Suffolk Closeup: The Race Is On … Kind Of … for County Executive

Karl Grossman

The leading political contest in Suffolk in 2019 will be the race for county executive, the top post in Suffolk County government.

As the new year begins, the most likely Republican candidate against Democratic incumbent Steve Bellone is either Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy, Jr. or Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta—although the entry of other would-be nominees is possible.

Both Messrs. Kennedy and Trotta have strong views on Mr. Bellone, considering him inept particularly on county financial matters. “We have a complete absence of leadership in this county and we are balanced on the precipice of financial crisis,” said Mr. Kennedy after his re-election to the comptroller’s post in the past election.

The county’s fiscal watchdog, Mr. Kennedy has described Mr. Bellone’s county budgets as “fraught with peril. It is not unlike what we see to the west of us,” referring to the financial problems that have occurred in neighboring Nassau County resulting in the state imposing a Finance Authority to oversee Nassau fiscal matters. “It’s as if,” maintains Mr. Kennedy, “he [Bellone] is standing on the 12th floor” of the county’s H. Lee Dennison Building, where the county executive has his office, “with a megaphone calling on the state to ‘take us over.’”

Mr. Kennedy is considering but hasn’t yet made up his mind about running for county executive.

Mr. Trotta has decided “to test the waters” for his making a run. A retired detective with the Suffolk County Police Department, Mr. Trotta in criticizing Mr. Bellone’s fiscal policies has zeroed in on his pushing increased fees in order to balance the county budget. He has called it “nothing more than a tax disguised as a fee. It’s death by a thousand knives.” Increasing fees for general county purposes, says Mr. Trotta, “is not even a grey area. The New York State comptroller has stated you can’t do this, and there is case law stating it can’t be done…It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Both Messrs. Kennedy and Trotta are experienced in Suffolk government

Mr. Kennedy, an attorney from Nesconset, served 10 years as a county legislator before first being elected county comptroller in 2014. He was minority leader of the legislature. He previously worked in the county clerk’s office. He has a master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in capital budgeting from Adelphi University.

Mr. Trotta, of Fort Salonga, was first elected to the Suffolk Legislature in 2013. For 25 years he was a member of the county police force. For over 10 of those years he also served on the FBI Violence Crimes Task Force. He graduated from C.W. Post with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and got a master’s in labor management relations from Stony Brook University.

Mr. Bellone, of North Babylon, was first elected county executive in 2011. He had been Babylon Town supervisor and earlier a member of the Babylon Town Board. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications from Queens College, a master’s in public administration from Webster University in Missouri attending classes at night during his Army service in Missouri as a communications specialist, and a law degree from the Fordham University School of Law.

Mr. Bellone’s re-election drive is beginning. Last month he raised $400,000 at a fundraiser attended by 300 people adding to a campaign war chest of $1.65 million already.

He will likely emphasize in his campaign his efforts at boosting the economy of Suffolk with the “Ronkonkoma Hub” and other programs and will staunchly defend his fiscal management.

If Mr. Bellone wins re-election this year, it would be his last term as county executive due to the county’s term limits law that restricts being county executive to 12 years.

Mr. Bellone was re-elected in 2015 after what some in politics have regarded as a “free ride.” His GOP opponent was unknown in Suffolk. James O’Connor was a former member of the North Hempstead Town Board and moved from Nassau to Great River in Suffolk in 2004 so his wife could be closer to her cardiology practice. He received the GOP nomination for Suffolk County executive after those whom the party considered stronger challengers declined to run. Mr. O’Connor also scored Mr. Bellone over what he termed the “precarious” shape of county finances charging that county government under Mr. Bellone “is not heading in the right direction,” indeed was “hurtling over a financial cliff.”

Although either Messrs. Kennedy and Trotta are now considered the most likely candidates against Mr. Bellone this year, other possibilities are State Senator John J. Flanagan of East Northport, majority leader of the State Senate from 2015 until last year–and with Democrats having just gained a Senate majority losing that position, and Suffolk Legislator Tom Climi of Bay Shore who has been the minority leader of the Suffolk Legislature.