The Suffolk County executive race is on.
County Republicans have selected Jim O’Connor to challenge Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in November. And in his words, O’Connor said he could not be more honored to represent his party in the pivotal race.
“John Jay LaValle [chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee] called me up and asked me if I would be interested in the position, and I said of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you be interested in that position?”
O’Connor, now a resident of Great River, is a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Maroney O’Connor LLP. He has a long resume of working in local government, starting in the Town of North Hempstead in 1998 as an elected councilman, where he served until 2001. From 2006-08, O’Connor was appointed building commissioner for North Hempstead.
He had a very brief run at the Nassau county executive spot in 2001 — for approximately 48 hours, to be exact — before the Nassau Republicans chose to back candidate Bruce Bent instead.
O’Connor’s opponent, Bellone, also garnered similar public service accolades before assuming office at the county level in 2011. Bellone served on the Babylon Town Board for four years, starting in 1997, and was then elected supervisor of Babylon Township in 2001.
Since being voted into office, Bellone said he was proud of passing three consecutive balanced budgets under the tax cap, securing a $383 million investment in clean water infrastructure — the largest of the county in 40 years — and negotiating labor contracts that make new employees more affordable and requires new employees to contribute to health care costs.
“We must continue to move Suffolk County forward,” Bellone said in an email through a spokesperson. “While we have made a lot of progress there is so much work left to do.”
Specifics of moving Suffolk County forward, Bellone said, include continuing to hold the line on taxes, creating new jobs, growing the economy and keeping young people on Long Island.
Bellone also said he is interested in utilizing better the many assets that Suffolk County has, including Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. If re-elected, he said he wants to make sure the county is leveraging those assets to create innovation jobs.
But O’Connor said he found flaws in the way that Bellone has handled the financial aspects of the county.
“The attitude is, ‘Let’s put off tomorrow what we could do today,’ and that is hurting my children and my children’s children, in terms of the amount of debt that will fall on their shoulders,” O’Connor said in a phone interview.
Under an O’Connor administration, there would be an implementation of a Suffolk County debt management plan, which would start the process of a debt ceiling, much like what has been done in Washington D.C., O’Connor told Times Beacon Record Newspapers in an exclusive interview.
“It’s a simple concept,” he said. “Let’s look at the county’s existing revenue streams and compare it to the county’s maturing debt in an effort to retire, or reduce, the interest payments that will burden future generations of Suffolk residents.”
Suffolk County has $180 million of structural deficit and more than $1.5 billion in cumulative debt, according to O’Connor, who said these factors have led the New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, to say that the county is in fiscal distress. O’Connor said he wants to stand up for the taxpayers of the county.
According to Bellone, when he first entered office, Suffolk County’s finances were in free fall, with a deficit of more than $400 million. He has since cut the deficit significantly by shrinking the government by more than 10 percent.
“I know that Suffolk County taxpayers are overburdened,” Bellone said. “That’s why I am committed to staying under the property tax cap at the same time as I cut my own salary and volunteered to be the first employee in the history of Suffolk County to directly contribute to their health care.”
Keith Davies, campaign manager for Bellone, said his candidate was the right choice for residents to continue moving Suffolk County forward: “Steve Bellone has a proven record of protecting our tax dollars and our quality of life. He’s balanced three consecutive budgets, kept taxes under the tax cap and protected our drinking water by investing in our clean water infrastructure.”
The Suffolk County Republicans, however, said they believed O’Connor would lead the county in a better direction.
In a statement, LaValle said O’Connor’s reputation from both Democrats and Republicans from North Hempstead is what drew him to asking him to fight for the position.
“He’s a guy that is very well respected of course by Republicans in the area, but also by many Democrats,” LaValle said. “In this day and age of almost political hate, here is a guy where not only Republicans but prominent Democrats were speaking very highly of him. That stuck with me.”