Bonnie Eisler has spent the past 10 months shaking hands, wearing out shoe leather and talking herself hoarse, all in pursuit of an elected office most people couldn’t be forced into taking and few people really understand.
Eisler, a former finance executive and veteran leader of civic associations, wants to join the Oyster Bay Town Board. A lifelong Democrat, she is also running on the Working Families line for an at-large seats in an area where the Nassau Republican machine reigns supreme and liberal politicians quickly get shoved to the margins.
Making matters worse, Eisler says, is the fact that too many potential voters don’t realize how great an impact the Town Board has. “They don’t understand the different layers of government,” she says. “They don’t understand that the town is the part of the government that affects you the most in your daily life-that development going in, that traffic jam you’re sitting in, the dirt on the road.”
Eisler, 42, of Woodbury, has crafted her campaign on a framework of environmental and fiscal concerns. She wants the town to start attacking its $30 million debt so taxpayers can set aside money to preserve dwindling open space and protect endangered groundwater aquifers. She wants the town to adopt a comprehensive master plan for development, to stop the kind of patchwork growth now chewing through what little green land remains. And she wants the town to update its zoning, so people will have a means of halting the garish strip malls that threaten quiet neighborhoods. “We all feel we have lost our voice,” she says. “We’re not represented anymore by our own Town Board.”
She may be an underdog, but Eisler wouldn’t be the first Democrat to win in Oyster Bay. The GOP-dominated town has elected a few key Democrats in recent years, including county Legis. Judy Jacobs, whose district includes heavily Democratic Plainview.
Lew Yevoli parlayed nine terms in the state Assembly, from a northern district that includes Plainview, into an extended stint as town supervisor, from 1992-97. As the lone Democrat on the Town Board, Yevoli says, he struggled to get even the most basic documents and answers from departments he supposedly controlled. During meetings, he couldn’t get his motions seconded, and he took to stepping off the dais and approaching the Board from the lectern reserved for testimony from ordinary citizens.
Yevoli says it would help Eisler mightily if she were elected along with at least one of her fellow Democratic candidates, Anthony Macagnone and Frank Goban. She faces stiff competition from Joseph Muscarella and Anthony Altimari, incumbents backed by the GOP. She also faces a pseudo incumbent, Martin Massell, who was appointed to the Board by the machine in May, just in time for election season.
As the frontrunner for her party, Eisler is the Democrat with the best chance of winning, and Yevoli says she could still be effective as a lone minority member. “At least the public will have an opportunity to find out what’s going on,” he says. “That’s the critical part, to be an outstanding watchdog.”
Oyster Bay residents could be forgiven for thinking they have no watchdog now. The Town Board has often sided with well-connected developers, even using public money to wage legal war for projects opposed by civic groups. Eisler says she once organized hundreds of protesters for a town meeting, only to have the Board table the contentious matter for 18 months. “We cannot depend on getting a fair hearing,” she says, “because they’re so entrenched.”
So far, Eisler has raised about $30,000, enough to send out campaign literature, put up signs and then replace the ones that get torn down overnight in Republican hamlets like Massapequa. Eisler says she’s encouraged by the response she has gotten from voters, who she says are sick of machine politics, high taxes and spiraling debt. Because the town is so large, she has skipped door-to-door campaigning in favor of taking her message to busy train stations and large gatherings, like the outdoor concerts held this summer. “There wasn’t one night where I was able to get through the whole crowd,” she says. “People were so upset and they wanted to talk about what was going on.”
To win, she’ll need all those upset people to show up at the polls. Republicans outnumber Democrats in Oyster Bay 3-1. The closest Democratic finisher in 1995, the most recent off-year election, lost by about 2,000 votes. Eisler thinks she can muster the support needed to bridge that gap. “Sometimes you just have to stand up and speak what you believe in,” she says. “Even though we’re the underdogs with the machine, we think we’re viable.”