New York State

New York City’s suburbs are moving in opposite directions

Westchester Democrats were largely unscathed in the November election, but Long Island Dems got walloped.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer and incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer and incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman. Guerin Blask; Office of Bruce Blakeman

On Election Day, a “red wave” swept over New York City’s suburbs on Long Island. Republicans won open seats and even defeated incumbent Democrats in what were expected to be uneventful reelections. The same could not be said of the suburbs to the north in Westchester County, where Democrats held on to both county executive and their supermajority in the county legislature. A voter enrollment advantage and the lack of a contentious district attorney race likely helped Westchester Democrats this election, but political observers said they should proceed with caution after the warning shot on Long Island.

Despite often being grouped together as New York City’s suburbs, Westchester and the Long Island counties of Nassau and Suffolk have their differences, as the 2021 elections clearly demonstrated. On Long Island, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran lost her reelection bid to Republican Bruce Blakeman, while Republican Ray Tierney beat Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini in perhaps the two most high-profile and unexpected Democratic losses. Republican Anne Donnelly handily beat Democratic state Sen. Todd Kaminsky for the open district attorney seat in Nassau. And in the county legislatures, Republicans held their strong majority in Nassau and flipped the chamber in Suffolk.

Compared to that, Westchester Democrats came out almost entirely unscathed. County Executive George Latimer easily won reelection and the county legislature maintained its Democratic supermajority, winning all but two seats in the 17-member body. “I think our numbers were terrific, and it was a solid result across the board,” Latimer said in an interview with City & State. He pointed out also that his county even approved three ballot proposals championed by Democrats relating to voting rights and redistricting when they failed statewide and in other suburbs like Long Island. “We have more Democrats in Westchester than any of those other jurisdictions,” Latimer said, referring not just to Long Island but other nearby counties in the Hudson Valley. “We are probably the most Democratic county outside of New York City, with the possible exception of Albany.”

While a lot of people assume that Westchester and Nassau are kissing cousins demographically, economically and politically, migrating at the same pace from red to purple to blue, it just isn’t so.
– Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University

The number of Democrats registered in Westchester certainly cannot be discounted in its ability to withstand the red wave in a way that Nassau and Suffolk could not. The northern suburb has about 2.5 times the number of Democrats as Republicans, a gap of about 200,000 voters. That’s a much better landscape than Nassau, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by less than 100,000 voters. And even that is better than Suffolk, where Democrats only have about a 40,000-person advantage. “While a lot of people assume that Westchester and Nassau are kissing cousins demographically, economically and politically, migrating at the same pace from red to purple to blue, it just isn’t so,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

That in part could have to do with Westchester’s relative density in the southern part of the county, with more urban areas like Yonkers and Mount Vernon making up more of the political base in a way that favors Democrats. “You have more of an urbanization and diversification, which doesn’t automatically mean that someone is going to be an enrolled Democrat, but it’s more likely than not,” said Westchester political consultant Jeffrey Binder. This will likely only continue as more multifamily and transit-oriented housing comes to those neighborhoods, while single-family homes and an aversion to density remain much more the norm throughout most of Nassau and Suffolk.

Given their performance, Westchester Democrats earned the right to at least appreciate their laurels. But it would be a mistake to rest on them.
– Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University

However, Westchester’s more favorable circumstances in this particular election should not be overlooked. Unlike on Long Island, which featured a heated race for an open district attorney seat, Westchester had only Latimer’s race at the top of the ticket. Republicans focused on crime and their criticisms of a 2019 state bail reform law in the Nassau district attorney race, which then influenced the other elections across the island in a way that simply did not happen in Westchester. Those same issues came up in one Westchester County Board of Legislators race that Democrats lost this year, a seat that had previously been solidly red until it flipped two years ago, but the discussions didn’t seem to impact other races. Westchester also has more registered Democrats, so the party’s lower than expected turnout likely played more of a role in Curran’s Nassau County loss.

There is also the matter of Latimer’s own election, which none expected to be competitive in the first place. The same could arguably have been said of Curran’s race in Nassau or Sini’s race in Suffolk, but Binder said Latimer’s race was always destined to have been more of a slam dunk. “There’s a certain amount of credibility there, notwithstanding the fact that he’s run a few times,” Binder said in reference to incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a longtime GOP politician in the county who previously ran several unsuccessful campaigns for various offices. “But I think that in Westchester, the county executive candidate for the GOP was initially supposed to be a placeholder, and then became not a placeholder.” Despite a career in government, this was challenger Christine Sculti’s first run for office and it was against a popular incumbent who had previously unseated his Republican predecessor. Binder said that such a situation was not uncommon, as it can be difficult to convince strong contenders to take on the challenge.

Although Long Island Democrats came out as the big losers of the past election, their neighbors to the north would be wise to take those defeats as a warning sign, even though they handily maintained control of Westchester this year. Although much of New York continues to trend blue, despite the recent results on Long Island and in other parts of the state, the suburbs remain a politically tricky area where small changes can lead to dramatic shifts in election results. “Given their performance, Westchester Democrats earned the right to at least appreciate their laurels,” Levy said. “But it would be a mistake to rest on them because the next big issue or scandal or other political development miles away from Westchester … could make their lives much harder than they were a few weeks ago.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Republican majority in the Nassau County Legislature.

NEXT STORY: Assembly impeachment report and a JCOPE reversal

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