Home Opinion Suffolk Closeup A watershed moment in Suffolk politics

A watershed moment in Suffolk politics

Errol Toulon Jr. is the first African-American elected to nonjudicial countywide office in Suffolk County.
Courtesy photo

The election of Eric Toulon Jr. as Suffolk County sheriff — the first African-American ever elected to a (nonjudicial) countywide government position in Suffolk — is a milestone for a county that has long known prejudice and racism.

It took nearly a month after Election Day for 14,000 absentee ballots to be counted and Toulon, a Democrat who also ran on the Conservative and Independence Party lines (a key to his victory) declared the winner.

Last week the Suffolk Board of Elections announced that the final tally showed Toulon winning the sheriff’s race against Republican Larry Zacarese by 2,043 votes out of more than 300,000 cast. Toulon got 25,733 votes on the Conservative and Independence lines—more than 10 times his winning margin. It has become extremely difficult in Suffolk for a candidate for any level of government to win running on one line alone. Having a grouping of party lines has become critical.

Toulon is thoroughly qualified to be Suffolk sheriff which has not always been the case for candidates for the post. He was previously a deputy corrections commissioner in New York City and before that, for 22 years, a uniformed officer in the corrections department. He knows Suffolk well, too, having been an assistant deputy county executive for public safety.

Being Suffolk sheriff is a big job involving the supervision of almost 900 corrections officers, 250 deputy sheriffs and 130 civilian personnel and running the county’s jails in Riverside and Yaphank.

His win, considering Suffolk’s history, is quite a breakthrough.

This is a county where, as historian Christopher Verga of Bay Shore writes in his recent book, “Civil Rights on Long Island,” 18 percent of the population were slaves through the 17th Century to the late 18th Century. Long Island “had the largest slave population in the North,” notes Verga.

It’s a county where in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a dominant political force — with one out of seven Suffolk residents members of the KKK!

It’s a county which, in the 1930s, was a center in the New York Metropolitan Area for Nazi activity—with a parade ground called Camp Siegfried in Yaphank where rallies were held and a surrounding housing development built with streets named for German Nazi leaders.

The jaws of my millennial college students drop when I tell them the story of the late State Senator Leon Giuffreda telling me how in the 1950s he became the first Italian-American to break through the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant control of the then omnipotent Brookhaven Town Republican Party and get a nomination to run for public office. He had to wage a primary challenge to get the nomination to run for town justice. (Giuffreda of Centereach represented a Senate district now held by Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson, also Italian-American, encompassing the Towns of Riverhead and Southold and the rest of the East End, as well as much of the Town of Brookhaven.)

The situation for Giuffreda seems very strange to the young people with Italian-American officials so numerous now in government on Long Island and in New York State.

Regarding Brookhaven Town, the late Kenneth Anderson, president of the town’s NAACP chapter, would repeatedly in the 1960s describe Brookhaven as “my Mississippi.” He was referring to cross-burnings and other acts of racism.

The treatment of blacks politically was bad for decades, a subject I’ve covered in my over 50 years as a journalist here. I wrote columns, for example, on how the first African-American judge in Suffolk, Marquette Floyd, elected to the Suffolk District Court in 1969, had to wait nearly 20 years to progress up the judicial ladder and be nominated for a seat on the State Supreme Court here — and he won. Justice Floyd, a fine jurist who went on to become presiding officer of the court above Supreme Court, the Appellate Division, saw race as the reason for his long, long wait to move up from District Court.

Importantly, these days the win by Toulon is not tokenism. In Suffolk today DuWayne Gregory of Amityville, also African-American, is the presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, considered the number-two position in county government. (He wasn’t elected countywide, however, but from his legislative district and then voted in by the other members of the legislature as presiding officer, first in 2014.) A star on the legislature now is Dr. William Spencer of Centerport, a medical doctor as well as an ordained minister and also African-American.

Suffolk has come a long, long way in fairness and inclusiveness in government.
Still, there is far to go.

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Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl