by Ambrose Clancy
Published: February 5th, 2010
Aftershocks dominated the morning.
A week after the earthquake battered Haiti, severe tremors brought more suffering. But the morning buzz at Hempstead Town Hall was about the U.S. political foundation still rocking from the night before. A long-shot Republican had claimed the seat held for more than four decades by liberal lion Edward Kennedy.
"Seismic," Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray said brightly, leaving her office for a staff meeting.
Murray's chief-of-staff Ray Mineo followed, as he does whenever the supervisor is on the move. Short and rumpled, dwarfed by the tall, imposing figure of his boss, Mineo was asked his take on the Massachusetts political game changer.
"It's not just one election," he said, citing November's upset races in Westchester and Nassau counties. "Now it's a movement."
A movement which Murray might want to ride beyond Hempstead. She didn't pause when asked about her political future. "Sky's the limit."
The proven vote-getter has won handily every time out of the gate, beginning with a 1998 Assembly bid. She's run Hempstead, the nation's most populous township, for seven years. Even Democratic political ops admit – not for attribution – that the municipality of 800,000 is a model of efficiency. In an anti-incumbent election season stoked by voter rage, Murray ran on her record, clobbering her opponent by a two-to-one margin.
Isn't she politically boxed in?
"Not at all," Murray said, greeting town employees passing in the corridor, flashing a wide, killer smile. "Once upon a time there was a guy named Al D'Amato who was a town supervisor. This is a good jumping-off point for me. This is a huge operation here."
Huge indeed, with the supervisor managing 1,900 full-time employees and a $400 million budget.
Does dropping D'Amato's name mean challenging Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand?
Murray's tone turned coy but serious. "In the pantheon of different elected positions, Washington would be intriguing."
Scott Brown's Massachusetts win and Ed Mangano's out-of-nowhere victory in Nassau gives anyone of substance a puncher's chance these days.
Working in Murray's favor for a U.S. Senate run is that few Republicans have officially thrown their hat in the ring. So far, Bruce Blakeman, a former Nassau County legislator, is the biggest name to declare for the race.
Blakeman may best be known for being the ex-husband of Nancy Shevell, a Paul McCartney paramour. Other than that, he has little name recognition with New York voters, though insiders in his own party know him well. That's not to say they approve of his candidacy.
"Dumb as a stump and arrogant," one close observer of Nassau politics described Blakeman. "Not a good combination."
George Marlin, an author and conservative LIBN columnist, snarked that Blakeman is a lightweight who looks like he's running just to meet girls.
Marlin added that if Murray got Nassau GOP boss Joe Mondello's blessing, Blakeman's candidacy would collapse.
"But if she's going to run, she has to start right now," Marlin added.
Taking a seat at the head of a conference table, Murray greets her top staffers: 11 men in suits.
She has nothing in front of her while everyone else has papers and files. There's no doubt: She is the smartest person in the room.
Talk to anyone about Murray and they'll confirm that. But detractors maintain that being brainy doesn't conceal a machine politician interested only in power.
A product of Mondello's superbly greased machine, Murray rose through the ranks by paying dues and waiting her turn. An assistant attorney general in Gov. George Pataki's administration, she was appointed to run for the Assembly seat when Charles O'Shea resigned to become Nassau County assessor in 1998. She was elevated to Hempstead supervisor from town clerk when Richard Guardino resigned in 2003.
Murray never takes for granted that Hempstead is a Republican fiefdom – the last on Long Island – built on patronage and never forgetting where you came from. Take her 83-year-old father, Norman. He retired from a six-figure job in the town attorney's office with a $49,000 pension on a Friday. By Monday he was back on the payroll as a part-time clerk, making $40 an hour.
And there's Katuria D'Amato, Senator Pothole's wife, who Murray appointed to the town's zoning board of appeals. No matter that Ms. D'Amato's total knowledge of zoning came from a dust-up with neighbors about a wildly ostentatious beach house the D'Amatos felt entitled to build. Murray merely said she was the right person for the job. And that was that.
At the head of the table Murray runs through resolutions with her staff on the next town board agenda, closely questioning them about finances before adjourning the meeting.
It's time for a trip to the beach.
To the Lighthouse
Murray rides shotgun in a gray Jeep Cherokee while executive assistant Reid Berglind drives like it's Sunday at Daytona, not the Meadowbrook.
The supervisor is rocketing toward Point Lookout to inspect a beach erosion project and check up on a shellfish seeding project.
Mineo sits in the back, hanging on as Berglind barrels along. Mineo's been with Murray since her first term seven years ago. But he got close to her when she was town clerk and he was top aide to Guardino, the previous supervisor.
Mineo knows where all bodies are buried, correct? He smiles, yanked into a curve by the Cherokee.
"I just know I'm not buried."
Mineo is not a man to underestimate, just like his chief. Murray's intelligence, energy, focus and superb political skills have never been more evident than in her taking control of the Lighthouse Project.
Kicking around for five years at the county level, Charles Wang's $3.8 billion plan hit a wall when it fell into Murray's hands two years ago. She's taking her time on approving modernization of the run-down Nassau Coliseum and development of nearly 80 surrounding acres into 2,300 residential units and more than a million square feet of retail and office space.
The developer has railed at Murray and threatened to move his Islanders out of Nassau unless the project is fast-tracked. Unions, some with unemployment running up to 35 percent, urge the supervisor to think of the social calamity of joblessness.
She's been accused of pettiness, arrogance, purposely missing meetings and refusing to talk because of partisan rigidity.
Nassau County Legis. David Denenberg, D-Merrick, has thrown up his hands.
"I don't know what page she's on," the legislator said.
Murray has said from the beginning that the enormity of the project, traffic concerns, density, water and energy usage call for caution.
But by being deliberate, Murray has also taken charge of the project. Over time she has won over many Hempstead and county residents who at the start were loudly calling for no delays in kicking off the project.
Murray proceeds with caution because she knows the Lighthouse, in political language, is a "legacy project." No matter how it turns out, a development of this size and importance will be mentioned at the top of her obituary.
Four days before the election in November, Wang and Murray met one-on-one, she said. "I told Charles, 'You have to scale this back,'" Murray said. "I told him, 'There's no way, as presently constituted, this is going anywhere. The public is waking up.'"
Murray said she informed the developer that after a Sept. 22 environmental hearing, e-mails to the town were running 60-40 against the size of the project. Wang, through a spokeswoman, refused to comment for this piece.
The developer badly underestimated Murray, according to a union official.
"My people are being hurt because of the lack of movement and Kate is the only one who can make it happen," the official said. "But I told Charles, 'Remember that Kate Murray doesn't work for you. You can't treat her like she plays on your hockey team.'"
The Cherokee rushes into an empty parking lot. Beyond is the Atlantic, with tankers lining the horizon like toy boats. Raucous sea birds wheel above the beach. Murray seems at home. "I love it here," she said, walking up over a dune.
"When we were kids, every summer we were at the beach all the time," said Anne Murray, Kate's sister and the youngest of seven siblings.
Never married, Murray is closer to her mother, father, four brothers, two sisters and a huge crowd of nieces and nephews than anyone else. She has a house next door to her parents in Levittown, where the Murray clan was raised.
Even as a little girl, she knew her own mind, Anne Murray said.
"At 11 Katie told everyone she was going to be a lawyer," her sister added, noting that she and her sister Maureen are also lawyers.
"But at that age we didn't have any idea what we wanted to do," she laughed. "Not Katie. She knew."
After graduating from Boston College, Murray stayed in Boston, taking a law degree from Suffolk University.
Her undergraduate junior year she studied English at St. Clare's Hall, Oxford, England. The Long Island girl received more than a touch of sophistication.
"In England I could go to France or Holland for the weekend if I wanted," she said. "It was as easy as going to New Jersey."
After law school Murray became a litigator for a firm in Nassau County and then, after a stint at a New Jersey firm defending physicians in malpractice cases, she headed to Albany and the attorney general's office during the Pataki years.
At Point Lookout workers are putting 40,000 plants into dunes to keep large parts of the beach from disappearing.
Checking in on a shellfish seeding operation – "Where's the linguine?" Mineo asks – located in a house set in wetlands, Murray clearly revels in sweating the small stuff of running Hempstead.
She's asked again about her future.
"I can't see myself doing this forever," she said. "Either I'll decide to do something else or the voters will. We all have a shelf life."
Top of the hill
Berglind is pushing the Cherokee hard again as Murray answers question about her political positions. Pro-life, pro-gun control, against same sex marriage but in favor of civil unions. She described herself as a moderate Republican, while being fiscally conservative.
But party labels are meaningless on a local level, she added, noting that picking up the garbage isn't Republican or Democratic.
"Welcome to sanitation world," Murray said as the Cherokee rolls into the sprawling Hempstead sanitation complex in Merrick.
The department takes up more than a quarter of the town's $400 million budget this year, collecting garbage from 80,000 homes each day.
She takes great pride in the former Merrick landfill, which has been transformed into a 52-acre nature preserve, towering up 115 feet from the flat, densely packed suburb. Delegations from as far away as Argentina and China have come to view it and get ideas to take back home.
A Hempstead Democrat who didn't want his name used said, "I give Kate credit. I like the way my garbage is picked up, my streets are plowed and my parks are kept. Everyone does."
Joggers and walkers make their way up through the preserve, including James McKenna, who works in Nassau County corrections, and his wife Christine, daughter Kate and friend Madison.
"We love it here," Christine said. "It's so peaceful. A great place for kids."
Sanitation personnel pile into a just-delivered electric jitney. The supervisor who sits directly behind the driver, a man named Sal, seems to be learning how to operate the vehicle. After a sudden start and stop, Murray said, "It's all right, Sal. No pressure. Only your job on the line."
The remark and laughter from the passengers relax Sal, who drives effortlessly to the top, where views extend to the Manhattan skyline.
Murray takes a meeting in a cramped satellite office of the town's planning department on Nassau Road in Roosevelt. Across the street a rusted hulk left vacant for generations is now a new, 24,000-square-foot medical building, while just down Nassau Road a new bank has gone up from a trash-strewn empty lot.
Working with community leaders under the direction of Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, the town is seeing some victories removing the blighted infrastructure of Roosevelt.
Goosby, a Democrat, praised Murray for her efforts but didn't leave the ground, describing her relationship with Murray as "OK. I don't have a problem working with her."
Passing a storefront church, The Refuge of Hope, Murray said, "It's good to see the great swath of faith in minority communities, but from an economic point of view that's the bummer because all these churches are off the tax rolls."
More than 200 affordable single-family homes have replaced abandoned residences in Hempstead.
"I'd do that every day if I could,' Murray said.
A scene played out across Long Island somewhere every week – lawyers with briefcases bursting with files, people with a beef, giddy high school kids in their Sunday best and knots of gossiping politicians.
Murray enters exactly on time and opens the town board meeting, asking the audience to keep the people of Haiti in their prayers.
Hempstead has more Haitians than any other Long Island community, and the town has filled two schoolrooms with food and other aid to be shipped to the Caribbean.
The meeting is quick, with proclamations given to the students for superior work and a list of perfunctory resolutions passed unanimously.
Residents complain of Hempstead being saturated with halfway houses. Several people want to be included on a commission studying the town's water supply.
Murray listens and answers every question, masterfully deflecting the offers to serve on commissions.
It's hard to imagine saying "no" with more charm, making the negative sound affirmative.
Or being more in control.
Forever1940 is the nom de plume of Eric Hornick, statistician on Islander home telecasts since 1982. Visit my blog: forever1940.blogspot.com and follow me on Twitter @ehornick