A few days ago I received in the mail a notice that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was running for a third term. He was first elected to that office in November 2011, along with the entire Suffolk County Legislature. Before that, Bellone spent nearly a decade as Town Supervisor of Babylon from January 2002 to December 2011. Bellone was re-elected in November 2015 during yet another local election. That same year, towns held elections across Long Island for Town Supervisor, Town Council, County Legislature, and other countless local offices. To most people, these local races went along unnoticed for the most part. Only 20% of Suffolk County voters actually cast a ballot in that year’s election for County Executive. In most other local races that year, turnout was even lower. It is very likely that most of those who did cast a ballot only voted for whichever party that support in every election, and as is the case for most local elections, the average age of voters was much higher than the average age of people who live in the area.
It is very unlikely that anything will change in the 2019 Suffolk County elections. I had the pleasure to serve as an intern on the Suffolk County campaigns for local offices. That year in 2015 I campaigned for Steve Bellone’s re-election, made phone calls for countless County Legislator candidates and Town Councilpersons. It was an illuminating glimpse into the state of local politics not just where I live, but in general across the United States. Although I felt passionate about the candidates I campaigned for and supported their agendas, the biggest lesson I learned was that most people don’t care for local politics. It requires a lot more nuance than is afforded to them, and more interesting national issues tend to draw attention. In January 2019, the biggest issues in the United States were the thirty-five day government shutdown, which furloughed 800,000 workers and impacted services across the country, and illegal immigration, in particular whether or not to construct President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall. Although these issues are important, and should not be ignored or simplified, their impact on local populations are not far-reaching.
Local politics, meanwhile, encompasses more of everyday life for American voters. Local politics determines the property taxes with fund schools, keep our roads paved, maintain local infrastructure, fund vital services such as sanitation, police, and fire departments. It is local governments which keep our parks open, our water clean and flowing, hands out licenses for businesses or different recreational activities, manage our schools, and determine local regulations. On these issues, in Suffolk County in 2015, only 20% of voters cast a ballot. Local politics is to the uninitiated a game where those who show up reap the benefits, and those who don’t wonder why their local government in ineffective. Local government can do a lot of good for people, or a lot of bad if the people don’t speak out on the issues they care about. An animal shelter closing down because a lack of funding from local government could have been saved if people voted for a candidate and voiced their support of that shelter. People tired of corrupt officials need to turn out and vote them out, not sit at home wondering why they stay in office. And they can help as well. Local government can make that empty lot of land into a beautiful park or playground. They can help attract new businesses to your town or county through tax incentives. It could clean up polluted water, pass regulations to improve air quality, or something as basic as attempting to lessen the impact of plastic bags on the local environment.
Local government in Suffolk County under Steve Bellone accomplished many of these things. He set out to reduce nitrogen pollution in our water, and has put in place to build sewers in area that lack them. He saved Suffolk County $100 million by improving efficiency and reducing costs, and reduced the county’s deficit by hundreds of millions more. The deficit currently stands at $89 million, down from the $411 million just a few years ago. As Town Supervisor of Babylon, Bellone worked on Wyandanch Rising, an attempt to revitalize the community of Wyandanch. This included building mixed-use residential and commercial space. These efforts earned Wyandanch the chance to be the home of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in October 2014. While in that position, Bellone also cut gave a $4.3 million tax cut to residents, and reduced the size of government. This is the good side of local government, one where elected officials and bureaucrats are servants to the people they represent. Bellone is just one of many examples of dedicated local government officials who can do good for people locally, and have a positive impact on people’s lives.
There is, however, cause for optimism in this year’s local elections. American voter turnout has been on the rise. In the 2016 Presidential election, 55.7% of American voters cast a ballot. In the 2018 House elections, 50.3% of American voters cast a ballot. For reference, in 2014, the last midterm race, only 36.4% of Americans cast a ballot, becoming one of the largest swings of civil engagement in recent American history. In terms of more local results, 50% of New Yorkers voted in 2018’s gubernatorial race. Four years earlier, in 2014, 33.2% of New Yorkers cast a ballot in that year’s gubernatorial election. Regardless of one’s thoughts on the Trump administration or national politics, Americans are becoming more civically engaged now than at any point in recent memory. If this trend holds, this portends skyrocketing turnout in the 2019 local races on Long Island and across the country. If people vote, they can have a voice in their local government, and their needs will be met, and if there is one takeaway from all of this, you only get a seat at the table if you show up to vote.