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Long Island DA races join a national wave of GOP wins to redefine the suburbs

Republican Ray Tierney is elected the new Suffolk County District Attorney. He defeated incumbent Democrat Tim Sini.
J.D. Allen
WSHU Public Radio
Republican Ray Tierney is elected the new Suffolk County District Attorney. He defeated incumbent Democrat Tim Sini.

Long Island Republicans won big in local elections Tuesday night, where Democrats lost both District Attorney offices in Nassau and Suffolk — and possibly Nassau's county executive position. The results came after Republicans campaigned hard on a tough-on-crime message.

In the race for Nassau County Executive race, Republican Bruce Blakeman led incumbent Democrat Laura Curran by over 4,000 votes with all precincts reporting, but the race remains too close to call with outstanding absentee ballots. Blakeman declared victory over Curran.

"I think the Republican Party was on the right side of the issues," Blakeman said at a GOP watch party Tuesday night.

In a statement, Curran did not concede and said “many thousands” of absentee ballots still need to be counted.

New York State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs calls results of Election Day on Nov. 2, 2021, "stunning."
Charles Lane
WSHU Public Radio
Jay Jacobs, New York State Democratic Party Chair, calls results of Tuesday's election "stunning."

“There’s something else more remarkable, unpleasantly so, going on in the political environment to give us that result,” said New York State Democratic Chair Jay Jacobs, who also serves as the party’s Nassau County chair.

Jacobs said Republican “fear mongering” on bail justice reform was a major liability heading into the race for Nassau DA.

“They sold the public that bail reform was going to negatively impact their safety,” Jacobs said.

Republican Anne Donnelly, who has worked as deputy chief of enterprise crime and cybersecurity bureau at the district attorney’s office, beat Todd Kaminsky, a state senator and former federal prosecutor, by around 20% of the vote.

"Thank you for caring about Nassau County,” Donnelly said, “for wanting to keep it safe and back the candidate that backs the blue.”

In Suffolk County, Ray Tierney, a former federal, Suffolk and Brooklyn prosecutor, defeated Democratic incumbent Tim Sini to become district attorney. Tierney, backed on the Republican and Conservative Party lines, said he will return law and order back to the district attorney’s office.

“We're going to prosecute cases fairly aggressively. When we keep people safe, we're going to be fair, and we're going to also reach out to the community so they can feel invested in the district attorney's office,” Tierney said.

Pivoting from reforms

Democratic candidates hoped that by changing their messaging before Election Day — to more law and order than reforming the criminal justice system — would help them hold office in Nassau and Suffolk County. Voters didn’t buy it.

Todd Kaminsky, who sought the party’s nomination after former Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas was appointed to the state’s highest court earlier this year, had voted for and helped draft recent bail reform laws. He and other Democrats were pressured by suburban voters to steer away from issues like criminal justice reform, which have become a priority for progressive activists since the murder of George Floyd.

“People think it went too far,” he said on the campaign trail. “People want to make sure that if someone is going to be violent, that they're held in and not able to go commit an act of violence.”

In the final hour at a watch party at his campaign headquarters in Hauppauge, Tim Sini speculated that Republican turnout exceeded expectations.

“At the end of the day, it is a very divisive time in our politics. ... There are a lot of Republicans voting,” Sini said. “We hope that they see through the politics that there is a person who needs to be re-elected to just serve justice. It's not about politics.”

Incumbent Democrat Tim Sini is defeated by Ray Tierney, who will take office as Suffolk County's district attorney in January.
J.D. Allen
WSHU Public Radio
Incumbent Democrat Tim Sini is defeated by Ray Tierney, who will take office as Suffolk County's district attorney in January.

Sini conceded to Ray Tierney, Suffolk’s new top prosecutor, shortly after.

Tierney has sided with conservatives against the state’s elimination of most bail for non-violent offenses. But Tierney said he’s ready to get busy indicting alleged gang members and criminals with illegal guns.

“We're going to keep people safe. We're going to work real hard. We're going to work against some of these laws,” he said. “We're going to work with the laws that have been enacted.”

Elmer Flores, a local police and prison abolition organizer, said Sini’s record made him tough to support.

Both Sini and Tierney also had stints as federal prosecutors: Sini in the Southern District and Tierney in the Eastern District. Sini went on to be Suffolk’s police commissioner — while Tierney worked for 14 years in the district attorney’s office — before he first took office as top county prosecutor in 2017.

“I think the reality is that progressive groups are unequivocally in opposition to the narratives that both campaigns have undertaken in their race for public office,” Flores said. “The rhetoric and fear mongering tactics that both Democrats vying for district attorney have perpetuated continues to alienate progressive voters from within their party and thus alienating group support for their campaigns.”

Flores said in the last 72 hours of Sini’s campaign, he targeted highly informed left-leaning voters about overturning the wrongful conviction of Keith Bush, who was imprisoned for over 30 years and received a $16 million settlement with Suffolk County in September.

Bush actually endorsed Sini for reelection in a last-minute video sent to his family and campaign.

“Tim Sini looked at this case in detail, and made a bold decision to exonerate me when others who served as district attorneys, and even judges within Suffolk County, chose to look the other way,” Bush said. “He has reformed and has held accountable those who maliciously and intentionally violate the law.”

For Flores, it was too little too late. Prior to this weekend, Flores said Sini had taken hardline stances against bail reform, and did not focus on his positive accomplishments as district attorney, such as creating the Conviction Integrity Bureau, which eventually led to Bush’s release.

“I think this change of course reflects that the campaign is seeing a change of tide in who they should be focusing on culling for votes: that is progressives voters,” Flores said.

Progressive voters said this hesitancy — being kept at arm's length of the mainstream Democratic Party — led to major GOP wins across Long Island.

“We are voting with reservation for the best candidates on the ballot, though their positions fall short from the principles of restorative justice,” said Shoshana Hershkowitz, the founder of Suffolk Progressives. “We strive to move these moderate Democrats in the direction of reform, and will prepare to find primary challengers in future elections if that is not achieved.”

They also blame Sini for leaning into being tough on gangs, gun violence and other nationally conservative issues. Days before Election Day, he announced the arrests of 12 people, including an alleged network of MS-13 gang members.

“Our goal is to protect public safety by focusing on preventing violent crimes from occurring, which is why our strategy has been to collect intelligence and act on that information in real time to prevent gun violence and thwart murders, particularly at the hands of MS-13,” Sini said.

On the campaign trail, Tierney, who is not affiliated with any party, but ran on the Republican and Conservative lines, poked holes into Sini’s record as a prosecutor. He targeted “the rising tide of violence in Suffolk County,” and claimed that Sini fell short on prosecuting around 100 gun-related crimes in recent years. Tierney said Sini allowed for these arrests for murder, drug and gun charges to plead down to lesser charges — letting criminals off easy.

“They are not being indicted [for gun crimes],” Tierney said during a campaign stop. “Notwithstanding the disaster that the state’s bail reform has been, these cases are now all bail-able. If you could ask for bail, those individuals could be held on those charges.”

Both candidates credited themselves for apprehending local MS-13 members and working with the Trump Justice Department to curb gang violence.

“We're going to be more open and transparent with regard to a crime strategies unit, where we'll map the crime stats to show the public what's going on. And we'll work with the public to solve these cases,” Tierney said on Election Day.

“The gangs that are here in addition to MS-13, there are a lot of traditional street gangs, ongoing wars, that we're going to need to address,” he continued. “You take it one step at a time, one case at a time you bring your team together, you assemble your team, and then you go forward from there.”

Riding the red wave 

Long Island is historically a Republican stronghold in New York. But over the last few years, Democrats have gained more of a command over local government. On Tuesday, Election Day hit the reset button for the GOP in the suburbs.

Republican Bruce Blakeman, a councilman in the Town of Hempstead, said poll numbers, despite uncounted absentee ballots, should be enough to confirm he is the next Nassau County Executive. Curran, a Democrat, has had a GOP-led legislature since she took office in 2018. She has also butted heads with towns and villages with Republican leadership over policing, property taxes and administrative service fees — which Blakeman said contributed to his campaign win.

Police reform was a sore spot for Curran among progressive activists who wanted lawmakers to adopt a “people’s plan.” That was skipped over by Nassau and Suffolk legislators in charge of creating new police accountability laws last year.

“If there's any criticism against the police, she's usually the first to defend and provide cover for the police,” said Jeremy Joseph, a member of Long Island United to Transform Policing and Community Safety, the group behind the “people’s plan” for police reform.

Election Day wins further secured Republican control over the Nassau County Legislature, where all 19 seats were up for election.

“It's all sort of this kind of top down approach from Nassau Democrats, as led by Jay Jacobs [the county and state Democratic Party chair],” Joseph said. “They think their way to electoral success is appealing to the law and order crowd over and again, they ignore progressives.”

In Suffolk County, which Donald Trump carried in 2016 and 2020, the 18-seat Legislature shifted more Republican, ousting Democrats, including Legislature Presiding Officer Rob Calarco and potentially Majority Leader Susan Berland.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, watches Republicans win more seats in the county Legislature on Nov. 2, 2021.
J.D. Allen
WSHU Public Radio
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, watches Republicans win more seats in the county Legislature on Tuesday.

That make-up will likely be a new roadblock for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat who is serving his final term at the helm under law. Bellone is said to be considering a run for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York in 2022.

It’s already a crowded field for Democrats seeking the gubernatorial nod: Governor Kathy Hochul, state Attorney General Letitia James, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. The winner next June will likely face Eastern Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, who has support of almost all county GOP heads.

It’s unclear who will run for top county seat in Suffolk when Bellone’s term is up in 2023.

WSHU's J.D. Allen and Terry Sheridan contributed to this reporting.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.
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