Unfortunately for Mangano’s opponents in the county executive race, the large amounts of money given to Mangano and the Hicksville club have already been spent. By the time Andrew Cuomo’s Campaign Finance Bill passes, Mangano could be well on his way to a second term as county executive.
Standing at a podium in a garish banquet hall at the Crest Hollow Country Club on Long Island, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano is giving a speech in acceptance of an “Achievement in Crisis Communication” award for his handling of Superstorm Sandy. Mangano is equal parts charismatic and self-assured; his boyish smile is a magnet for the cameras, and traces of a Long Island accent give him a comforting authenticity as not just another politician in a suit but “one of the guys.”
As the details the importance of “having a plan” to tackle unexpected natural disasters, it is clear he excels at these sort of events-more at ease playing the role of the glad-handing, schmoozing public official than policy wonk. “He’s very visible. He’s all over,” said former Assemblyman Jerry Kremer, who represented parts of Nassau County. “He doesn’t miss an opportunity to project his image. It’s campaign season in Nassau County, and the county executive seat is up for grabs.
Democrats hope to win it back from Mangano, a Republican, after losing it to him in a stunning upset by a razor-thin margin in 2009. Back then Mangano was a relatively unknown county legislator given virtually no chance of toppling the prominent twoterm incumbent, Thomas Suozzi, whose attention was already focused past his reelection bid and on to higher office. According to Nassau County political observers, at the time Mangano was seen as “the last guy in the room” who could win, and dismissed as an empty suit with no real credentials or public policy to hang his hat on.
A Siena College poll taken just weeks before the election found that only 32 percent of voters would cast a ballot for him if the election were held that day, compared with 54 percent for Suozzi. But as the Democrats learned on Election Day, those numbers did not reflect a countywide anti-incumbent sentiment, anger at Nassau’s mounting fiscal crisis and Mangano’s compelling personal narrative-putting himself through college by working as a high school janitor.
After a lengthy recount Mangano prevailed, winning by a mere 386 votes out of the over 230,000 ballots cast. As leader of the county over the past three and a half years, Mangano has received mixed reviews. After inheriting a nearly $133 million deficit from his predecessor, Mangano immediately set out to streamline the county government, slashing a large number of county jobs, especially managerial positions. At the same time, though, he cut energy and property taxes, putting the county into a position where it had to balance its budget with “one-shot” borrowing.
As a result, in 2011 the Nassau Interim Finance Authority voted unanimously to take over control of the county’s finances, citing the deficits the county was running. “How much of [Nassau’s fiscal situation] you can ascribe only to the economy, how much of it was Suozzi not paying attention the last year or two and how much Mangano can blame Suozzi for the economy, it’s a very difficult thing to separate,” said a source knowledgeable about Nassau County politics who asked to remain nameless so as not to antagonize the county executive. “Mangano did take some steps to rein in spending.
The workforce is smaller, but he had to eat the young by pushing off expenses, and by negotiating contracts that have big payouts down the road.” Yet as his “Crisis Communication” award demonstrates, Mangano was widely praised for his steady hand in guiding the county through the immense challenges and destruction of Superstorm Sandy, and it is safe to say that his fortitude amid that trying time remains fresh in the minds of voters.
His approval rating, at 45 percent before Sandy, improved to 51 percent in January, the high mark of his tenure. But while the narrative of Mangano as the calm at the center of the storm is compelling as a campaign optic, recent revelations indicate that Mangano may have exploited Sandy for his own ends. In the wake of the storm, various contractors and subcontractors who contributed heavily to Mangano’s campaign account received lucrative contracts from the county for performing such jobs as debris removal and general cleanup.
Moreover, in addition to donating to Mangano, some of these contractors gave significant sums of money to a small political club in the hamlet of Hicksvillethe Hicksville Republican Club-run by Mangano’s chief deputy county executive, Rob Walker. According to numerous documents and campaign finance records, the Hicksville club appears to have served as a proxy fundraising vehicle for Mangano’s campaign.
Wealthy donors, including individuals who have relationships with or are employed by Nassau County, and companies that contract with the county, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Republican club since Mangano and Walker took office. This money subsequently appears to have been spent on several lavish fundraising and campaign events, including for a $200,000 luxury suite at MetLife Stadium and highend golf outings at destination courses like Myrtle Beach.