January 16, 2012
A New Day in Suffolk? Here’s Hoping
Suffolk County on Long Island got a new county executive this month, Steve Bellone. In his inaugural speech, he went down the list of things he intended to do, like fix the county’s budget woes, hold the line on taxes, make government more efficient, create jobs and affordable housing, and invest in “clean water infrastructure.”
So far, so mundane. It’s what he said in the rest of his speech that was interesting.
“For those who are willing to work hard and are looking for a better life,” Mr. Bellone said, “regardless of where you came from — we want you in Suffolk County.”
He told a story about his Irish immigrant grandparents and the tiny apartment in Washington Heights they once shared with his mother, aunts and uncles. He said he had gone back there recently with his mother, in her first visit to the old neighborhood in nearly 50 years, and they were welcomed by a Dominican family. “We are stronger together,” Mr. Bellone said in remembering that scene.
A good share of his speech was devoted to the importance of immigration, a tacit attempt to reverse Suffolk’s reputation as a place riven by anti-immigrant sentiments and violence. That reputation worsened in the two terms of Mr. Bellone’s predecessor, Steve Levy, who became nationally known for his harsh tone and hard line on illegal immigration. That belligerence won Mr. Levy high poll numbers. But it also left him unable to bring the community together when it had to confront the notorious murder of an Ecuadorean man in an attack by local teenagers.
Mr. Bellone’s most daunting job is fixing county finances. But many residents were surely relieved and grateful to hear him speak to immigration tensions immediately. Of course, Mr. Levy himself, in an inaugural speech in 2004, spoke of “an island that assures that people named Diaz, Chen, Patel and Ali can live in the same fine neighborhoods as citizens named Smith and Jones.” Only after he settled in did things go tragically off track.