Candidates from across the political spectrum have surfed a global wave of anti-establishment sentiment in the past year, to varying degrees of success.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders made an unsuccessful socialist push last year for the Democratic presidential nomination. French President Emmanuel Macron won his race this year with a brand of centrist populism. And President Donald Trump capitalized on right-wing resentment to win the White House, though similar efforts in Europe failed.
Among the latest to jump on that wave is George Maragos, the formerly Republican Nassau County comptroller who faces county Legislator Laura Curran — who herself promises change — in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for county executive.
Curran has the support of the Nassau County Democratic Committee and its chairman, Jay Jacobs, as the party seeks to push Republicans out of the county seat after a wave of corruption scandals. A former New York Daily News reporter, she has aimed to distinguish herself as the candidate who is “not a career politician.”
But Maragos has derided Jacobs as a “party boss” and Curran as his “puppet,” arguing that he is best qualified to fix Nassau’s problems. The strategy takes “a page out of Trump’s playbook,” Jacobs said — an association Maragos has rejected.
While both candidates face challenges, political observers said, Maragos faces a tougher path in a primary in which most of the voters will be party loyalists. About 10 percent of registered Democrats voted in the 2013 primary between Tom Suozzi and Adam Haber, the Nassau Board of Elections said.
It’s not unprecedented for an agitator to beat a party-backed candidate, said Lawrence Levy, the executive dean at Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “But none of the mavericks have changed their party and gone into the field and asked for the votes of the people that he’d always run against,” he said.
“Clearly her job is to make him look like a party-switcher — somebody who’s not an ideological Democrat but somebody who switched parties for political expediency,” Michael Dawidziak, a Sayville political consultant who works mostly with Republicans, said of Curran and Maragos.
The primary’s winner will face former state Sen. Jack Martins of Old Westbury, the Republican county executive candidate. The Republican incumbent, Edward Mangano, is not seeking a third term following his indictment on federal corruption charges last October. He has pleaded not guilty.
Despite the combative primary race, Curran and Maragos both said they would support the Democratic nominee no matter the outcome.
Curran and Maragos have rolled out plans to unravel what they call systemic corruption in county government. Both support term limits and an independent inspector general to oversee county contracts, from which several scandals have emerged.
Both want to restrict political donations by county contractors — Maragos would ban them, while Curran would limit them to $500 or $1,000.
Curran, a second-term legislator who is the first woman to seek Nassau’s top office, has less government experience than Maragos, who is in his second four-year term as comptroller.
But Curran said voters see him as part of the county’s corruption problems, not an outsider bringing a solution.
“I’m feeling very confident, I think, because people are sick of the status quo, and as Ed Mangano’s two-time running mate, he is the status quo,” Curran said in an interview.
Curran plans to carry that message into the general election against Martins if she wins next week, she said. She has painted Martins as part of the same Republican machine as Mangano, a charge Martins rejects.
Maragos has drawn fire from Curran, Jacobs and others for his previous conservative views that they say put him more in line with the Tea Party than the Democrats.
He once opposed illegal immigration, most legal abortion and same-sex marriage, once likening the latter to people wanting to marry their pets. Curran, on the other hand, is “a genuine, lifelong, progressive Democrat,” Jacobs said.
But Maragos now says he has “evolved” to support abortion rights, same-sex marriage and protections for undocumented immigrants.
Maragos said Curran’s claim that he is on Mangano’s side is “completely false and [a] misrepresentation.” He said he has often criticized Mangano for borrowing too much money to balance the county budget and for changes to Nassau’s property tax system that have created inequities.
The primary contest is a case of “experience versus inexperience,” Maragos said. He has touted his experience as a county official and as a private-sector executive.
“I think the contrasts are quite startling there,” Maragos said.
Maragos has courted ethnic minority communities and worked to get to the polls those voters who do not usually turn out in primaries, he said in an Aug. 24 interview.
Maragos has also eschewed traditional endorsements from elected officials and interest groups as Curran has touted them. Gov. Andrew Cuomo became Curran’s most high-profile supporter on Monday, despite saying that he was not making endorsements in races he would not be voting in (Cuomo lives in Westchester County).
Curran has consistently spent and raised more money, in both large and small amounts, than Maragos, who has loaned his campaign $1.45 million.
Many have attempted Maragos’ strategy of bringing out atypical primary voters, but few have been successful, Levy said.
“If Maragos succeeds, it will be a hall-of-fame campaign, and he’s going to need every bit of it,” he said.
A primary win could give Curran momentum going into the two-month race against Martins, but it could also hamstring her campaign if she’s left too “bloodied and broke,” Dawidziak said.
“Primaries are really the ultimate double-edged sword, so we really just have to wait and see,” he said.
Below Curran and Maragos on the primary ticket will be Jack Schnirman and Ama Yawson, their respective running mates for comptroller.
Schnirman, the Long Beach city manager, has pledged to make county finances more transparent and conduct more effective audits with public input. Yawson, a small-business owner from Freeport, aims to push for more economic development and increase opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses to win county contracts.
Schnirman has the support of the Nassau Democratic Committee, while Yawson is backed by Long Island Activists, a progressive group that supported Sanders’ presidential bid last year.