was, 'We'll give them jobs, and we'll take their money.'"
Now, Democrats like Cuomo are trying to capitalize on the machine's foundering county government. He and many others have noted how the machine has gotten complacentand not a little arrogant. Cuomo points to Mondello's recent letter to county voters pledging that the Republicans are the key to reform. Such letters are proof that Mondello really does control government operations, despite his not being elected to do so.
"Why did Joe Mondello send out a letter saying the GOP is going to do it right? He's not an elected official," says Cuomo. "He's supposed to be the party's strategist, not the policymaker for government."