The lights went out in Democratic candidate Bonnie Eisler’s house just before the polls closed Nov. 2 and the last of Nassau County’s voters finished jamming their wrenches into the Republican machine.
It turned out to be a symbolic moment, like Joshua halting the travel of the sun and moon so the Israelites could win a battle, or the Greek gods fashioning the cosmos out of chaos. You’d need that kind of symbolism to describe the effects of the earthquake that twisted Long Island politics into an unrecognizable shape, swapping north for south, submerging some tectonic plates while lifting others into mountains, damming the river of power that had flowed into the GOP ocean seemingly since time began.
But just then, for Eisler, the blackout was nothing more than the consequence of an autumn storm that washed over Woodbury streets and toppled power lines. The candidate for Oyster Bay Town Board had just wrapped up weeks of round-the-clock campaigning and was determined to reach the Democratic party at the Papa Razzi restaurant in Westbury. “I had to be here,” Eisler said, standing in the crush of party faithful gathered in the banquet room. “It was incredible. I had to be here. The roads were flooded. It was such a crazy thing. What a night for the lights to go out.”
The lights also went out that night for the Nassau GOP. Eisler and fellow Democrat Anthony Macagnone would win seats on the formerly all-Republican Oyster Bay board. The Working Families Party would declare victory as well, having helped the Democrats elect at least two-possibly three-Hempstead councilors and seize control of county government for the first time in history. Party chairman Tom DiNapoli, a state assemblyman from Great Neck, looked omnipotent as he worked the microphone, handing out the results of races for judgeships and clerkships and town board seats like a bacchanalian tossing Moon Pies from a Mardi Gras float.
If this was not quite a deathblow for the GOP apparatus, it also was more than the emotional triumphs of a few underdog politicians. For between the joyful tears and the clamped-tight bear hugs, over the strains of a New York Democratic hero’s “Happy Days Are Here Again,” in the free-flowing toasts and the dazed, sleep-deprived faces, a new being rose up and drew its first breath.
Nassau County, behold your Democratic machine.
Winners and Losers
DiNapoli hadn’t yet begun to work the crowd from the podium when the first hints of the Republican demise filtered into the Papa Razzi. There may have been fewer than a hundred people present, many of them lining up at the bar to take advantage of the free drinks served before 10 p.m.
Sprinkled among the suit-wearing Democratic heavies, like legislative minority leader Judy Jacobs and party vice chairman Larry Aaronson, were a few people clad in T-shirts and jeans-members of Working Families, a party founded last year in the city by a coalition of labor unions and community groups.
One Working Families activist, Gary Bono of Merrick, clutched a shot and a beer as he talked about the resources his organization had thrown into the five legislative seats targeted by the Democrats. In March, the new party, ideologically to the left of the Democratic Party of the ’90s, helped elect two Dems to the Hempstead Village Board, and this fall it campaigned heavily for Hempstead Town Board hopeful Dorothy Goosby and legislative candidate Patrick Williams of Uniondale.
Both Goosby and Willliams would declare victory in a few hours, but Bono already tasted a bigger success than just those two races. “We feel this is a way of taking the Democratic Party in the right direction,” he said.
“You mean the left direction,” said fellow Working Families member David Sprintzen of Syosset, former cochair of the Long Island Progressive Coalition.
Bono plowed on: “If they win a few tonight-Tom DiNapoli won’t tell you this, but I will-it’s because of us.”
Just a few minutes later, the first of the early returns lit up the TV near the dais. Bruce Blakeman, the legislature’s presiding officer, was being taken apart by Democratic challenger Jeff Toback, who’d posted a lead of 30 percentage points. “Holy shit!” said a man in the crowd. The cynics immediately tried to figure out Blakeman’s future. “They’ll make him a commissioner,” someone said. Another countered, “Or a judge, goddammit.”
The Democrats could hardly be blamed for sticking to the established script of politics in Nassau, where the GOP machine has shuffled officeholders like cards to keep the deck stacked in its favor.
Yet on this night, the unexpected was becoming not only believable, but real. At 10:47, the race was over.
His eyes wide with shock, Sal Bush, a campaign worker for Democratic Legis. Roger Corbin, shouted into his cell phone: “Blakeman conceded. Blakeman conceded. Blakeman conceded. Absolutely. Absolutely. It looks like this is going to be a landslide.” Bush hung up but kept talking-to himself. “Blakeman, ooh, that is so floss.”
Of all the losses Republicans sustained, none hurt worse than Blakeman’s. Before driving to Papa Razzi, Democrat Robert L. Douglas of Woodmere had been at Toback’s headquarters when Blakeman walked in and congratulated the man who had beaten him. “I gotta tell you, I had to do a double take,” recalled Douglas, “because I never in my life thought I’d see something like this. You could see on his facial expression, he was clearly tired-like he had just run a marathon and crossed the finish line and not reached the goal. He was in control of his emotions, but he was clearly devastated.”
Meet the New Boss
DiNapoli grew hoarse as he struggled to keep pace with the Democratic victories pouring in. His soldiers were gaining even in long-held GOP territory like judgeships. “Imagine if we can get Democrats elected to county court,” he told the crowd. “Won’t that be terrific?”
The crowd loved DiNapoli, and he loved them right back. He ran the show like Bob Barker, calling victors onstage and telling the audience to be quiet when it was time for a speech. “Judy, stop talking to her,” he said into the microphone, teasing Jacobs, likely the next leader of the legislature. To the crowd, he said, “She’s the presiding officer. She thinks she can do whatever she wants.”
DiNapoli made the powerful speak and he made the powerful shut up. Few objected to his authority, and several argued persuasively that he’d earned it by brokering peace between the party’s warring factions, focusing resources on a few key races and making Democrats believe they could win. “Nobody is fighting anymore,” said North Hempstead Supervisor May Newburger, who kept her job. “People who thought they had differences are not fighting anymore.”
The crowd grew drunk on the draught of success, and soon they sounded not unlike the Republicans they’d worked so hard to defeat. “Who wants a patronage job?” one man asked. County workers talked about the new curtains they’d hang in offices that had belonged to GOP staff. “I’m calling tomorrow and telling them I want a real computer and a real fax machine,” one woman said.
They applauded the victories and took notice of the candidates DiNapoli favored. Six minutes into the first day of Democratic rule, DiNapoli silenced the room. “Quiet, quiet,” he said. “This is a special moment.” Then he called Joe Scannell, fresh off a victory in the legislature’s Fifth District, to the platform.
Scannell was a Republican lawyer when DiNapoli enticed him to defect from the GOP last spring and run against incumbent Thomas Glynn, with full strategic and financial backing from the donkey party. In return, DiNapoli got a handsome, silver-tongued young rookie who had a chance to win and would likely remain loyal to DiNapoli in Mineola. Onstage, the newest Democratic official quickly showed why the chairman liked him so much by delivering a speech that was equal parts cheerleading and homage to the man who’d made him.
“We took it to them in the heart of Republican territory!” Scannell crowed. “We took Rockville Centre. We took it!”
Scannell paused, and the audience began chanting “Jo-ey! Jo-ey!”
“I want to thank Tom DiNapoli for having faith in me, for trusting me and allowing me to take the Democratic mantle,” Scannell said. “Tom, thank you so much.”
Scannell engulfed DiNapoli in a monster hug, reminiscent of scenes of GOP boss Joe Mondello embracing the likes of Rich Guardino. “Isn’t he terrific?” DiNapoli told the crowd. Scannell walked off the stage to a jumping Dixieland tune.
“He’s going places,” said one bystander. “There was a big smile on Tom’s face.”
But for those not on DiNapoli’s list of best friends, the view wasn’t as rosy. Legislative candidate Teresa Butler, for one, kept a lonely vigil with her husband and son at the edge of the room as her numbers teetered tantalizingly toward triumph. Democratic leaders never believed Butler had a shot at unseating incumbent Dennis Dunne in the 15th District, and as a result she ran on a handful of free advice from county headquarters and a budget of less than $6,000. That’s about 20 percent of the funding enjoyed by some candidates in DiNapoli’s inner circle.
Butler’s lowly standing with the Democratic brass may have had as much to do with social class as with political savvy, though DiNapoli denies it. Of the five candidates who received significant backing from the Democratic organization, one was a doctorate-holding chemist, one was a banker, two were lawyers and one was both a lawyer and an engineer. Butler, on the other hand, toils in the billing department of a cable television company, having worked her way up from customer service. Days after the election, DiNapoli would say that he thought Butler was a “terrific candidate” and that the Democrats would have targeted her race if they’d only had the money.
Despite the long odds Butler faced, at 12:25 the TV newscaster had her staked to a narrow lead. “I’m ahead by one percent,” she said, her eyes full of hope and disbelief.
DiNapoli had stopped posting Butler’s returns early in the evening. Though he called out totals for other losing candidates, he rarely mentioned her race. Butler’s eventual defeat went unnoticed as she hovered by a side door, then left for home.
Everything’s Coming up Rosa
Just before 1 a.m., DiNapoli again hushed the celebration. He reached for the remote control and turned up the sound on the TV, from which came the sorrowful tones of Mondello at Levittown Hall in Hicksville, acknowledging the GOP’s defeat. DiNapoli worked the volume up and down as though he were pulling the strings of a puppet.
The Democratic chief had cautioned his followers to be as graceful in winning as they would have been in defeat, but they threw decorum overboard as they sailed triumphantly home. On-screen, Mondello told the world that his party was still viable, but the Democrats at Papa Razzi hooted. When the camera showed Blakeman looking like he’d just swallowed a skunk, they roared. Mondello called DiNapoli a “decent human being,” at which point DiNapoli cranked up the sound again.
When the speech was over, the Democrats’ band lit into “Taps.” The day was done. Not even adrenaline could carry the partygoers further, and many began to leave.
An exhausted-looking Meryl Berkowitz put her head on DiNapoli’s shoulder and made him promise to call if her apparent victory for county court turned out to be a mirage. Berkowitz, for years an overburdened legal-aid attorney, collected her young daughters and headed for the door. “Mommy, can you believe you’re a judge?” one said to her. “No,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Just when the celebration seemed to be over, a rumble started outside and swelled into the room. Crouched low and clapping their hands, a new posse of revelers led by Roger Corbin and Patrick Williams did the samba through the door. “Goosby! Goosby! Goosby!” they cheered, and the woman herself was not far behind.
Dorothy Goosby, the top vote-getter in the race for Hempstead Town Board, the first Democrat ever elected there, the first African-American to win without benefit of the GOP machine, twirled into the hall. Waving her fingers and strutting her stuff, Goosby danced like Achilles returning from war with his enemy’s sword broken in half. She and her supporters filled what had been a nearly empty room.
For some, Goosby’s victory was about good vanquishing evil, the oppressed throwing off the oppressor. Yet even this revelry was marked by the cold calculation of political wins and losses, as the joyous crowd considered the power that was now, suddenly, theirs. Republicans were no longer the only ones eager to divide the spoils of victory. “Watch us now,” a man shouted. “Who wants to be a judge? Who wants to be a judge?”
Fueled by such fervor, the celebration started again. DiNapoli headed for the microphone and did the whole performance afresh. “If I’m dreaming this, would someone wake me up already?” he said. “What the hell is going on?”
Goosby emerged from the delirious whirl of dancers and took the stage to cries of “Rosa, Rosa”-a reference to an Oct. 28 Long Island Voice headline that dubbed her “The Rosa Parks of Nassau.” When the cheering stopped, she told her supporters, in some cases one by one, how much their help had meant to her. She expressed appreciation for what the Democrats and the Working Families and other activists had done for her. She made people laugh, though she talked so long her daughters and her husband joked that it was time for her to stop.
But this was the Democrats’ moment, and it was her moment, and she knew it. “He wants me to shut up,” Goosby teased her audience, “but this is the first time in history that I’ve had the opportunity to do this.”
“Thank you,” she added. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”