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November 6th, 2003, 07:58 AM
November 6, 2003

Democrats Get Even More Comfortable in New York Suburbs


The landscape has been shifting for years, but the political mythology of the New York City region has endured an overwhelmingly Democratic city ringed by staunchly Republican suburbs.

But Tuesday's elections, in which a Democrat won as county executive in traditionally Republican Suffolk County, the Democrats held their slim lead in the Nassau County Legislature and Democrats swept to victories across New Jersey, were vivid reminders of how much the political geography has changed here and in some other suburbs around the country.

In the region, the Democratic shift continued even in the face of major Republican victories in the nation at large. The Republicans already control the White House and Congress. Last month they ousted the governor of California. On Tuesday, a Republican unseated Mississippi's Democratic governor, and voters in Kentucky elected their first Republican governor in decades, strengthening the party's dominance in the South.

But in the New York region, the voting patterns provided a glimpse of how changing demographics and issues have made the city's suburbs increasingly fertile for Democrats.

The biggest Democratic gains came in New Jersey, which census experts call the nation's most suburbanized state. It used to be a swing state, with a Republican tilt. Now, even if James E. McGreevey is a struggling first-term governor, the Democrats hold all elected statewide offices, including both seats in the United States Senate. On Tuesday, the Democrats widened their 3-seat lead in the Assembly to 14, and they won control of the Senate, which had been evenly divided.

In Suffolk, the most populous county in the state outside New York City and a longtime Republican stronghold, voters elected Steve Levy, a Democrat, as county executive. Nassau and Westchester already have Democratic county executives, and when Mr. Levy takes office it will be the first time in history that all three have been headed by Democrats.

Political consultants and other experts say that this trend reflects the increasingly Democratic leanings of voters in the Northeast as well as the way changes in suburbia itself have made voters more amenable to Democratic candidates. The evolving suburban agenda now includes social issues, sprawl, housing, transportation and the environment, competing with traditional concerns like crime and taxes.

"The central city versus the suburbs is not the sharp political dividing line it used to be," said John H. Mollenkopf, director of urban research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "The suburbs themselves are becoming more diverse and experiencing more of the problems we used to associate with cities."

The growing minority population and influx of immigrants, said Hank Morris, a political consultant who grew up on Long Island, means "this is not your grandparents' suburbs anymore, the post-World War II, 98 percent-white community."

Old-line political organizations like the Nassau Republican Party, once considered among the nation's most powerful, are losing their grip, political experts say. They face declining voter turnout, ticket-splitting, proliferating minor parties and the growth of independent voters, now a fifth of the Nassau enrollment and a fourth in Suffolk.

As a result, "No one can take the suburbs for granted anymore," said Norman Adler, a political consultant. That has major implications for aspirants for higher office. "The suburbs have always been the Republican base vote, but now they have to contest for Suffolk's loyalty rather than assume it," he said.

That change can cause trouble for Democrats as well, said Alfred DelBello, Westchester's first Democratic county executive and later lieutenant governor. Rooted to the city for decades, the state's Democratic leaders face new tensions melding their suburban and urban interests, he said.

"It's going to be a very difficult dynamic for the Democratic Party to start accommodating" its newly minted suburban officials when they compete over issues like local aid, he said.

The Democratic victories often reflect Republican failings. "We're seeing old rulers toppled, and it doesn't much matter which party they are," Mr. Adler said. He pointed to the Republican capture of heavily Democratic Long Beach in Nassau as "really quite astounding."

Just as unusual is that despite Republican voter majorities in both Nassau and Suffolk, Democrats now hold four of Long Island's five Congressional seats. "I'm the last man standing," said Representative Peter T. King, the sole Republican.

"This is damage we did to ourselves," Mr. King said of Republican setbacks in Nassau, where the county government nearly went bankrupt, and in Suffolk, which has had a string of scandals. "It's really a case of mismanagement and the perception of arrogance."

Democrats can now use suburban posts as "an incubator" for higher offices, Mr. Adler said. For the Republicans, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester produced Govs. George E. Pataki, Nelson A. Rockefeller and Malcom Wilson; Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato; the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Sol Wachtler; Assembly Speakers Joseph Carlino and Perry B. Duryea Jr.; a State Senate majority leader, Ralph J. Marino, and two national party chairmen, Leonard Hall and Richard Bond.

Republicans remain a force to be reckoned with. Despite Mr. Levy's victory, Suffolk Republicans expanded their County Legislature majority by one, with 11 seats to 7 for the Democrats. And in Westchester, Republicans also won in Yonkers, despite its heavy Democratic enrollment.

That seems to underscore the idea that voters are simply looking for change, regardless of party labels. Even New York City, though still mostly Democratic, has picked Republicans for three of its last six mayors: John V. Lindsay, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg.

While Republicans still hold sway in many suburbs around the nation, Dr. Mollenkopf said, Democrats have gained even in traditionally Republican areas like Pasadena, Calif.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll, said, "Clearly the Democrats have been able to fashion appeals to a more upscale audience." He added, "Al Gore did very well in the suburbs."

Mr. Morris, the political consultant, said: "People have talked about the soccer mom thing. This is real now. It used to be that it took an earthquake a land scandal or Goldwater wipeout to elect a Democrat. But now they're in play every year. Westchester, Nassau and now Suffolk who would have thunk it?"

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

March 12th, 2004, 05:24 AM
March 12, 2004

Bush Comes North to Campaign in a Suburban Heartland


EAST MEADOW, N.Y., March 11 - With suburbia looming as a major political battlefield, President Bush came on Thursday to where it all began: Long Island, where the first modern suburb, Levittown, was born.

For decades Republicans reigned here, exerting nationwide influence. As recently as the administration of Mr. Bush's father, the party's national chairman was a Long Islander, Richard Bond.

But now the suburbs have become a swing vote, and in the New York region lately they have been swinging more Democratic. For the first time, both county executives on Long Island are Democrats. So is the executive in Westchester County, a northern suburb.

For both parties, wealthy Long Islanders are a mother lode mined by campaign treasurers.

In his final stop Thursday night, President Bush collected more than $1 million for his campaign, charging $2,000 a head at a fund-raiser at the Carltun restaurant here. Those attending included Wall Street executives living on the North Shore.

Democrats are sure to follow suit, especially in the Hamptons, the summer playground of liberal-leaning celebrities and business titans.

The president's trip caused a big stir. "This is the largest and most exciting thing that's ever happened to this town of Bay Shore," said Vincent Trapani, the owner of U.S.A. Industries in Bay Shore, as he welcomed Mr. Bush to a stage set amid factory assembly lines. "We're ecstatic that you're here."

Mr. Bush talked about his economic policies and shared the microphone with selected executives and workers who told their success stories.

But whether his tour changed any voters' minds is uncertain. Several Hispanic workers at the Bay Shore plant said that they were impressed to see Mr. Bush. But many were not fluent in English and did not understand all he said, and many are not citizens and thus cannot vote.

In an unscientific sampling at Mr. Bush's stops, people who said they voted for him before said they would do so again. Supporters of Al Gore four years ago said they intended to vote Democratic again.

Chants of "No more Bush" vied with "Four more years" as demonstrators on both sides gathered at key points along the route.

"President Bush is one of the best presidents we've ever had," said Alfredo Montanez, holding aloft an American flag in Bay Shore, where he runs an appliance store. "I hope we have him another four years. If it were up to me, I would give him eight."

But in the same crowd signs said: "No blood for oil," "Where Are the Jobs?" "Like father, like son, one term and you're done" and "Stop the 9/11 Cover-up."

Linda Beinhauer, a retiree from Central Islip, said she is a Republican, "but he won't be getting my vote this year." She called Mr. Bush's opposition to gay marriage "a smokescreen to divert attention from the issue of our jobs."

One wavering voter, Cheryl Shames, wore a shirt emblazoned with the image of her brother, Andrew Zucker, who died in the World Trade Center. Mr. Bush's appearance at the groundbreaking for a Sept. 11 memorial here was appropriately apolitical, she said, but "his having 9/11 in his ads wasn't a positive thing." She added: "I lost my brother that day. I don't think it should be part of his campaign. He's building on other people's grief."

Ms. Shames said she voted Democratic in 2000 but grew more at ease with Mr. Bush as president after Sept. 11. Now, she said, she's not sure whom to support.

Although New York State is still considered a lock for the Democrats, William Kornblum, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said Mr. Bush's appearance here was nonetheless politically shrewd. "It's the same thing Kerry has to gain by going to Texas," Mr. Kornblum said, forcing the opposition to defend its home base.

The Republican edge in voter enrollment is shrinking on Long Island. In the last 10 years, the Democratic Party has gained twice as many new members in Suffolk County as Republicans have. In Nassau, the ratio was more than three to one.

The tension between traditional Republican power in the suburbs and the rising Democratic popularity will define the 2004 presidential race, said John H. Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

"Older suburbs are the battlegrounds for the next election," Mr. Mollenkopf said. "Places like Nassau or Suffolk are going to define who wins the next election. That's where the votes are, and that's where the middle is."


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company