Guest Column: Early challenges for county executive

The leading political contest in Suffolk in 2019 will be the race for county executive, the top post in Suffolk County government. 

As the new year begins, the Republican candidate most likely to challenge Democratic incumbent Steve Bellone is either Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. or county Legislator Rob Trotta, although the entry of other would-be nominees is possible.

Both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Trotta have strong views about Mr. Bellone, considering him inept, particularly on county financial matters. “We have a complete absence of leadership in this county and we are balanced on the precipice of financial crisis,” said Mr. Kennedy after his re-election in the past election.

The county’s fiscal watchdog, Mr. Kennedy has described Mr. Bellone’s budgets as “fraught with peril. It is not unlike what we see to the west of us,” a reference to financial problems that have occurred in Nassau County, which have resulted in the state imposing a Finance Authority to oversee fiscal matters there.

“It’s as if,” maintains Mr. Kennedy, “[Bellone] is standing on the 12th floor” of the county’s H. Lee Dennison Building, where the county executive has his office, “with a megaphone calling on the state to ‘take us over.’ ”

Mr. Kennedy hasn’t yet made up his mind about running for county executive. 

Mr. Trotta has decided “to test the waters” for a run. A retired Suffolk County Police Department detective, Mr. Trotta has zeroed in on Mr. Bellone’s fiscal policies, including pushing increased fees in order to balance the county budget. He has called it “nothing more than a tax disguised as a fee. It’s death by a thousand knives.” Increasing fees for general county purposes, said Mr. Trotta, “is not even a gray area. The New York State comptroller has stated you can’t do this, and there is case law stating it can’t be done … It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Mr. Kennedy, an attorney from Nesconset, served 10 years as a county legislator before being elected comptroller in 2014. He was minority leader of the Legislature and previously worked in the county clerk’s office. He has a master’s degree in business administration, with a concentration in capital budgeting, from Adelphi University. 

Mr. Trotta, of Fort Salonga, was first elected to the county Legislature in 2013. For 25 years he was a member of the county police force. For over 10 of those years he also served on the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force. He graduated from C.W. Post with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and earned a master’s in labor management relations from Stony Brook University.

Mr. Bellone, of North Babylon, was first elected county executive in 2011. He had been Babylon Town supervisor and, before that, a member of the Babylon Town Board. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications from Queens College; a master’s in public administration from Webster University in Missouri, attending classes at night during his Army service in Missouri as a communications specialist; and a law degree from the Fordham University School of Law.

Mr. Bellone’s re-election drive is underway. Last month he raised $400,000 at a fundraiser attended by 300 people, adding to a campaign war chest of $1.65 million.

In his campaign he will likely emphasize his efforts to boost Suffolk’s economy through the “Ronkonkoma Hub” and other programs, and will staunchly defend his fiscal management. 

If Mr. Bellone wins re-election this year, it would be his last term, as Suffolk’s term limits law restricts service as county executive to 12 years.

Mr. Bellone was re-elected in 2015 after what some in politics have regarded as a “free ride.” His GOP opponent, James O’Connor, was unknown in Suffolk. Mr. O’Connor, a former member of the North Hempstead Town Board, moved from Nassau to Great River in Suffolk in 2004 so his wife could be closer to her cardiology practice. He received the GOP nomination for Suffolk County executive after others the party considered stronger challengers declined to run. Mr. O’Connor also scored Mr. Bellone over what he termed the “precarious” shape of county finances, charging that county government under Mr. Bellone was “hurtling over a financial cliff.” 

Although either Mr. Kennedy or Mr. Trotta would now be considered the most likely to run against Mr. Bellone this year, other possibilities are state Senator John Flanagan of East Northport and Tom Cilmi of Bay Shore, who has been the minority leader of the county Legislature.

Veteran journalist Karl Grossman publishes a syndicated column called ‘Suffolk Closeup.’