Two veteran lawmakers, intelligent and well versed, respectfully but firmly making their case for elected office.
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No, it wasn't an illusion – Chris Nuzzi, the challenger, and Jay Schneiderman, the incumbent, both made their case for the Second District County Legislature seat calmly but emphatically. Schneiderman has held the seat on the horseshoe since 2004; Nuzzi has served on the Southampton Town Board for nearly eight years. The pair went face-to-face Friday in a debate moderated by The Independent editorial staff.
Odds makers would have bet on a much different scenario. A year ago, Schneiderman seemed a lock to run for East Hampton Town Supervisor – he previously held that position for two terms ending in 2003.
Nuzzi, a two-term Southampton Town Board member, could have run for that town's supervisor seat two years ago and was mentioned prominently as a candidate this time around.
"The supervisor's job is a challenging position," Schneiderman noted. "My kids made the decision for me. They need their daddy. It's not that the county legislature isn't demanding, but town supervisor is 24/7." Schneiderman, 51, has two children, ages 14 and 10.
Nuzzi, 39, agreed. "My decision wasn't based on polls. I have a personal life with four children [ages two to eight] and another career [title insurance]." Nuzzi also noted that he is originally from East Hampton and went to school there, so it gives him a chance to represent his hometown.
The two parried over the financial condition of Suffolk County. Schneiderman said the county is recovering nicely from the 2008 recession under County Executive Steve Bellone. Schneiderman, an Independent, works closely with Bellone and the Democratic majority in the legislature.
Nuzzi noted that the State Comptroller has labeled Suffolk "a distressed county" financially and that Bellone has relied on "one shot revenues" to right the ship rather than embark on a long-term plan.
"We had to make decisions. We had to rely on one-shot revenues while we moved toward reoccurring revenues," Schneiderman said. "Now the numbers are looking much better."
"If things are so rosy why are we on the distressed list?" Nuzzi asked. "Of course the county exec is going to put out a statement minimizing the problem."
Schneiderman listed some of his achievements: he was instrumental in getting County Road 39 widened, for example. "The CR 39 bottleneck was devastating," he pointed out. "That was a major issue." Nuzzi, parrying, said, "That wasn't the work of one individual. The cops and cones program was paid for by our town [Southampton]. There's enough credit to go around."
Schneiderman said he was in the forefront to get county busses running on Sundays, to get the sex offender trailers moved out of Riverside, and to get the Hidden Cove welfare motel in Hampton Bays closed.
Nuzzi opined it took too long to get the trailers moved. "Seven years is a long time," he said. Schneiderman said the trailers were moved in "under the cover of darkness. We had no knowledge they were being placed there. I passed laws [to move them] but [former County Executive] Steve Levy vetoed them." Though other Southampton Town politicians lobbied the legislature to remove the trailers, "I didn't see Chris there," Schneiderman said.
Schneiderman said Hidden Cove was closed because he "lobbied" Bellone. Nuzzi said it was because Southampton Town threatened to file suit.
"I brought political pressure," Schneiderman said.
"To the same county executive who supports you," Nuzzi countered. "The timing is suspect."
Both candidates agreed the county health department hasn't done enough to address the East End's water quality issues. And that the East versus West divide on the horseshoe is more divisive than political parties. "Many of the issues aren't those of a partisan nature, like erosion control," Nuzzi commented.
Both men concurred that the East End, though only nine percent of Suffolk's population, is taxed disproportionately – 38 percent of the taxable value of the county.
Both candidates touted their records. The county now makes new employees contribute 15 percent of their state pension requirements, and that the latest budget calls for no new layoffs, Schneiderman boasted.
"We've cut staff by 15 percent [in Southampton] through attrition and early retirements," Nuzzi declared.
Ironically, two years from now, when the county legislature term is ending, the two men could be back where they started. Win or lose, Schneiderman reaches his term limitations, meaning he can't go back to the legislature. Depending on what happens in East Hampton, he may revisit the Republican Party's overtures then. "East Hampton needs to be brought together," he said, noting the current town board has been "rancorous, bitter, and partisan."
Nuzzi who is a proven vote getter, will always be in demand in Southampton and even if he wins the legislature seat, he might have several options, perhaps even on the state level.