Steve Bellone on how Republicans took over on Long Island

The centrist Democrat will step down as Suffolk County executive at the end of this year. He’s throwing support behind Tom Suozzi and George Latimer on the way out.

Outgoing Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

Outgoing Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone James Carbone/Newsday RM via Getty Images

After 12 years as county executive in Suffolk, Steve Bellone’s tenure is coming to a close at the end of the year. After three years of red waves washed over Long Island, Bellone remained one of the few Democrats to remain in power, even as other countywide Democratic officials and legislators lost office. In some ways, he’s fortunate that his last election in 2019 came before the red wave that washed away so many members of his party on Long Island. But as a proud centrist, he represents a brand of Democratic politics that historically has won in Long Island.

Now, as he prepares to leave office, Bellone reflected on his accomplishments, partisan politics and what comes next for him. In a lengthy conversation with City & State, he offered full-throated support for former Rep. Tom Suozzi, the Democratic nominee for the 3rd Congressional District special election in February, as well Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who recently made his primary challenge to Rep. Jamaal Bowman officials. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you?

Counting down. We’re actually busy, busy working

So I guess the moniker of ‘lame duck’ isn’t applicable here?

No. We are certainly not treating it like that, that’s true. I actually was at, yesterday, I was out 35 miles into the ocean to view the first windmill powered on that's part of the first utility scale offshore wind farm in the United States of America. So literally witnessing the birth of a new industry that we helped shepherd through here. For me, it was particularly relevant having gone through Superstorm Sandy here as county executive in my first year in office, and witnessing first-hand the devastation, and highlighting how we are on the front lines of climate change here on Long Island. To be ending my term as we birthed this whole new industry in the United States that is going to help mitigate the impacts of climate change, one of the biggest things that helps mitigate the impacts of climate change, was pretty pretty rewarding.

I’d imagine. You just gave an example, but as you wind down your tenure, what would you say are some of your biggest accomplishments, or the achievements that you’re proudest of?

One way you certainly can look at the administration is the number of crises that we've had to manage over the course of these 12 years. So I'm very proud of the way that our team has helped lead the county through these crises. Whether it's the financial crises that we walked into, Superstorm Sandy at the end of that first year. We had a number of storms like Nemo that shut down the LIE and stranded hundreds of cars all over the county. Of course, the global pandemic, cyber attack. And I think the most significant of all is the crisis of corruption that occurred at the highest levels of law enforcement in this county. The entire third term, almost, has been a state of emergency. 

Any more specifics?

We inherited a fiscal disaster. We inherited a $500 million accumulated deficit and we’re going to leave the county with a more than $1 billion surplus. It’s a remarkable turnaround and it took a lot of work and effort to get there. I can say as we hand it off, the county today is in the best fiscal condition it has ever been. Two, water quality, existential crisis. I have devoted much of our administration’s time and effort. We created the first-of-its-kind in the state Septic Improvement Grant Program, we’re implementing the most sewer infrastructure in this county for decades. In public safety, we've seen a 30% decline in crime during my tenure. We put together the most comprehensive police reform plan in the state which has been 95% implemented. And also, we made an arrest in the Gilgo case. Yes, finally! I started with that case at the very beginning of my tenure. When I was on the steps of (former District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office) saying he was running a criminal enterprise out of his office and needed to resign, one of the things that I cited in that communication on the steps is his obstruction in the Gilgo Beach serial murder case.

Corruption in law enforcement was really a huge issue in Suffolk, and former District Attorney Tim Sini played a big role in changing that culture and helping root out that corruption. What was it like seeing him fall victim to the red wave that hit Long Island in 2021?

I've always governed with the idea, and really operated in life, with the idea that there are certain things you can control, and you need to focus on those like a laser. But you also need to – it's just as important: Don't dwell on and spend a lot of time – or waste a lot of time – on things that are beyond your control. Having said that we lost some great people in 2021, Tim Sini included. But also (former Nassau County Executive) Laura Curran is a victim of that in 2021. And the reality is that people, by and large – these were two very popular public figures. Even if you look across party lines, they were popular. But what has happened over the last number of years is we've seen a nationalization of politics on the local level. (Voters) already in their mind said ‘I'm going into this polling place to send a message.’ And unfortunately, the last several years, that’s been a message that has gone against Democrats here and has led to some really great public officials losing office.

Next year is going to be a very consequential year for Long Island when it comes to Congress, starting with the February special election for the 3rd Congressional District. What are your thoughts about Tom Suozzi’s now official nomination for that race?

I think it's terrific. I fully support Tom. I've worked with Tom for many, many years. He is somebody who tries to bring people together, and we need more of that in Washington. We need more people like that, who are fighting to bring people together. Fighting for the things we believe in, of course, but also recognizing that there's a value in and of itself of us working to bring people together. So people like Tom Suozzi, people like George Latimer, who are county executives. These are people I've worked with, who are problem solvers, who know how to make things work and know you have to work with all different parts of the community and society. We want to get things back on track and restoring faith in institutions like Congress, we need to put people in positions of power who are actively trying to bridge divides and not exacerbate them. That's what a Tom Suozzi represents. That's what a George Latimer represents. And it's no coincidence these are both county executives. 

I was going to ask about George Latimer, I know you two have worked closely together in the past. So is this an endorsement of Latimer over Rep. Jamaal Bowman in the Democratic primary next year?

I think George Latimer is exactly the kind of person that we need to be sending to Washington. I've worked with him directly. I have seen him in action. This is somebody who knows how to make government work, who brings people together. And those are absolutely the qualities we need in Washington. And this isn't just about one district, it's about where we're going as a country. We need to send more people like that to Congress.

Looking at the races that are coming up in Congress, historically presidential election years have helped Democrats – 

Generally, but the political world has been shifting. What have been rock solid principles have been overturned. We're living in an era today where we still don't have a handle on polling, and how to make sure we get it accurate. And we're living at a time where the parties are going through a major transformation. A realignment in some sense. So it's very, very, very tough to predict exactly what's going to happen.

With that in mind, especially with a special election coming up that will probably have low turnout, how do Democrats motivate their base to come out to vote? Republicans seem to have been coming out in larger numbers recently on Long Island.

You’ve got to be able to communicate effectively. Partly it's communicating, partly it’s governing. There are issues that Democrats care about just as much as Republicans or independents or conservatives across the aisle. And those are issues – and I can speak to Long Island, certainly. They want to know that you're going to protect their pocketbook, one, and they want to know you can protect their safety, two. Those are two threshold issues. And if  there's confidence that those are happening and you're doing those things, then you can get to these other issues of real significance. 

Republicans have really owned the public safety messaging on Long Island, and Democrats who have tried to compete with that at the heart of their campaign have fallen short. Is there an opportunity to reevaluate campaign messaging to see what best resonates with the Democratic base who may not have been motivated to vote?

There are obviously things that we care about as Democrats, the progressive issues that we care about, that you can and should be talking about. But I think it's a mistake to say because there have been several election cycles where Democrats have tried to communicate that we are a party that will protect public safety and that we will protect your pocketbook, that somehow those issues aren't important, that we should not be communicating or messaging on these issues. Those are threshold issues out here. What I think is a big factor is because politics has become so nationalized here and I think around the country, that when you have a party that’s in power – and for the public here, Democrats run New York, Democrats are in the White House. For people on Long Island, what they see is Democrats are in charge, so they’re feeling unease, they’re feeling anxiety. You take that out on the party in power.

Going back to yourself, have you given any thought about what comes next once you officially leave office?

It's been 26 years in elected office. That's a long time. I am obviously not running for anything right now. People have encouraged me to run for this and that. I have concerns about the future and where we're headed, certainly. But right now for me, I think 26 years – whatever I end up doing right now will involve me being able to spend more time with my family and my kids. My kids have grown up their entire lives only knowing this. It takes a toll on the family for sure. And then we’ll see in the future, I’m certainly not ruling out anything, or potentially running for office again. 

2026 isn’t too far away.

It is far enough away from me that I haven't thought about it.