Political Shocker In Town Of Hempstead

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Powerful GOP machine suffers setback

Laura Gillen, an attorney whose only previous run was for Nassau County clerk in 2013, pulled off one of the great political upsets of Election Day 2017. (Contributed Photo)

It’s become an iron law of local politics that no Democrat could win the supervisor’s seat in the Town of Hempstead. Reportedly, it hasn’t happened in about 100 years.

By rights, Anthony J. Santino should have breezed to re-election as the town’s chief executive. His party has dominated the town for decades. His campaign war chest had more than $1.5 million. He had engineered what he claimed was a financial turnaround in the town.

And his opponent was a political novice who faced obstacles in fundraising and making headway against a disciplined political machine.

Yet Laura Gillen, 48, of Rockville Centre, pulled off a stunning upset, beating Santino 50.69 to 49.25 percent. Santino won the top spot in 2015 after serving as councilman since 1993.

“It was such a David and Goliath battle,” Gillen told Anton Media Group outside the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola on Nov. 8. “People did not think it could be done. It was sheer force of will and a great response from the voters that really made it happen, along with some other things that happened along the way.”

These “other things” included a fracture in town government as Santino publicly and heatedly feuded with his fellow Republicans, councilmembers Bruce Blakeman and Erin King Sweeney. Weeks before the election, Blakeman did something unprecedented: the lifelong GOP stalwart endorsed Gillen, giving voice to his disenchantment with Santino.

The two had bitterly disagreed over Santino’s ethics reforms, which placed a limit on outside income that Blakeman and King Sweeney—both well-compensated lawyers—were certain was aimed at them. The two also complained that the supervisor had mistreated them and ignored their requests for meetings and discussions.

Gillen spoke during public comment sessions at town board meetings frequently this year, criticizing Santino over his treatment of the councilmembers and questioning his financial figures.

Though she did not officially endorse Gillen, King Sweeney welcomed the election results, posting the following statement on her Facebook page: “The residents of the Town of Hempstead want the town to end business as usual and to uncover the cloak of secrecy that surrounds their government…It is time for the town to stop wasting millions of dollars on mass mailings as free publicity for politicians. It is time to end the culture of bullying, intimidation and threats. It is time for Town of Hempstead to move into the future.”

On Nov. 9, King Sweeney and Gillen visited Camp Anchor in Lido Beach to express their support for its program.

Asked how the dynamics of the board would change under her leadership, Gillen replied, “I think it’s going to become far more civil and respectful. In the current administration, we found out the supervisor did not even meet with elected town councilpeople. That’s not representative democracy. Everybody who voted for them deserves a voice in government. I’m very respectful of that voice. And I will be including the elected town councilmembers. I’ll give them a seat at the table and include them in any legislation. You can’t be the one person show. It’s a multipurpose collaborative effort. Because I’m going to change that approach, I expect to have a collegial relationship with the Republicans on the town board.”

“Have you talked to Mr. Santino?” she was asked.

“I have not, but he did release a very nice concession statement,” Gillen said.

Santino stated, “I congratulate Ms. Gillen on her victory and wish her the best of success as she assumes the position of Hempstead Town Supervisor. I look forward to working cooperatively with her to ensure a smooth transition for our township’s residents.”

Gillen recalled how “I made the announcement in the pouring rain on the steps of Town Hall. People were supportive, but did not think I could win. I believed I could win and my husband was convinced I would win.”

Eventually, she related, “we converted people to our side. I had to raise money from friends and friends of friends. No one would write me a check.”

“It was a matter of getting out there knocking on doors and doing social media campaign, as well,” Gillen said of her campaign. “It was a grassroots campaign.”

She concluded, “I’m looking forward to getting to work to make sure all of our taxpayers’ dollars are being spent wisely. I had tremendous support from many Republicans. One of the reasons I’m the supervisor-elect is because thousands of Republicans voted for me because they trusted me when I said I’m going to be a supervisor who puts people before politics. And I meant that, and I’m going to prove that when I get into office.”

The Chairman Speaks

Of the election, Nassau Democratic Chair Jay Jacobs said, “I think the people from Hempstead were fed up and saw a great opportunity for change. One of the things I’ve learned is that when you have an incumbent, the campaign is generally framed around getting the voters to throw out the incumbent. But you have to offer a good alternative. Laura Gillen was a great alternative and had a great message, and it was about cleaning up government.”

He added, “I can’t tell you how many voters at railroad stations, street fairs, knocking on doors, that said, ‘I’m a registered Republican. I’ve been a Republican all my life, I’ve never voted for a Democrat, but I’m voting for you guys this time. Don’t mess it up. We’re going to trust you.’”

Jacobs thought that the Hempstead GOP took the voters for granted and “broke the contract. They no longer provided good services at a fair price. And it was a mistake. Let’s make sure the Democrats never get arrogant, because we won’t be standing here in victory the day after that election.”

On The Ballot

Three council seats were up for grabs on the Hempstead board. In the First District, incumbent and lone Democrat Dorothy Goosby easily beat Conservative/Republican Alfred Cittadino 91.10-8.84 percent. Though she did cross party lines to endorse Santino, Goosby has generally backed the supervisor.

In the Fourth District, Anthony D’Esposito beat back the challenge of Democrat Douglas Mayer 57.60-42.34 percent. D’Esposito was first appointed to the board in 2016 and won election last November to fill the rest of the term of his predecessor.
Dennis Dunne, appointed to replace Gary Hudes in June, won his Sixth District seat against Democrat Sue Moller 48.43-39.59 percent. Dunne had served for more than 20 years on the Nassau County Legislature.

Both Dunne and D’Esposito have been strong supporters of Santino.

The other Republican on the board, Ed Ambrosino, was not up for election but faces federal tax evasion charges and his future is uncertain.

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Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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