By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The lawyers who operate the gears and levers of the vaunted Nassau GOP machine were feeling pretty cocky last spring about continuing their century of one-party rule. On June 14, Brian J. Davis, a member of Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman, the law firm where GOP boss Joe Mondello hangs a shingle, sent out a campaign letter on behalf of Denise Sher, a confidant of Mondello's who was running for judge of the First District Court, a job that also carries a supervisory title.
Davis, speaking on behalf of the "Friends of Judge Denise L. Sher," asked that lawyers send checks to the campaign. If they wanted, recipients of the letter were urged to send in "Do Me a Favor" cards to the judge and her friends.
And what a list of friends. Listed on the letterhead was Chairman Arnold Palleschi, an executive leader of the party. Among the 50 other lawyers listed were some of the party's heaviest lawyers (including Peter Bee, Steve Eisman and Nick De Sibio), various bar officials (like past county bar president Arlene Zalayet and Davis himself, a past president of the Nassau County Criminal Courts Bar Association) and many lawyers who have depended on the party's judges for work in the county's archaic Assigned Counsel program (including elected official Marty Massell and practitioners Amy Haber, Fred Braverman and Bill Rost).
Can't we all just be friends? Apparently not during the chill of autumn. Sher was soundly defeated last week by Democrat Ira Raab in one of the most stunning upsets of the machine. So now you figure that Raab, a veteran jurist from Woodmere who also holds business degrees, will be the supervising judge of District Court, right? Not so fast.
Nowhere is the machine's power more evident than in the judiciary. The pipe-puffing editorial writers at Newsdaysniffed in recent days that the Democrats' surprising victories in the judgeship elections (other Democrats came to power with Raab, and party hacks like Bill Hodges were kicked off the bench) didn't mean much because judges shouldn't be elected anyway. Reformers point to other states and other counties that have merit selection-and merit retention-of judges, where judges are picked by panels, not directly by pols. Those systems still are political, but at least in those other places judges don't rake in campaign contributions from lawyers who are bound to try cases in front of them.
The daily paper's harrumphers ignore the fact that New York state's current system of electing judges probably won't go away soon but that it may yield reform-and perhaps even the ouster of County Albatross Tom Gulotta.
On the other hand, getting the machine to relinquish its tradition-bound swapping of power, patronage and money could be more difficult than prying a cat off a screen door.
Banished to the Bench
Three years ago, Sam Levine, a liberal Democrat, won the First District Court race after a lifetime of trying to gain a judgeship. He was the first Democrat to win the coveted post, and he assumed that he would now be in charge of the county's 26 District Court judges. He was wrong. The Republican judges, including machine operative Edward McCabe, suddenly insisted that the title of "President of the Board of Judges" meant nothing. They shut Levine out of the power loop and retained control of the courthouse and its 400 employees. Among those workers are the powerful unions of support employees that regularly contribute thousands of dollars to the Nassau GOP.
Because Levine turned 70, he had to relinquish his judgeship in mid-term, and Sher was picked by Mondello to regain control of the office and its perks. The machine was so confident Sher would win that suddenly the job became once again all-powerful: As Davis' campaign letter noted, the First District judge "holds the responsibilities of supervising judge of the District Court and president of the Board of Judges."
Raab aims to hold them to their word. The fight between him and the machine ought to be a beauty, even if 99 percent of it takes place behind closed doors in Mineola, Albany and New York City. That's because Raab not only advocates reforms the Nassau machine considers unthinkable, but also has a history of publicly clashing with the once-impenetrable GOP establishment.
The best recent example, according to documents obtained by the Long Island Voice, revolved around something called the "Gulotta-Christ Award." Don't get carried away; it's named after Tom Gulotta's father, the late Frank Gulotta, and deceased machine notable Marcus Christ. Last April 27, the Judicial Section of the Nassau County Bar Association was to present the annual award to Joe Mondello. You've gotta love the gall of the machine's lawyers and judges: In its press release, the bar said of Mondello: "No one in the last twenty years has left a greater impression on the judiciary in Nassau County." Ain't it the truth? Since becoming county boss 17 years ago, Mondello has appointed a slew of judges to posts that they then win in elections. Shortly after Mondello took over the party from convicted felon Joe Margiotta, he ended Margiotta's practice of cross-endorsements, meaning that sitting Democratic judges could no longer receive endorsements from the GOP. That ended the careers of several notable judges and ensured that the GOP would dominate the county judiciary. How nice for the judges to honor a political boss for such important work.