At the end of World War II, thousands of families from the five boroughs of the City of New York, including returning GIs, began to settle the suburbs of Long Island. The first wave that settled in Nassau County, New York, was approximately 50% Catholic, 25% Protestant, and 25% Jewish. In 1947, 300 families moved into Levittown, which was once farmland and potato fields in the heart of Nassau County, and the northeastern portion of the Town of Hempstead. By 1951, 17,000 Levitt homes were constructed in a 7-mile radius, marking the first-mass produced suburb in the United States of America. Nassau County and Hempstead would become home to the “Dashing Commuter.”
The Town of Hempstead, which geographically constitutes the entire southwestern portion of Nassau County, was ancestrally Republican and agricultural. Between 1940-1960, Nassau’s population expanded by over 158% in under 20 years. Nassau County Executive J. Russell Sprague and county and town Republican leaders became concerned about the emerging demographic trends. To the surprise of Sprague, a large majority of the new suburbanites left their Democratic Party enrollment at the Queens County line and enrolled as Republicans once they settled in Nassau County.
Some changed their party enrollment as a rejection of Tammany Hall-style New York City Democratic politics, and as an embrace of their new status as suburbanites, while others became Republicans to compete for municipal jobs in a Republican-dominated town and county.
Eisenhower won the county and town in ‘52 and ‘56 in landslide fashion. In 1960, even with John F. Kennedy on the top of the Democratic ticket in a county and town that was largely Catholic and Jewish, Nixon carried Nassau County over Kennedy 55%-45%. In 1968, in a three-way race between Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace, Nixon carried the Town of Hempstead with 57%
In a 2011 Politico article entitled “The Fall of The Nassau Republican Machine And The Rise Of Homeland Security Chair Peter King,” writer Steve Kornacki described the Nassau GOP’s electoral strength and corruption during the latter half of the 20th century. “By the 1980s, 75% of the nearly 2,000 Nassau County Republican Committee members were on state, county or town payrolls. Every summer, the county would hire 1,300 seasonal workers – lifeguards and clean-up crews for beaches, mostly. It wasn’t written down anywhere, but everyone knew the rule: No Democrats, or children of Democrats, need apply. Someone took a survey: Of the 400 county-owned cabanas at Malibu Beach, only four were leased to Democrats.
“The only thing you can liken it to is an army,” Lew Yevoli, a Democratic assemblyman from Long Island, said at the time. “There is never a break in the ranks. I don’t think Tammany Hall in its heyday had anything like what Margiotta had.”
In the subsequent decades, Republicans would lose much of their control. In 1981, Nassau County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Margiotta was convicted on federal extortion charges, and in 1999, and in 2001, Democrats made substantial gains in county and town elections. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Democrats for the first time would outnumber Republican voters in a trend that has continued ever since. As of November 2019, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the county by a margin of 370,349 to 298,162, and in the town 220,950 to 166,382. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried Nassau County by a 51%-45% margin and the Town of Hempstead by a 53%-43% margin.
By mid-2017, four of the county’s biggest Republican names had been indicted on corruption charges. Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, New York State Senator Dean Skelos, and Hempstead Town Councilman Ed Ambrosino.
The indictments, changing demographics, and infighting amongst Hempstead Republicans led to the narrow election of Democrat Laura Gillen as Hempstead Town Supervisor, and Democrat Laura Curran as Nassau County Executive. Gillen’s election marked the first time in over 100 years that a Democrat was elected supervisor in the Town of Hempstead.
The trend would only worsen in 2018, when Democrats picked up an additional two state Senate seats that include parts of Hempstead Town. For the first time in state history, not a single Republican represented a state Senate seat from Hempstead or Nassau County.
Hempstead is America’s largest township, with a population of nearly 800,000 people, and 57% of Nassau County residents live in the Town of Hempstead.
Gillen’s tenure as supervisor was rocky from the start. Nassau Democrats were involved in their own scandals, Gillen had a poor relationship with the Republican-controlled town board, and changes to the county’s re-assessment made under County Executive Laura Curran resulted in a property tax increase for a majority of Hempstead and Nassau voters. Many voters confused Laura Curran with Laura Gillen.
Two years after Gillen’s election as town supervisor, she was narrowly defeated for re-election as town supervisor by Hempstead Receiver of Taxes Don Clavin by a 50%-49% margin, 74,123-72,731. As of November 12, Clavin led Gillen by 1,392 votes out of 148,147 cast. There are still over 5,500 absentee ballots to be counted; however, Gillen would need to win 64% of them, which is highly unlikely.
In an exceedingly close election, one must look to Hempstead’s largely Orthodox Jewish Five Towns, which provided Clavin’s margin of victory. The Five Towns area in the Town of Hempstead is home to over 25,000 Jews, of whom a majority are Orthodox. The Berman Jewish Data Bank in 2013 reported that 76% in the Five Town’s Jewish community identified as Conservative or Orthodox, in terms of their religious observance.
In 2000, with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman on the Democratic ticket, Gore carried the Five Towns over Bush; but since 2004, the Five Towns, which consist of the neighborhoods of Woodmere, Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Hewlett, and Inwood, have been providing Republican candidates with large margins, as the Five Towns has transformed from a largely secular Jewish neighborhood to an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.
The numbers for Don Clavin out of the Five Towns including Lawrence set a record, as he far outpaced any other Republican candidate for president of the United States or for Hempstead town supervisor in the recent past. Clavin won the exclusively Orthodox Jewish Village of Lawrence by an 87%-13% margin, in the first election cycle since the rise of the “Squad.”
Lawrence and the Five Towns was once largely a secular Jewish area, and the most Democratic area in the county, serving as the political base for Congressman Herbert Tenzer, Congressman Allard Lowenstein, and State Senator Carol Berman.
In 1968, Humphrey won Jewish voting districts in the Town of Hempstead and in the Five Towns by over 3:1 margins. Lawrence today is the most Republican neighborhood in Nassau County, in terms of the margins the village provides to Republican candidates.
In Lawrence, Republicans outnumber Democrats now by a margin of 57% to 43%. Don Clavin did 30 points better than the actual Republican to Democratic enrollment in Lawrence.
Many in Lawrence attribute Clavin’s 74-point victory in Lawrence, which was greater than Trump’s 54 point, 76%-22% margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016, to low Democratic turnout in the Five Towns, and to the rise of the anti-Israel attitude in the Democratic Party, championed by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.
On average, throughout the Town of Hempstead, Clavin performed 7 points better than Trump, but in Lawrence it was 11 points. The Five Towns Jewish Times, the largest Jewish newspaper in Nassau County, which circulates 20,000 papers each week to the Five Towns, covered the anti-Israel attitudes of the “Squad,” endorsed Clavin, and during the election campaign for town supervisor, the Republican candidate Don Clavin called out the “Squad” for its anti-Semitism, while the incumbent Democratic supervisor Laura Gillen remained silent.
Come January, Don Clavin will become the town supervisor of America’s largest township, thanks to the help of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and the Squad.
By Adam Sackowitz