Home Opinion Greg Blass Greg Blass: The fix is in: Party bosses, not voters, decide who...

Greg Blass:
The fix is in: Party bosses, not voters, decide who will be Suffolk County’s next district attorney and sheriff

Detail from 'Under the Thumb' by political cartoonist Thomas Nast (Harper’s Weekly, June 1871). Its caption quotes corrupt NYC political leader William Tweed, 'The Boss,’ who famously told the N.Y. Times, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?' when it reported on Tammany’s widespread corruption. The paper’s reporting and Nast’s cartoons resulted in the election of numerous opposition candidates in 1871.

Suffolk County’s political party bosses are busy at work selecting our next sheriff and district attorney. Their diabolical goal: these two county-wide races will again be uncontested – meaning no choice for the voters, only for the bosses. Nothing new – we haven’t had a choice in a DA or county sheriff election for 14 years. Why is that?

First of all, in the DA’s office, over 400 assistant district attorneys and other staff are hired at the DA’s discretion. They prosecute all criminal cases in all the courts of Suffolk, including in our justice courts on the East End. No doubt these jobs will be divided among Democratic and Republican leaders, with handouts as well to the Conservative and Independence Party leaders, as with chips in a cynical game of cards.

It’s the old Boss Tweed formula, similar to what they do at the county Board of Elections and Off-Track Betting Corp. But BOE and OTB are legally set up to be top-heavy with patronage staffs. (How that came to be is a whole other story.) Needless to say, these agencies could run much better. One is actually bankrupt. The DA’s and sheriff’s staffs, however, are not supposed to be saddled with string-pulling patronage hiring. Yet the party bosses have a clever way to get around that.

Each chairperson of these four county parties (the D, R, C and I parties) controls things by gobbling up the nominating process. Certainly each has a county “convention,” all for show, where the party committees have their lockstep marching orders. The party chair is elected, or re-elected, at these orchestrated conventions. Sustained in this way, the chair continues the deal-making, and the committees dutifully follow. That includes a blank check for their party’s ballot line wherever the boss says. That’s why this time of year is when the different party chairs keep ever-so-closely in touch.

This year — just in the past few days, in fact — the Democratic Party chair, calling for his pipe and bowl and fiddlers three, proclaimed there will be no convention vote to nominate anyone for DA or sheriff. He said things simply have to be left to him, after the convention, because of a “surprise” suggestion by his Republican counterpart about a possible cross-endorsement deal – each will endorse the other’s pick for these two positions. Nothing new, they’ve been doing it for years. And they have convention rules that leave it to the chair if the decision is delayed. Thus the delay.

In addition to the jobs the bosses can fill, courtesy of their easily elected, unopposed DA and sheriff, the bosses can rest assured that these grateful officials, easily elected (thanks to these bosses) without the risk, rigors and expense of competing to get elected, will be their friends, all under the radar, of course.

Notice how political corruption has only been prosecuted by the feds on Long Island. The Suffolk DA started out eagerly prosecuting crime among politicians, but this all seemed to go away once D-R-C-I cross-endorsements became the norm. Coincidence? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that this year, the Conservative Party leader, backed by his convention, of course, jumped the gun with a clever game of his own with the county sheriff nomination. Owing to his machinations, Republican State Senator Phil Boyle has the Conservative line to “run” for sheriff.  (The spouse of former, now convicted, Conservative party leader Ed Walsh is on the senator’s staff, by the way. And testimony of incumbent Sheriff Vincent DeMarco helped convict Walsh at his federal corruption trial.)

Now the pressure is on the other party leaders to cross-endorse Boyle for sheriff. Likely the D, R and I leaders, for their part, will fall in line, sure to get the C line for their DA pick as payback. Lots of chips to go around.

The DA pick appears to be Suffolk’s police commissioner, Tim Sini. No matter that he made it clear in legislative hearings, in order to gain county legislative approval to be appointed commish in the first place, that he would never run for such political office as DA. But with cross-endorsement, he won’t have to own up to that pledge, or any pledge, because the people will have absolutely nothing to do with his election. What’s worse, he is so unanswerable to anyone in this process that he has casually announced, with the boss’ approval, no doubt, that he will continue his 24/7 job as county PD commish while he’s seeking election as DA. Now does that suggest somewhat of a contemptuous attitude? Isn’t there an ethical problem, running for office while serving as a major law enforcement officer? And get this: the county executive who appointed him, and most of the Suffolk legislators who confirmed him, have been resoundingly silent about it. Wonder why….

All this intrigue earns little more than matter-of-fact coverage by our LI-wide news media. You would think they would be all over this, but not a chance. Note what is said in this column would never make it in Newsday, not even as a letter to the editor. Newsday has barely reported or commented on Suffolk’s deplorable routine to “elect” its DA and sheriff. Channel 12 is just as bad, but of course, the station is owned and managed by the people who own Newsday – their own cross-endorsement of news content, if you will.

Yes, people within the parties can challenge party choices, or more specifically, party boss choices, by running in a primary election. But that’s a daunting task, starting with a miserable petition drive and campaign expense, with funds impossible to raise after being ostracized by the bosses for daring to challenge them in the first place. All this is culminated with primary election day, held on a quiet September Tuesday, in which no one but the bosses’ diehards bother to vote anyway.

And then there are, last and very much least, the voters, the public whom these “elected” officials, and the political parties behind them, are supposed to “serve.” For years here in Suffolk, there have been no campaigns for these two positions. The candidates say little, and even less is said about them. They owe their elevation to these positions courtesy of the party bosses, and to no one else. The voters are the know-nothings in their eyes. This is more akin to what happened in some border town in the Carolinas in the early 1900s. Is it any wonder that the people’s confidence in this once-precious republic erodes, to the point that few vote anymore?

There was a time when the county legislature had a reform streak running through it. There were days where they removed party leaders from the board of the Vanderbilt Museum when it lost its accreditation, and from the board of the Suffolk Water Authority. A PD commish running for DA while on the job would never have been allowed. But that was then, this is now. The legislature’s Democratic majority meekly defers the whole issue to their county party leader. The Republican legislators do object, but in such a mild way, as their party leader is also up to his ears in the whole scheme. Not a poetically inspiring crew, this legislature, but then again:

Suffolk legislators, meek and mild,
Not to worry as bosses run wild,
Just stack the deck, the chips are piled,
The voters’ focus is that of a child.

SHARE
Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg