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.
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.
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?
"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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