Monday, September 28, 2009

Cold Political Calculations

Sunday's feature in Newsday brought some badly-needed investigative reporting to the Lighthouse Project issue, as Randi Marshall did a superlative job pulling back the curtain on the political machinations that have guided the Lighthouse Project behind the scenes.

I've had a chance to speak to a few more people with knowledge of the political maneuverings behind the scenes, and one thing has become abundantly clear: my posts from the winter warning against politicizing the Lighthouse Project were naive. The project has been politicized for over 4 years.

Gregory, Alphonse, and Joe

(To the tune of "Abraham, Martin, and John" by Dion and the Belmonts)

As we know, the Lighthouse Project initially came into being because Nassau County was unable to provide public funds to build a new arena, and a new arena is not in this instance a good investment for the New York Islanders. Charles Wang and his team created a project, unveiled in September 2004, that aimed to change the very makeup of Long Island, a place that has been designed to serve an inanimate object (the automobile) for over 60 years. It would be an ambitious under-taking that would suddenly become the "town square" Long Island has never had.

The goal was to make the Lighthouse Project apolitical - something on which both Democrats and Republicans could agree. According to many sources, politician feedback behind the scenes was nothing but positive, and it was a rewarding culmination of a process that began in 1999, when former Sen. Al D'Amato convinced Charles Wang to purchase the Islanders as a civic duty.

Rosy scenarios had the Lighthouse sailing to bipartisan approval.....but we all know it can never be that simple in the cesspool of Long Island politics.

According to Newsday's investigative piece, and other bits of news that I re-read from the time, the tide turned in 2005. Tom Suozzi was a popular incumbent County Executive who received a lot of credit for taking Nassau County back from the brink of financial ruin. The Lighthouse Project began to bring Suozzi's vision for a "new suburbia" into focus.

The Republicans needed an issue to win, because at that point Suozzi seemed ensured of re-election against a weak opponent named Gregory Peterson. Mr. D'Amato and GOP Chairman Joseph Mondello (who still has not apologized to Joe Conte, over 4 months later) knew they had little chance of winning, but they came up with a potential solution: they decided they could win the 2005 campaign by opposing the Lighthouse Project.

The origins are debated (Newsday believes Charles Wang's refusal to hire Al D'Amato's brother was the turning point; others are not sure), but Al D'Amato gave a broadside to his former friend and associate during the 2005 GOP Convention. He railed against the Lighthouse Project as a nightmare that would turn a supposedly idyllic suburb into the "sixth borough" of New York. Mr. Mondello joined the chorus, and Mr. Peterson based his entire campaign around fighting the "urbanization" of Nassau County.

The Lighthouse now became a political issue.....and Tom Suozzi cruised to re-election with slightly under 70% of the vote.

The Aftermath

Now that research has largely confirmed this, I have to say that the behavior of D'Amato and Mondello infuriates me. These two men made a cynical calculation that opposing a project that is in the best interests of Long Island would help them win a political campaign. I feel vindicated that the strategy failed so badly, but it is hard not to wonder how things could have been different if that mistake was never made. Negotiations could have taken place in 2005, and the arena part of the development could be done by now. As it stands, this halted progress until after the election, and Tom Suozzi's decision to run for governor (and put the Coliseum property up for competitive bid) in 2006 stretched the period of inaction even further.

It is possible that this behavior poisoned Charles Wang's relationship with Al D'Amato, which had once been very close. Many people I've spoken to cite Charles Wang's tendency to fall in love with people. This is not inherently a bad thing, but there is a flip side to this. That same tendency can manifest itself in the other direction, and people who fall out of Charles Wang's good graces do not seem to ever find their way back in. This cynical calculation likely severed a key line of communication and led to rampant conspiracy theories among residents that Mondello and D'Amato were the unseen puppetmasters in this sad affair.

This type of dirty politics aims to serve politicians and shaft the people. We must not accept it anymore, and we must not allow the Lighthouse Project to become mired in any more issues like this. The Town of Hempstead has the project now, and as things progress I hope the re-zoning decision can be made in good faith.

Bottom Line

Any attempts to avoid politicizing the Lighthouse are in vain because the project has been politicized from the beginning. This could have contributed to the bad feelings that seem to still linger at times when the Lighthouse (rightly) discusses how long the path to approval has been.

At this point, both sides are playing a dangerous game, since Charles Wang's deadline is approaching, and he will declare himself free to entertain other options at that point. Right now, the onus is on the Town of Hempstead to make the next move. The Town should come back with a new proposal to kick-start negotiations because Charles Wang and the Lighthouse are not 100% sure of where the Town stands on the overall project. As we know, the first rule of negotiating is that you should not negotiate against yourself, and it would make no sense for the Lighthouse to offer a changed project without an understanding of what the Town is willing to approve. We will not be able to figure out the Town's position until they return with a proposal that is acceptable to them and both sides show a willingness to negotiate.

Charles Wang's October 3 deadline is approaching, and I hope he continues to show a willingness to see this through (while entertaining other options, which is his right). It is clear that Mr. Wang, after building Computer Associates up (and leaving under less than happy circumstances), is now looking at his legacy Some compare this to Old Plainview, a development with the Town of Oyster Bay that Mr. Wang pulled in the face of community opposition. This is not the same scenario, because the Lighthouse is both more supported and further along than that project.

Others wonder if past behavior is a sign that Messrs. Mondello and D'Amato will lead to a rejection of the project. I don't see it happening, and I hope the Town of Hempstead will judge the project based on its benefit to the community.

However, this aborted power play may actually portend something good for the ultimate fate of the Lighthouse. The Mondello/D'Amato ploy failed miserably in 2005, and since then the Lighthouse has become bigger and far more widely supported among both elected officials and the people (most polls - including Newsday and News 12, show the project at almost 70% support, which is absolutely unheard of). If the Republican leadership was willing to take a position on the Lighthouse for the sake of politics in 2005, the same could happen here. It's not out of the question that the large levels of public support could motivate the very same people who tried to defeat the Lighthouse for political reasons to now work toward making it happen.

Therefore, as we truly enter a sensitive part of the Lighthouse process, the following questions need to be answered:
  • How committed is Charles Wang to the Lighthouse Project as his long-term legacy to Long Island? How closely will he listen to offers to sell or move the Islanders?
  • How willing will the Town of Hempstead be to negotiate with the Lighthouse?
  • Will the Lighthouse be willing to negotiate once the Town makes its required next move?
  • Will those who once opposed the Lighthouse for political reasons now realize that it is bad politics to come out against such a widely-supported project?
  • What role, if any, will the Lighthouse play in the upcoming political campaign? In the same vein, will the Lighthouse's role reflect politicians' ultimate attitude toward the project?
We have had partisan squabbling and party before people for far too long on Long Island. I hope the Lighthouse, the Town, and the County can rise above that and fulfill the goal of doing something truly great for Long Island. Enough of the politics, enough of the posturing, let's get it done.

"If that is the way the winds are blowing, let it not be said that I do not also blow." -Mayor Joseph "Diamond Joe" Quimby

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  1. Excellent post. It is sad that the politicization of this process has potentially put the Islanders in play. Hopefully, the project is approved and hockey stays on the island.

  2. 985... thats the amount of comments posted on Chris Botta's site (95% in favor of the Lighthouse) ToH get this done, or u'll b done!

  3. Hmmmm.....D'amato, Suozzi...all these Flyer alumni directly involved.

    Is it possible that the root of all evil lies in Mineola?

    Where is Eichner to mediate?
    Or is he the TRUE puppetmaster?

    Just a thought....from two time zones away.

  4. I always thought Fr. Phil controlled the universe.

  5. Nick - Is there any statute on how long the town has to approve the fgies? I believe they need to vote on this before they can vote on re-zoning? thanks. Just wanted to keep the next step up to date.

  6. If they allow political bullsh*t to stop this project, I do not think LIers are going to sit back and take having what they want be so blatantly disregarded. I think that it would cause a lot of trouble here, more than these out-of-touch old men and political old-schoolers realize. It would get ugly. Thats why in the bottom of my heart I see this project ultimately getting done, I really do.

    BTW Alex- not to be picky, but 95 percent is actually a significant underestimate- that poll is far more than 99% in favor of the lighthouse. 10 nays out of 100 would be 90%, there are about 10 or so nays out of nearly 1000.

  7. Nick, when are you going to stop whinning about Mondello giving a heckler an apology? Keep your eyes on the prize!

  8. Okay so what we have now is basically a stalemate. On one side is the TOH and on the other side we have Charles Wang and the Lighthouse Project. It’s time for someone to get both sides in a room, lock the door and tell them nobody leaves until both sides can agree on what get’s built and what doesn’t. We have to get this done for the good of all Long Island. Both sides have to be able to save face. Charles get’s the project built in some form or another that’s acceptable to him , and the TOH gets to say they helped save the Islanders. For the sake of everyone involved GET IT DONE !!!

  9. CW must compromise in order for this to happen, The TOH will probably agree to a scaled down model, but will the Wang ego?
    Dealing with increased traffic, a top concern at the last hearing, is paramount to an agreement. The nearest roadways, Hemp. TPK & the Meadowbrook Pky's are NY State roadways & the state is virtually broke, Long Island is not on the radar for $$ in Albany for just about ANY projcet, why the LH? I think it good that CW start entertaining offers to move the Islanders, it is the 2 edged sword in the LH equation.

  10. Morning, everybody. Great conversation here, and let's keep it up!

    Anon1 - SEQRA law requires the FGEIS to be both complete and correct. That means that the Town of Hempstead cannot adopt it (and end environmental review) until they certify that adverse impacts mentioned in the DGEIS and public comments are either avoided or, if they can't be avoided, minimized. There is no statutory limit, and I think it largely depends on the nature of the public comments (meaning, how many issues were brought up that need study). The most optimistic timeframe is 30 days, which would get us to around the October 20 Town Board meeting; I have talked to some who think that's realistic and others who do not. I will keep digging.

    Anon2 - I may harp on it too much because it still amazes me that the LI Business News was the only mainstream outlet that saw fit to cover it. If other people think that it takes away from the blog to remind everyone of that event, please let me know and it will stop.

    NYI Fan - yes. Next move is to the Town, and the big issue is what they'll come back with. Will they propose something too small that the Lighthouse has to reject, or will they propose something that will lead to a negotiation and a solution everyone can live with? It depends - both sides have to be willing to give something.

  11. At the end of the day, I agree with TheMetalChick - it seems that too much has been done, and the project is too widely-supported, for this to fall apart now. Many within the Lighthouse have been talking about compromise (Mike Picker said it at the Republican roundtable in April, for example), so we shall see.

    Pat - don't have anything to add to what you said. Let's get it done.

  12. " seems that too much has been done, and the project is too widely-supported, for this to fall apart now."

    At this point the wild-card is Wang.
    I maintain (since January) that his heart is no longer in the LH and especially not the Islanders.

    If he doesn't get what he wants (i.e. no compromising), he's gone.

    Just my opinion.

  13. I would like to comment on something that Suozzi has said. He maintains that 90% of Nassau should stay undeveloped, 10% should be developed, or something like that. It is these numbers that show the interest in the Lighthouse; they also ring true with NIBYism, 90% of Nassau residents will not have the LH in their general vicinity. The North Shore vote is wholly in favor, because the Cerro Wire site, a far better location from a logistical viewpoint, would be another option if the LH falls apart in the TOH.
    Also, the PointBlank poll is WHOLLY biased! I would bet that over 80% of its' readers/voters do not even live on the island; I hope the results do not get any publicity because of that inherent bias, hell, even a dead guy voted! (Robert Cep,may he rest in peace)

  14. I have to say I am very disappointed in D'Amato. About 25 years ago as a young guy just out of college I got involved in coaching a youth football program. He was a freshman senator at the time. His 2 sons were on my team. He used to stand on the sidelines with us during games. I enjoyed talking to him (no politics).

    I keep wondering why Newsday published that article. It certainly won't endear them to D'Amato. What's going to happen when the Dolans need something? This can't be good for them politically. Not to mention this being a total about face from Newsday's previous coverage. This can't be a coincidence. Something else has to be going on here. We may never know what is is. Whatever it is I hope it contiues - we need a lot MORE of this type of coverage.

    I voted for him several times. Sure he was always Senator Pothole, not a national statesman, but his big thing was bringing it home for his constituents. This is certainly anything but that.

  15. NYI Fan - I went to the kickoff for Suozzi's 90/10 coalition, and according to Suozzi the goal is to re-imagine suburbia in a smart way. According to the plan, we shouldn't touch any of the classic suburban areas, but opportunities for re-development should be taken in a smart way that addresses our problems (pockets of poverty, flight of young people, over-reliance on cars, etc). Your argument about 90/10 rings hollow because being near the development is not a prerequisite for opposing it. I live 4 miles away and use that area 4 or 5 times a week, so I think I'd count as somebody who has the project in my general vicinity. Same goes for the Uniondale and Hempstead residents who enthusiastically support it, and other supporters who use the area and want to see it re-imagined in a smart and beneficial way.

    Your argument about Cerro Wire would only hold water if taxpayers supported the arena. That land, by my understanding, has train access but is 1/4 the size of the proposed Lighthouse (and half the size of the current Coliseum site), and we've already established why a development is necessary unless taxpayers foot the bill.

    As for Botta's poll, I think he would be the first one to not call it scientific. However, you can't deny that the support has been there from all the outreach meetings and all the public forums. Things are biased when there is evidence of bias, and since it is a poll of hockey fans they are likely more inclined to support it (even though you prove that it's not exactly a requirement). It's not biased just because you don't agree with it; the support has been there for this project across a broad spectrum. Newsday had polls showing over 70% support, News12's poll said 72% of respondents supported it. This repeats itself over several instances.

    MW147 - I was amazed as well at the Newsday piece, but it could be a very simple explanation. Ms. Marshall is Newsday's investigative reporter, and it's possible she just got an assignment to check into whether there was a story there, and to run it if there was.

  16. It was great to see Newsday do a proper investigative piece on the Lighthouse but it should have been done before. There should be a series of them for goshsakes. I used to read Art Feeny's stuff years ago. People who paid attention knew D'Amato got Wang intested in buying the Islanders and that, later, there was a falling out between the two. We did not know the reason but assumed it was dirty politics. Somehow D'Amato's back was not being scratched to his liking. We knew D'Amato turned against Wang and the Lighthouse out of spite and Mondello played in the band. We did not know it had to do with D'Amato's brother.

    Mr. Wang makes mistakes - sometimes big ones - but seems to learn from them. He can be commended for not "playing the game" with D'Amato but it probably set the project back years. In hindsight, having Rechler on board in the beginning would have helped. Now its time to see if Kate Murray is her own woman and a mayor not held captive by old boys club politics and the grudges held by self-serving men and, now irrelevant, political ghosts. We know Wang is probably tough to deal with but this is not about building an irregular shed in his backyard. This is a huge commitment for someone - anyone. Ms. Murray need not have painted herself into the corner as "judge" of the process who does not have discussions with developers. Others in similar political roles said as much in the article. But I think we can see now, in light of the Newsday article, where the roots of animosity between Mr. Wang and any Long Island Republican came from. Kate Murray has an important role to play on the board but she also has to be a progressive Mayor who is able to see what is best and ask for what she wants out the project like this. She has to be willing to give as well and this is why Wang said October 3rd because anyone could see it was going at a snail's pace. I don't see it as that big a deal. It was just a number to get things going. Things are too close now for him to lose focus on the Lighthouse.

    It is clear the majority of residents are in favour of this project happening. People talk about scaling down but don't give solid examples. Specifically what has to go and why? Are you going to knock a couple of stories off of a building just to say you made them do it? How was the Coliseum ever allowed get built in the first place? Surely "suburbia" was no place for a large arena or an NHL team.

    I would be surprised as hell if this didn't happen at this point. There is too much momentum going forward. The town would have to disappoint a lot of people and the only problem is that there is no real opponent to Murray in the election to "motivate" her to pull the trigger on a deal. Despite this, I think she has to do the right thing if she wants any kind of celebration after her victory. There will be a lot of angry people regardless of whether she waits to drop a bomb after re-election.

    Sorry for the long rant Nick, just wanted to add a few things to the discussion.

    Paul in Canada

  17. Paul, never apologize for contributing. Many people have whispered about D'Amato being an unseen powerbroker, but until this there wasn't a smoking gun that connected him to anything.

    I just hope the Town and County do the people's work and get a deal done.....As for McElroy, I'm hearing whispers that she may be back in the race. Started as a low rumble and is now very loud....let's see what happens.

  18. Nick - I as you did urged fellow fans not to politicize the Lighthouse project or demonize the politicians appearing to oppose the project ... instead we focused on educating those around us ... and I learned a lot more by listening and reading and judging for myself.

    We both were naive to think that keeping the LHP from being politicized would be the best thing. Wang & Rechler did a good job of keeping the perception of a non-political atmosphere around the project but that began breaking down little by little of the past year.

    I guess the elephant in the dining room couldn't be ignored by the politicians. I myself blame Suozzi and Mondello for putting the squeeze on the project. A simple referendum after some eduction of voters of Nassau and TOH residents during one of the recent election cycles could of helped the project along a long time ago.

    Well .. today's lease day. We'll see how the TOH reacts to that.

  19. 19 Isles - Agreed, my friend. At the end of the day, there's plenty of blame to go around for things getting to where they are.