by Yochonon Donn
When did Nassau County residents begin to accept state oversight as such a humdrum part of life that it’s 17 years on and the monitors are still there, wonders Jack Martins, a former New York state senator.
Martins, the Republican candidate for county executive in this November’s election, came to Hamodia to discuss his plans and goals for the coming four years.
Nassau is typically friendly territory for Republicans. But recent Democratic gains in the county, as well as the arrest on corruption charges of Republican incumbent county executive, Ed Mangano, have caused Democratic county legislator Laura Curran to have the wind at her back.
The second-most-populated county in New York outside the nearby Big Apple, Nassau is one of the only counties to have its own police and fire departments. It is one of the wealthiest areas in the country — certainly the richest of New York’s 62 counties.
This is a significant race for Orthodox Jews, who make up nearly 20 percent of the county. Additionally, it borders the eastern end of New York City, which has one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world.
Married, with four daughters, Martins has taken a leadership role in pressing boycotters of Israel during his time in the state Senate.
You issued a press release calling for cutoff of Nassau County business with anyone who supports boycotting Israel. This is something that, in the state Senate, you had a chance to vote on but it didn’t end up passing. As Nassau County executive, what would your authority be? Would you be able to issue an executive order? Or would you want it to pass the county legislature?
I think it needs to pass the legislature. I sponsored the legislation in the Senate along with Simcha Felder. Our bill in the Senate, I think, was appropriate. It not only spoke to holding people accountable who engage in BDS, but also those who support BDS, and preventing the state from contracting with both groups, and preventing the state pension system from being able to invest in both groups.
The assembly refused to pass a similar measure, and we were left with no option but to have the governor, by executive order, essentially do what we had asked to be done through our legislation. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli did the same thing with regard to pension investments, again, on the same measures and same protocols as we had in our bill, and not a watered-down bill that the Assembly had looked past.
I’d like to do the same thing in Nassau County, obviously. We have an anti-BDS local law in Nassau County. Unfortunately, it’s a watered-down local law. It doesn’t go far enough. It only applies to people who actively engage in BDS as opposed to those who support it.
And that’s, unfortunately, a testament to the county leadership — including my opponent, who is a member of the county legislature — that they are so easily dissuaded from pursuing action on a measure that they passed unanimously, but now refuse to enforce.
When you discuss the issue of BDS, I have been very clear, and I will continue to be very clear, that BDS as a movement is predicated on hate. And to the extent that there are those out there who will argue that there’s a First Amendment right to freedom of expression: there is no First Amendment right to express hate speech; and to the extent that people want to express themselves, that’s fine, that’s up to them, obviously. What the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee is the right to participate in government contract.
And so, we as a society, whether it’s the state of New York or whether the county of Nassau, have the ability to decide that we are not going to tolerate hate speech, that we are not going to reward people who engage in these activities. And actually, we have the opportunity to take a principled stance, to actually proactively decide that we will not reward them, we will not contract with them, and that we will avoid having them in our public forums like the Nassau Coliseum.
You’re of Portuguese descent. Can I ask you, how did you begin to get so passionate about Israel?
One, my Senate district has strong Jewish communities, and frankly, I understand the issues because the community is so great at advocating and educating, and two, as I said before, it’s not just a Jewish issue. It’s an issue of society, and what we are able to tolerate as a society, or what we should be able to tolerate as a society. Either we have the courage of our convictions or we do not.
Let’s get into the race itself. Since the election season started, both you and your opponent have said you’re going to make official corruption the central point of your respective campaigns. How would you combat this base human nature of, “Listen, I can do it, nobody’s going to see me, nobody’s going to notice.” How would you combat that?
I think my opponent wants to make corruption the base issue of this election, trying to paint Republicans as a party that fosters a culture of corruption. I reject that. I acknowledge that we have to restore public confidence in government, and frankly, I can, unfortunately, point to many Democrats who have been arrested and convicted, and I can, unfortunately as well, point to Republicans. This isn’t something we should celebrate, it isn’t something we should be happy about, and it isn’t something that we should be promoting as part of a political agenda, and that’s what she’s done.
What I have done is, I’ve made a clear statement that restoring public confidence and holding public officials who break the public trust accountable are important; so are things like revoking a pension from an elected official who violates the public trust. It’s important we send measures and we understand that we are willing to take those steps.
This election’s going to be about the future of Nassau County. And let’s be clear, come January 1, one thing that we should all be able to agree on is that Ed Mangano will not be the county executive of Nassau County. It will either be Jack Martins, or it will be Laura Curran. Those are the two choices who will be on that ballot, and this campaign is going to be about the issues that we’re going to face on January 1, it’s going to be about the person who’s best equipped to deal with those issues, and the person who’s going to best put the county in a position to deal with the issues going forward.
My opponent wants to talk about the past. I’m going to talk about the future.
You spoke about gang violence. Unfortunately, Nassau has become more known across the country for gang violence than for any other thing.
Well, it’s been in the news all too often, unfortunately, for a little farther east than Nassau, for Suffolk County, because of the murders of those teenage children in Brentwood. It is a significant issue, and it’s something we have to, frankly, not only take very seriously, but understand what our role is as a local government. We are the tip of the spear. We are the place where the issue manifests itself in the first instance. We have local control.
It’s our police department that deals with these issues first, but we also understand that this is a fight that goes well beyond the county’s borders, and in many respects, either goes across the country, certainly regionally, and in some instances, internationally. And so, we must have the ability to work with state law enforcement and federal law enforcement to marshal resources to be able to combat gang violence. And some of this has to do also with the opioid trade and …. addiction in our communities.
We need to send a very strong message that, one, it’s not going to be tolerated; two, we’re going to arrest people who engage in these activities, we’re going to keep our families and our communities safe, and for those who are here illegally, who are conducting themselves and committing these violent felonies against our communities and our families, they’re going to be deported.
What’s your relationship with the local Orthodox community?
My relationship is a very good one. I’ve had the good fortune of, as I said before, in three terms in the state Senate to represent a large area of Nassau county on the North Shore, which includes synagogues and large Jewish communities, that frankly has been a great, great tutorial for me when it comes to understanding and relating to many of the issues, because so many of the issues are local, but so many of the issues also relate to Israel itself.
I had the opportunity to visit Israel, I guess nearly 10 years ago now, and looking forward to visiting again, looking forward to seeing the differences over the course of the last 10 years, which I understand have been significant.
So I understand the ties. Certainly I have deep ties to the local community, more so, obviously, in my Senate district, developing those very same relationships and ties to other parts of Nassau County that have deep Jewish roots, and yeshivos, and synagogues, and those relationships are very special.
Let’s talk about the economy. Nassau seems to have a relatively decent economy and jobless rate.
I would like to see the county’s finances addressed. I would like to see the county balance their books. I would like to see the Nassau Interim Finance Authority a thing of the past. I would like to see us in a position to actually chart our own course and make decisions for ourselves, and frankly, be out there on offense again, as opposed to being on defense.
I often ask, when did we become that community that leaves problems for our children? We’ve always been a community that addresses our challenges head-on, that addresses it ourselves, and would rather address and make the sacrifices necessary to address those issues today so that we don’t leave it for our children tomorrow. And yet, here we are, 17 years into an oversight period, where they’re still there. How are we kicking this can down the road? Do we not have a responsibility to ourselves, to our children, and frankly, to the community?
A great county like ours with all of the resources in the world, the wealth, the education level, the transportation infrastructure, access to mass transit, all of the things that would make us uniquely situated to essentially do anything we want, and yet, we can’t address our own finances?
When did we become them? It’s time that we understood that it’s our responsibility to take care of our problems. And people talk about kicking a can down the road. They use that expression often. I think we’ve reached the end of the road. There’s no more road. It’s time we picked up the can and we address these issues.
As a Nassau County executive, you’ll have a say in how the MTA is run. What improvements would you like to see? What changes would you want over the next couple of years as the MTA is revamped or reworked?
I appreciate the question. In many respects the Long Island Railroad, for us, the MTA in general, for the downstate region, is such a critical part of the greater economy. Some people have said it is the lifeblood of the economy. If you consider the fact that the subway has over 2 billion riders, that is an incredible number when, if you consider that if the subways weren’t here, all of those people would have to get around the city in some different way.
The Long Island Railroad is the largest passenger railroad in the country, and so it is, in and of itself, as a component of the MTA, an extraordinarily large and complex system. And again, much the same way that the subway is a lifeblood for New York City, the Long Island Railroad is an important component of the Long Island economy. And so, we have to understand that our ability to utilize mass transit, not only the railroad, but buses, to be able to connect east-west and north-south in Nassau County, becomes incredibly important, especially as we want to be competitive in an ever-smaller world economy.
What I would like to see, I would like to see them investing in infrastructure, because, for the most part, we’re living on the infrastructure that was built not in the 20th century, [but] in the 19th century. These railroads were built, these subways were built in the 1800s, early 1900s.
I’d also like to see accountability restored when things go wrong. Because part of good government is also to understand that when things go wrong — you always hear about people talking about systemic failures. You know what systemic failures means? It means no one wants to take the blame for having messed up, and so they’ll blame it on the breakdown of the “system.” But you know that when the system breaks down, somebody’s responsible for having maintained the system, and yet, to avoid accountability, they’ll say we have to create a whole new layer of oversight.
You send your daughters to Catholic school.
I believe that parents’ right to be able to send their children to have a religious education has to be an option.
You voted for TAP (extending a state college aid program to yeshivos); you voted for EITC (a proposal to grant donors to yeshivos a tax credit) a couple of times.
I was one of the sponsors. Depending on the year, I believe either it was Marty Golden or Simcha Felder who were the prime sponsors, but I was certainly a cosponsor in every one of them. It’s important that we have options. Our public school system is taxed right now. They are handling a certain number of students, and to the extent that there are students and parents who have decided to send their students to nonpublic schools, whether religious schools or otherwise, it’s certainly up to them. My wife and I made the personal decision of sending our children to Catholic schools. That was our choice.
I’m a product of Catholic schools myself, and so it was a priority for me. But we should do everything we can to make it as accessible to people. Now, my wife and I thankfully have the wherewithal and the resources to be able to do that. Others don’t, and so, they should be helped, whether it’s on a means base or not.
I’m not asking for myself, but I do understand that there is an important need out there that isn’t being filled right now. And there’s also, I think, a misconception. If our private-school kids, including our religious-school children, were to return to public schools, our public schools wouldn’t have the ability, capacity, or wherewithal to be able to take on all of those students.n