Inside Jay Jacobs' Deteriorating Democratic Party in Nassau County
Democrats outnumber Republicans by over 100,000 registered voters. But last week, Republicans scored a larger victory than they did back when they had the six-figure registration advantage.
In 1993, a federal court ruled that the structure of Nassau County’s local government, a six-member Board of Supervisors whose votes were weighted by the population of the localities they represented, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. To remedy the situation, Nassau did away with the board and set up a county legislature, with 19 districts drawn in conformity with the standards of the Voting Rights Act. The first elections for the new body took place in November 1995, and Republicans prevailed up and down the ballot. From the New York Times:
“Republicans won in 13 of the 19 districts. Republicans hold an overwhelming edge in voter enrollment and tend to do especially well in local elections with low turnouts. In Nassau, there are 222,550 Democrats and 326,869 Republicans. Of the county's 723,000 registered voters, only 29 percent voted on Tuesday, one of the lowest turnouts in recent years.
‘This is our year,’ the Nassau Republican leader, Joseph N. Mondello, said. ‘We are back in control in Nassau County.’
Mr. Mondello appears ready to propose a new leader, Bruce A. Blakeman of Woodmere. Mr. Mondello is backing Mr. Blakeman…as the Presiding Officer of the Legislature.”
Well you know what they say: the more things change, the more they stay the same - especially on Long Island. By the end of election night last week, Republicans were in the lead in 14 of Nassau’s legislative districts; absentee ballots offer Democrats dim hope for a miracle in only two. County Executive Laura Curran, the Democratic incumbent, lost reelection to none other than Bruce Blakeman, the Republican who gaveled in the county legislature’s inaugural session as its presiding officer more than a quarter century ago. The district attorney’s office, held by Democrats for the past 15 years, also fell back into Republican hands.
Not everything stays the same, of course. For instance, after his party’s rout at the polls in 1995, Nassau’s Democratic chairman at the time “noted that with six legislative seats, two supervisors' offices and a mayoralty...the Democrats had never been elected to more top offices” than they were that year. By contrast, Democrats were ejected from their last remaining supervisor’s office and mayoralty in the county last week, meaning that they’ll control zero of its executive offices come January.
The strength of Tuesday’s red wave is remarkable in light of another change that’s taken place in Nassau County. In 1995, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by over 100,000 registered voters; in 2021, it’s the reverse. Yet last week, Democrats suffered an even worse defeat than they did 26 years ago, despite enjoying the very same six-figure enrollment advantage that the Times credited for Republicans’ victory in the county’s first legislative elections. And if low participation is a boon for the party with more registered voters, this year really should have been Nassau Democrats’ time to shine: turnout was just 27 percent - two points lower than it was in 1995.
What accounts for such a spectacular collapse? If you ask Jay Jacobs, the current Nassau Democratic chairman who also heads up the state party, a specter is haunting Mineola - the specter of democratic socialism. From the New York Daily News:
“The problem we have is when you push too far and your tactics are too harsh, you’re going to create divisions that we don’t need. Let’s come together and have a good discussion about the best ways to advance legislation that we can sell to the public, that they will buy without damaging moderate Democrats who need to get elected in competitive areas.”
But knowledgeable sources tell me that the real obstacle to moderate Democrats getting elected in competitive areas of Long Island is Jay Jacobs. On Friday, I called up one of my readers - a fixture in Nassau politics for years with deep relationships inside the county party - to get their take, and they agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. Their analysis was that although Democrats faced a hostile national environment in 2021, the extent of the carnage was primarily the result of poor leadership and decaying infrastructure.
“The dirty little secret of the Nassau Democratic Party is that there is no Nassau Democratic Party. It’s Jay and half a dozen caucasian men,” they told me. “As a friend reminded me in a call this morning, he said: ‘You realize these conventions haven’t had a quorum for years, it’s just all fake.’ I’ve been at those conventions, and he’s right,” they added, referring to the party’s annual meetings where its leaders are elected by the county committee. According to my reader, these roles used to be filled by real organizers - cogs in an old-style machine that could actually turn out votes. But these days, it’s mostly seat-warmers chosen for their personal loyalty to Jacobs.
“People pay their obeisance to Jay by having their relatives, friends, neighbors in place as local committee people so that they control, say, 100 votes,” ensuring a reliable pro-Jacobs bloc in party leadership contests. “For this, they get a job at the Board of Elections, and once every two years they’re called upon to produce the pieces of paper - called proxies - that prove all these people exist, which in fact they barely do. They haven’t had a real quorum in years, and Jay continues to get reelected.”
The county committee is composed of representatives from each of Nassau’s election districts, whose voting power on the committee corresponds to voter turnout in recent elections. The higher a district’s turnout, the greater its influence on the committee. When skilled organizers occupy these posts, they can drum up huge margins for Democrats, which in turn amplifies their own power within the party structure. Stacking the committee with ineffectual cronies might be a bad strategy for defeating Republicans, but it also prevents the emergence of rivals who could threaten Jacobs’ grip on power.
A dysfunctional machine wasn’t Nassau Democrats’ only problem last week. They suffered a particularly brutal defeat in the race for district attorney, called two years early after former Nassau DA Madeline Singas was named to the New York Court of Appeals in June. State Senator Todd Kaminsky, the Democratic nominee, struggled mightily to distance himself from his vote in favor New York’s 2019 bail reform law, which has become politically toxic in the suburbs. Naturally, the right’s caterwauling over bail reform for the past two years lacks any substantive merit, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective. Republicans hammered him on it throughout the campaign.
This begs the question: why nominate someone with that kind of liability in the first place? Nassau Democrats already had a successful model for early DA elections. After Kathleen Rice won a seat in Congress representing the pharmaceutical industry in 2014, she tapped Singas - her top deputy and a career prosecutor - to serve out the remainder of her term. When Singas decided to throw her hat in the ring for DA, she was able to leverage her incumbency to win a full term of her own later that year, despite a poor showing by other Democrats on the ballot.
Unfortunately for Nassau Democrats, such a maneuver proved difficult to replicate this year. To begin with, Singas faced limited options in selecting her replacement owing to her dubious approach to talent management. The most intuitive choices - Chief Assistant DA Albert Teichman and Major Case Executive Maureen McCormick - were both ineligible, as neither of them live in Nassau County. Another member of her leadership team, Charles Testagrossa, was forced to resign in March after it was revealed that he hid exculpatory evidence from defense counsel in a homicide trial. Ultimately, she settled on Joyce Smith, Executive Assistant DA for the Community Relations Division.
Smith was a relative newcomer to the office, arriving in 2018 after a stint at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Like her predecessor, Smith began her career in the Queens DA’s office, where she spent 15 years prosecuting domestic violence cases. But unlike Singas - and more importantly, unlike Kaminsky - Smith also boasted deep experience in the kind of legal work that made her a uniquely strong prospect to keep the Nassau DA’s office in Democratic hands this year, had she decided to run.
After the murder of George Floyd, former governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all counties in New York to develop an agenda for police reform in June of last year. When Nassau County Executive Laura Curran went to work on this directive, she was criticized for failing to include genuinely pro-reform voices in the process. To assuage these concerns, she set up a panel of progressive leaders and racial justice advocates to advise her. But she inflamed those concerns all over again in March 2021 when she released a proposal that included none of the panel’s input. From Newsday:
“Co-chairman Frederick Brewington and more than a dozen members of a Nassau County community advisory panel resigned abruptly Friday night after release of a 310-page police reform plan that they said they neither helped create nor had a chance to review.
Brewington, a longtime civil rights attorney, and other members of the panel, including NAACP Long Island regional director Tracey Edwards, said they were shocked when they found out the draft plan was made public.
‘What they engaged in was the worst kind of betrayal. The county misled its citizen volunteers into believing that their voice would be heard and then they issued a report that was devoid of any part of the group’s participation,’ Brewington said.”
Nevertheless, county legislators from the districts that encompass almost all of Nassau’s black population continued to engage with the reform process, pushing for amendments to Curran’s proposal informed by the panel’s work. None would have defunded the police by even a penny; their biggest priority was the creation of a civilian complaint review board to probe allegations of police misconduct. Still, they were rebuffed. When the finished product passed the legislature 16-3, it was the body’s three black members representing Nassau’s blackest districts who voted against it, calling it an exercise in public relations rather than police reform.
“African-American leaders and voters do not trust the Nassau Democratic leadership. They’re dubious about Curran because of police reform,” my reader told me. This context made Joyce Smith all the more attractive as a potential candidate for district attorney. Not only was she the first black person to hold the position, but she had years of experience directly relevant to this set of issues. At the Nassau DA’s office, part of her mandate was to work with minority communities to build trust and collaboration between them and law enforcement. At the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, she was responsible for researching and developing best practices for improving police-community relations.
According to my reader, there was only one problem: she wasn’t interested. “I don’t know Joyce, but I was told she didn’t want to run, she said she’s not political - who gives a fuck. If you’re Jabobs, you send everybody to talk to her and say look: you’re the best candidate, you have to run, this is your time,” they explained. “If you run an African-American woman with a non-controversial record and keep bail reform off the ballot, can you imagine the different conversation we’d be having? Don’t run Kaminsky, get Joyce Smith to run for DA, she wins, African-American turnout is huge, and Curran is never disturbed. Curran wins without Kaminsky on the ballot.”
Perhaps this assessment is a touch optimistic. Results from other elections around the country on Tuesday prove that it wasn’t only local issues that drove the outcome; the public’s dissatisfaction with Democrats is growing nationwide, as is conservative mobilization. Perhaps any Democratic nominee would have struggled to prevail with the shadow of bail reform looming over the race, even one not as directly associated with it as Kaminsky. It’s also possible that Joyce Smith was never going to run for DA even if the county party made a serious effort to persuade her. Certainly it wasn’t her responsibility to save the decrepit Democratic organization from itself.
But one thing’s for certain: the Democratic organization is decrepit indeed. I took it upon myself to total up the two-party raw vote in all of Nassau County’s legislative elections over the past four cycles, and what stands out is how closely the trajectories of both Democratic and Republican turnout mirrored each other prior to last week. After low enthusiasm in 2015, there was a surge of participation in both parties the year after Trump’s election, followed by a slight decline in 2019. The red wave on Tuesday was the first significant divergence between the parties in six years; even if all 20,000 absentee ballots left to count went for Democrats, it would still be the largest Republican margin of victory in years.
Nassau’s Democratic electorate is being buffeted by history, ebbing and flowing with the national tides. A more robust local party might be able to leverage their mammoth registration advantage to help them overcome these trends through effective organizing. But unfortunately for them, the leader of their party hasn’t been very enthusiastic about getting Democrats elected lately.