Long Island malaise launches glory era for local Tea Party groups, Steve Flanagan

Meanwhile, neighboring Nassau County has suffered the humiliation of having its public finances taken over by a state oversight board. County Executive Edward Mangano, a Tea Party-endorsee who had worked as a janitor to put himself through college, rode to victory last year with a promise to rid the county of an unpopular $45 million home energy tax. He was given an opportunity by the state to come up with a budget solution, but was unable or unwilling to find the combination of spending cuts and, of course, tax hikes that would have alleviated what was at one point a $176 million deficit. The state-run Nassau County Interim Financial Authority duly took control.

A New York Times/CBS poll taken in April 2010 showed that people who identified themselves with the Tea Party—they tend to be white, male, Republican, over 45, and angrier than people who simply identify themselves as Republicans— constituted fully 18 percent of likely voters in American. A Quinnipiac poll taken last September showed a similar level of support for the Tea Party among likely voters in New York State. If the Tea Party is a movement that thrives on the belief that government is a bad steward of people’s money, there is good reason to believe that the level of support for the Tea Party on Long Island—the sheer number of extra-angry Republicans—might be even higher.

HOW MUCH DO THE LOCAL TEA PARTY GROUPS MATTER, ACTUALLY?

They don’t really have the wherewithal to do things like run political ads, because they don’t have much money: Flanagan’s group raised less than $20,000 during the 2010 election cycle. (Donations came from a spattering of locals, including some retirees, a steam fitter, a registered nurse and a railroad ticket collector.)

And they are, by definition, ad hoc. That is, unlike the Republican county machines, which have traditionally been able to leverage patronage into electoral muscle, the Tea Party groups depend entirely on volunteers. If their “members” aren’t sufficiently motivated to turn out for a given event, there is no event.

On the other hand, Flanagan’s group already has a bit of a resume, starting with the fact that they’ve managed to elect one of their very own to the legislature.

In 2010, a Democratic-held Assembly seat opened up in a blue-collar district that includes Bellport, Coram, Farmingville, Medford and Patchogue. A special election was scheduled, and Flanagan threw his organization’s support to Dean Murray, a bald, divorced, 46-year-old director of a small ad agency with an elastic, almost goofy grin. Murray had been active in the Suffolk County Republican Party, and, in 2009, he became a Tea Party enthusiast.

Murray unsuccessfully sought a county legislative seat that year. Then, a few months later, he put himself up for the open Assembly seat. He ran on a standard-issue bad-times platform: he wanted to “rein in wasteful state spending” and “reform state government so it starts working for the people and not the special interests.”

And then he won.

The practical impact of the victory in Albany was limited: he was a Republican going to serve in a 150-member legislative body in which the Democrats currently enjoy a 48-seat majority. Still, he was the first explicitly Tea Party-created candidate to win an election in New York, and Flanagan’s group was able to take credit for it.

“Our people pretty much staffed that campaign,” Flanagan said. “We did everything. We had people going door-to-door. We held rallies, organized a core of volunteers. We did phone bank work. A lot of our people contributed financially.”

I spoke with Murray on the phone at the end of a sun-drenched morning this month. He was on the Assembly floor, musing about his improbable career, his long commutes on the New York State Thruway in his 2005 Chrysler, and his favorite Albany meal: seafood mac and cheese at the Victory Café down the street.

The day we spoke, the tax-cap issue was languishing in the Senate. A bill to ban outdoor smoking in train stations was being considered in the Assembly.

I asked him how he voted.

He laughed: “Against it,” of course.

He told me that he saw himself as an important Tea Party spokesman.

“It’s a movement,” he told me. “It’s not an individual thing. It’s what we believe. It’s much bigger than the individual. I think even the Democrats on other side of the aisle; I think they were surprised I’m not a radical.”

Murray may be the only Long Island-based elected official who is a whole-cloth creation of local Tea Party groups, but Flanagan’s group played a meaningful role in at least one other victory.

During the 2010 elections, Flanagan and his team mobilized dozens around Tea Party sympathizer Lee Zeldin, an Iraq veteran who was challenging incumbent Democratic state senator Brian Foley in a district that includes Brookhaven. Zeldin won, and credits Flanagan’s group for helping him get over the top.

“They were a big part of it,” he said in a phone interview. “They came to our fund-raisers, knocked on doors, stuffed envelopes, promoted the message by blogging and email. They helped for a whole year.”

In particular, they helped Zeldin, a telegenic 31-year-old Taekwondo black belt, capitalize on a tactical error Foley made when Foley denounced the MTA payroll tax, and then voted for it out of the (justifiable) fear that the beleaguered authority would have to make harmful service and maintenance cuts without the revenue. Flanagan is proud of what happened next.

“We did ‘MTA Tax Foley,’” he said. “We put out videos, ‘Foley’s Follies.’ We did ‘Flip-Flop Foley.’ That one pretty much stuck because it was easy to remember.”

Flanagan and his colleagues also helped get former Mineola mayor Jack Martins into a State Senate seat covering Mineola, Floral Park and Westbury. Martins beat out Democratic incumbent Craig Johnson in an election that was so close it took weeks for the final count to come down. When it did, the G.O.P. had it Senate majority back, by the narrowest possible margin. And Nassau and Suffolk had their Long Island Nine.

Of course, the Tea Party people in New York lose more than they win. Last year—the worst year in recent memory for Democratic incumbents—they backed failed challenges to Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and to Representative Steve Israel, whom they dislike almost as much as Tim Bishop.

Their candidate in that Bishop race lost too, although the Tea Party people claimed a sort of moral victory there. Pitted against Harvard Business School grad Randy Altschuler, Bishop ended up winning by a mere 593 votes. And that was after a three-person G.O.P. primary that still riles Flanagan up.

“I begged them to make a decision,” he said.

The remarkable thing there is that Flanagan, who holds no official title within the party and hasn’t been elected to any position, was in a position to insist on anything at all. I asked him if he’d ever had this level of sway before.

“No,” he said. “Never.”

FLANAGAN HAS LIVED ON LONG ISLAND SINCE he was four. “We got the hell out of the city to get away from the rat race,” he said, speaking as if he in fact packed his family bags and drove his parents and his brothers and sisters to Brightwaters.

The five-bedroom house needed work. For the first year or so, he sat there and watched his father repair the electrical, do the siding, paint.

“Sweat equity,” he calls it.

Then life on the island began.

“I walked to the beach, to the park, played ball with the guys,” he continues. “Schools were good. All things you would need or want were there.”

He’d always had an intense interest in politics. “I’ve been casually involved since I was a kid, writing reports about what was wrong with the economy since I was in high school.”

He majored in psychology at Dowling, a small college in Oakdale. He paid for his classes by writing for trade publications. Eventually, he wrote full-time for them. He got married at 23, snatched up a four-bedroom ranch in West Islip. His then-wife was pregnant and soon he was opening up a newsletter business in one of the spare bedrooms.

One of the early issues he got involved in was the fight over trucking deregulation, during the Carter years. As to be expected, he was all for it. He later became a G.O.P. committeeman and a school board member. At some point it became clear to him that the local party apparatus wasn’t in love with him, and that he would only go so far. After years of meetings and grunt-work, he gave it up.

“When Newt Gingrich came in with his Contract for America, that’s kind of when I got out of it,” he said. “I kind of went home, took ten years off, had my six kids.”

Fast forward to 2008, a year in which he says “even Ronald Reagan couldn’t have gotten elected” and the $700 billion bank bail-out was on the horizon.

“We quadrupled the debt in one day,” he said. “It was mind-boggling. What bothered me most was that nobody wanted to take credit.”

He was back.

Flanagan will be the first to tell you he was way ahead of the Tea Party curve. He started his organization at the end of 2008, before the rest of the nation had caught on. Obama wasn’t yet in office, but he could see what was coming.

Flanagan did the Tax Day Tea Party in 2009. His folks joined a group in Northport Village and sloshed around in the pouring rain chanting: “Give us rain, give us thunder. We won’t let the government plunder.”

Then they dumped some crates in the Northport Harbor.

He still recalls that first real protest out of the gate. It was important and memorable. Other Long Island Tea Party people I talked to told me the same thing about the first time they participated in a live event.

John Devine, a 62-year-old Vietnam vet from Massapequa with close-cropped gray hair and a florid complexion, went to Washington for his first Tea Party rally.

“It’s freaky,” he said, in an interview in a Panera on Sunrise Highway in Massapequa, referring to the strength of the emotions it aroused in him.

Devine isn’t idle. He has a wife, two grown children and one grandchild, with another on the way. He goes kayaking, even though he lost a leg when he was hit by a mortar round near Denang Harbor while serving as an assistant machine gunner. He organizes golf tournaments for amputees. While I was talking to him he got several calls. But still Tea Party meetings lure him in. He likes the camaraderie.

“It’s hanging out with people who feel just like you,” he said, recalling the Washington trip. “The bus ride was fun. I like mingling with everybody. And I’ll tell you when that rally was over, there was not a piece of paper on the ground.”

Devine’s concerns, other than taxes, are homeland security and immigration.

“Today, I feel a nuke will hit the United States as soon as they can figure out how to make it and get it here,” he said. “It’s going off and we’re the bull’s eye.”

About liberal claims that immigrants take jobs no one else wants to fill, he said, “I don’t want to cut your grass for $10, but I’ll cut it for $30. Let the grass-cutters make some money.”

Schlomann, who writes for a website called Suffolk County Liberty Report, sounded similarly awed by her first Tea Party event, a Tax Day rally in Hauppauge.

“I was in awe,” she said. “I was stunned. Every time, I’ve had a problem with an issue, whether it’s a school thing or whatever, the standard line is, ‘You are the only parent with that complaint. You are the only one.’”

At that event, Schlomann said, she realized she wasn’t. “And I saw: ‘Oh, hell no. I am not.’ I was not the only one. And that was fabulous. It was really fabulous.”

I CALLED FLANAGAN SHORTLY AFTER THE TAX-CAP legislation passed to ask him what was next.

He said that in the coming weeks, he and his crew would launch a “boots on the ground” membership drive.

“This period, the beginning of summer, we do street rallies and events,” he said. “We inundate those places with fliers, work the crowd.” He says his group is now focusing on a dozen or so town and county elections. He rattled off a few town board seats, a town executive spot, a few Suffolk County legislature openings and the Suffolk County executive spot being vacated by Steve Levy.

“That’s where the power is,” he said. “That’s where the corruption is. That’s where the patronage is. We don’t consider these local elections to be insignificant.”

The afternoon I talked to him, the Conservative Society for Action was about to hold their kickoff campaign rally for 2011. The event was to be held at the West Islip American Legion Hall, where most of their meetings now take place. About a dozen local candidates had pledged to attend.

“If you want our support, you have to ask for our support,” Flanagan explained, outlining the different steps in the process.

Potential candidates had been discouraged from bringing a written speech. Candidates who didn’t answer questions to the liking of the crowd were going to be told to answer again.

“I don’t care if it takes a half-hour,” he said.

He had all day.