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Clinton's County Squire

Tom DiNapoli has made the GOP stronghold of Nassau County a lot friendlier to Democrats, though whether that's friendly enough for Hillary remains to be seen.

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Let us now praise not-yet-famous men: Tom DiNapoli, my nominee for most important political operative in New York you've never heard of.

I learned about him a year ago, when he became the Democratic chairman of Nassau County. Holding that forlorn job title is historically akin to being director of Catholic student life at Bob Jones University. I didn't give him much thought. Then, last October, he caught my eye. It was an event at Leonard's of Great Neck, a catering palace of some renown. A Sunday afternoon. Ice sculptures in the lobby. Several Long Island brides, each waiting her turn to parade the grand staircase. In the one room devoted to nuptials of the political sort, I first heard DiNapoli speak. He was great. Loads of energy, dash of humor, soupçon of earnestness. Once you've heard 14,800 political speeches, your antennae perk up whenever one's delivered with genuine emotion, joy even. Still, when he predicted that the Democrats were gonna surprise some people on Election Day, I rolled my eyes.

Election Day came, and, sure enough, Democrats gained control of the Nassau County Legislature -- outside the city, the state's 57 other counties have their own legislative bodies -- for the first time since World War I. They won town councils. They won judgeships. The fact that the county's bonds had reached virtual junk status didn't hurt their chances, but still, it's not too much to say that it was the single most shocking result that night in the whole country. Tom DiNapoli made it happen.

The question now is, Can he make it happen again? If you asked insiders to name the one major county in the state in which Hillary is expected to do worst, the choral response would be Nassau County. We'll consider this matter in a bit. But first, who is this guy?

Last Tuesday, I went up to Albany to visit DiNapoli in his state-assembly office (he's been in the assembly since 1986; the county-chair position is a party designation, not an elected office). On the walls, Bill and Hill, Jack Kennedy, Bobby, Martin Luther King, and, somewhat less predictably, John XXIII. And FDR with George VI, whom he says no one can identify. I couldn't, either.

DiNapoli swears Hillary can be competitive there. Among Democrats and Republicans only, Schumer actually beat D'Amato in Nassau.

He was born in Rockville Centre and "raised on the three R's of Nassau County -- the Republican Party, Roman Catholicism, and ricotta cheese." By 1972, his senior year in high school, he was a firm McGovernik. But instead of agitating for, oh, reform of marijuana laws, he ran for the school board at age 18. Interesting that he and another liberal firecracker of that era, Hillary Rodham, pushed aside more glamorous modes of activism and focused in on kids. Anyway, much to his surprise, he won. Under state law at the time, a person couldn't hold public office until age 21. But DiNapoli's victory made Nelson Rockefeller sign new legislation to seat him.

Tried law school; lasted nine days. "Worst experience of my life," he says. "A huge disappointment to my father, of course. He was paying for the first year, but I went to him and said, 'Here's your money back.' " He'd finished Hofstra, and he went on to get a graduate degree in human resources at the New School. He stayed on the school board, and got to the state assembly in 1986.

Fast-forwarding now, we see the Nassau Democratic Party of early 1999. Leader Steve Sabbeth and his wife are under indictment for trying to defraud creditors through their lumber company. An indicator of Sabbeth's class is that he is offered a deal under which prosecutors will keep his wife out of jail if he pleads out, and he declines. Today, they're both on their way to the hoosegow.

This is the party DiNapoli inherited. "He came in at a time when what was left of the Democratic Party here was really at each other's throats," says Robert Zimmerman, a Nassau Democratic activist. DiNapoli went to see Sabbeth after his conviction "and told him he had to leave. And he was in no hurry to." But DiNapoli's view was the consensus one. In weeks, another consensus emerged -- that DiNapoli should be the new leader. He got to work finding good candidates, he solidified the party's message -- basically, that the other party had driven one of America's richest counties into bankruptcy -- and he managed to stop all the squabbling. All of which brings us back to last year's election.

"At 2:30 in the morning," he recalls with glee, "I was calling up candidates who'd gone to bed figuring they'd lost like they always do, and telling them, 'You better get up and get down here. You're a judge!' "

Here's Nassau county: three-to-two Republican enrollment; one of the nation's major Republican machines; a place where people register Republican even when they don't believe Republican, because that's where the jobs and the contracts are. All that, and 95 percent of Nassau's towns have a black population of less than one percent. "The Republicans' old slogan used to be 'Save our suburban way of life,' " says Michael D'Innocenzo, a history professor at Hofstra who once had DiNapoli in class. "They actually used to put that on their signs. And they used to defeat Democrats by putting up pictures of the Bronx, implying that this is what Nassau County will look like if the Democrats win."


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