Four years ago, Laura Curran won election as Nassau County executive after sticking largely to a single issue: ridding Nassau of corruption after County Executive Edward Mangano was arrested on federal charges of bribery and accepting kickbacks.
In 2021, Curran, a Democrat, is campaigning on her record of helping residents navigate the coronavirus pandemic, Nassau’s high vaccination rate, what she touts as Nassau’s reputation as a safe community and two years of budget surpluses.
Bruce Blakeman, Curran’s Republican opponent and a Hempstead Town Council member, has tried to make one issue — Curran’s countywide property reassessment program — the focus of the campaign.
Blakeman’s message: Reassessment caused taxes to spike for many county homeowners and was marred by bureaucratic errors.
In an interview with Newsday at her home in Baldwin last week, with her mother and campaign officials sitting nearby, Curran made the case for a second term.
“Under my leadership, I have proven that I am willing to take on the tough fights, and I’m willing to take on problems that I knew we would have, and problems nobody knew we would have,” said Curran, 53.
In a Zoom interview from his campaign office, Blakeman, 66, of Atlantic Beach, said he decided to run because of urgent county issues, including reassessment, he felt needed to be addressed.
“It’s about the fact that here I am sitting on the sideline, watching things going on, that I disagreed with,” Blakeman said.
“I had the choice to have a very comfortable summer, not work 15 hours a day, not subject myself to constant scrutiny, or to jump in the arena of battle, and talk about the things that I believe in,” he said.
The 2021 county executive’s race between Curran and Blakeman comes as Nassau County emerges from the coronavirus pandemic with finances that, at least for now, are on the upswing.
That’s due largely to the move by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county’s financial control board, to refinance more than $1.1 billion in county debt this year.
Receipt of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid also helped bolster the county budget.
Craig Burnett, a Hofstra University professor of political science, sketched the challenges this year for both Curran and Blakeman.
“For Curran, I think the challenge is going to be highlighting the fact that a transition has been positive and consistent, that we’ve gotten rid of the corruption, and things are fair,” Burnett said.
For Blakeman, Burnett said, “I think the answer is to say [Curran’s policies] are bad policies. They’ve taken more money out of your pocket with the tax reform for property taxes, and on top of that you can expect more bad policies.”
Blakeman has the lengthier political resume.
In 1996, he became the first presiding officer of the new Nassau County Legislature, during a period when Republican Thomas Gulotta was county executive.
Blakeman served two terms in the legislature before losing to Democrat Jeffrey Toback in 1999.
Over the past three decades, Blakeman ran unsuccessfully for New York State comptroller, U.S. Congress, New York City mayor and U.S. Senate.
Blakeman was appointed to the Hempstead Town Board in 2015, a part-time position, and afterward was elected to two four-year terms. He served as Deputy Supervisor to Democratic Supervisor Laura Gillen, after breaking ranks with his party to endorse the Democrat.
An attorney, Blakeman has worked as a consultant to businesses, including a medical marijuana firm in which he disclosed owning a stake in 2017.
Curran worked as a reporter for The New York Post and the Daily News, covering issues including politics and education.
She was elected to the Baldwin school board in 2011, and won election to represent the 5th District in the Nassau County Legislature in 2013.
Curran served two terms in the legislature before her election as county executive.
During her stint in the legislature, she rankled members of her own party when she supported Republicans who needed her vote to borrow for infrastructure projects, including $445,000 for streetscaping in Baldwin.
Democrats were withholding their votes for bonding to try to force Republicans to agree to hire an independent inspector general to investigate corruption and misconduct.
Curran’s countywide reassessment, which took effect in the 2020-21 tax year, has become the most prominent issue in the county executive campaign.
When Curran took office in 2018, the tax rolls had been frozen since 2011 — the year Mangano instituted the freeze as he reviewed methods for valuing residential and commercial properties in Nassau.
By the final year of the freeze, 2019-2020, the county had settled about 80% of all tax challenges filed during an eight-year period.
During the freeze, tens of thousands of homes had become undervalued.
The mass settlement policy also caused a sizable shift in the tax burden onto property owners who did not win reductions or did not file appeals.
At the start of Curran’s term, Republicans and Democrats largely were in agreement on the need for a reassessment.
But by September 2018, Republicans were attacking Curran’s rollout of the reassessment.
Republicans said there were errors in the process, including publication of incorrect values on tentative rolls. The county later corrected the values.
Curran defends the reassessment, saying it’s provided a broad correction in assessments that will restore fairness to the county’s tax roll.
Curran also cites assessment experts on the state and national level who said her administration handled the reassessment fairly, and that the assessments were highly accurate.
“All agreed: We got as close to accurate as you can get,” Curran said.
Blakeman said if elected, he’d meet immediately with financial experts to review the county’s assessment policies, and “immediately audit the assessor’s office.”
Blakeman offered no specific plans for overhauling the county Assessment Department, or for correcting what he describes as an inaccurate property tax roll.
Blakeman also declined to say whether he would implement a new reassessment, saying he would need to study the issue.
“It’s like an automobile that is not operating — you have to get under the hood,” he said.
Blakeman did criticize the Curran administration’s reliance on a computer modeling system to establish residential home values.
Blakeman said the county’s approach risks widespread assessment errors.
“I would have had a real reassessment — inspect each home, and make your evaluations based on actual inspections, photographing each home and doing a detailed analysis based on what the valuations are in the community,” Blakeman said.
“We’re looking at every home,” Curran said in response. “We’re exploring all kinds of options.”
Blakeman and Curran also have tangled over county finances.
Nassau for years struggled with operating deficits, to the point where the State Legislature created the Nassau Interim Finance Authority in 2000 with the power to reject county budgets.
At a Newsday Live Town Hall earlier this month, Curran took credit for turning the county’s finances around.
Read More:Nassau County executive’s race: Finances, reassessment are top issues