Laura Gillen said she faces an uphill battle when she takes over as Town of Hempstead supervisor on Jan. 1.
It’s a fight the Democrat said she is willing to make for the residents she was elected to serve.
“There’s lot of people who are going to be working against me to see me fail,” Gillen said. “But I have a mandate from the people to try and deliver good government to them, so that’s how I’m going to proceed.”
Gillen, who up until recently worked at the law firm of Westerman Ball Ederer Miller Zucker & Sharfstein, said she’d been asked to run for positions before. She deliberately waited for one where she thought she could make a difference, she said.
Everyone had always just accepted that “the Town of Hempstead is a patronage mill,” Gillen said.
Everybody’s friends and families are on the payroll, she said, and “it’s just about recycling the same old people.”
Under outgoing town Supervisor Anthony Santino, the town wasn’t serving the people it was supposed to. Rather than reaching out to the public, Gillen said, Santino’s administration let out as little information as possible.
“It seemed like the antithesis of what good government is supposed to be about,” Gillen said.
The problems in the town were twofold. On one hand there was a mismanagement of the town’s finances, Gillen said. On the other, there was the hostile environment Santino created.
The workforce morale was at an all time low, and the Santino administration displayed “an utter contempt for the public,” Gillen said.
Even after Gillen’s win in November, when she became the first Democratic supervisor the town elected in a century, Santino kept up his antics.
Santino didn’t call Gillen after the election, she said – which was just the start of a rocky transition period.
Gillen was even running a bit late to her interview with Blank Slate Media, two weeks before her inauguration, as Santino locked her out of the office that will soon be hers, she said.
Efforts to reach Santino were unavailing.
His actions, Gillen said, are juvenile and disrespectful both to the town and to the incoming administration.
“[It’s] childish and so indicative of the attitude of the person that just lost the election,” Gillen said.
Beyond Santino’s bully-like shenanigans, she said, he spent his last few weeks in office to pass legislation that will make Gillen’s job harder.
During the last meeting Santino ran, the board approved 192 personnel changes and amended a union contract so that the board can’t layoff employees based on financial reasons.
The no layoff clause will hurt every taxpayer in Hempstead, Gillen said.
It puts Gillen’s administration in a rough spot considering the already mismanaged funds and the Republican tax overhaul that eliminates the state and local tax deductions, Gillen said.
“He’s just placed an extra burden on the taxpayers,” Gillen said. “There’s no valid reason why he did that other than to try to sabotage my administration. There’s no other possible reason he would do that.”
Getting the town back in a financially sound position is one of Gillen’s top priorities.
When she was campaigning people would say, “Oh, you’re a Democrat and you just want to tax and spend.” In reality, though, the town has been wasting money for years, she said.
Gillen said there’s no Democratic or Republican way to run a municipality – there’s just a good way and a bad way.
“What we had under Santino, is the bad way,” she said.
Which might be one reason Gillen received bipartisan support. Republican Councilman Bruce Blakeman crossed party lines to endorse Gillen.
Former Floral Park Mayor Thomas Tweedy, Republican, also endorsed Gillen and serves on her transition team along with Blakeman and Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, another Republican who showed support for Gillen.
Gillen’s transition team is indicative of how she will run her administration, Tweedy said in a previous interview with Blank Slate Media.
It’s not so much a bipartisan effort, but rather is independent of any party affiliations, Tweedy said.
“Laura Gillen is not afraid of ideas,” Tweedy said. “She’s looking for the best ideas she can get and really a true sign of strength is someone who’s not afraid someone might have a better idea. I think that really speaks to the person that she is.”
It wasn’t just Republicans officials that helped Gillen’s November win – the residents rallied together in support of the underdog Democrat.
Gillen said she saw grassroots organizations springing up that were supportive of her and her fellow candidates.
Her road to town board echoes similar tales of female, Democratic victories across the nation – women who rode a wave of backlash after the country elected a man who boasted about harassing women to the highest seat in office.
“It got more people engaged, certainly a lot more women engaged because they just couldn’t believe that somebody who did some of the things that President Trump has done and the way he’s talked about women and treated women, that this is now our president,” Gillen said. “It got them more involved and fired up to really say, ‘We have to pay attention to what’s going on.’”
Gillen’s support system continued after the election.
At Santino’s final meeting, where Gillen silently observed in the audience, residents donning party hats and noisemakers cheered as she entered the room.
Contrarily, the crowd booed for the outgoing Santino.
That’s not to say Gillen will face an easy term, she said.
There is only one other Democrat on the town board, Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby.
Regardless of her party affiliation, Goosby had voted with Santino for much of his term.
But Gillen said she didn’t enter politics thinking it would be a relaxing break from her legal career.
Gillen said she’s grateful for the education she received because of sacrifices her parents made, allowing her to be employable in the private sector. Now she wants to give back.
Gillen is no stranger to community service. She was honored as a George Baker Scholar at Georgetown University, where she later returned for law school.
Between undergrad and law school, Gillen devoted herself to public work. She went on an extended volunteer mission in Calcutta where she worked at Mother Teresa’s home for the dying.
She also volunteered with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City around the time the AIDS epidemic broke.
On a local level, Gillen had always been active in serving her community. Growing up she volunteered as a candy striper at South Nassau Communities Hospital and as a lifeguard at Camp Anchor.
For Gillen, public office is a natural extension of her community service.
A Town of Hempstead native, Gillen said she looks back fondly on her childhood spending weekends at town parks and summers at town beaches.
Attending Sacred Heart Academy introduced Gillen to young women from all over Nassau County – many of whom have returned to raise their kids here, too.
“It’s so nice to see my children are in class with my classmates from Sacred Heart,” Gillen said. “I think that’s really special and it keeps our communities close.”
One of the reasons Gillen said she ran for office is to help preserve the town she loves for future generations, including her own kids, and make the it a financially viable place to live.
By changing the hostility of town government and reversing decades of financial mismanagement, Gillen said, she’s trying to usher in a new era in the Town of Hempstead. An era of “kinder, and more efficient government.”