Long Island – Strong Island

For the penultimate article in this column, we feel it’s necessary to review the history and politics of Long Island as if it were its own state. A truly anomalous region compared to similar areas of the country, Long Island has outsized influence on the national political stage.

Early History and Revolutionary War –
A Crucial Battleground

Long Island was first explored by Europeans with the arrival of Giovanni de Verrazzano in 1524. The western portion of Long Island was settled by the Dutch, who called it ‘t Lange Eylandt, which translates to “the long island.” The Dutch were also the first settlers of Manhattan and Staten Island. Plymouth Colony laid a claim to Long Island but did not settle it, and Charles I of England gave the Island to William Alexander. Alexander would obtain Shelter Island and Robins Island and then sell most of eastern Long Island to New Haven and Connecticut colonies.

The English settled in Southold in 1636, followed by Lion Gardiner, who would purchase an island from the Montaukett people, which would later become known as Gardiner’s Island. Gardiner’s Island has been owned by the family, is one of the largest private islands in the country, and produced Julia Gardiner Tyler, the First Lady of the United States to President John Tyler (Whig-VA). Southold remained under the jurisdiction of Connecticut until 1674. England took control of New York from the Dutch in 1673, while the Towns of Southold, Southampton, and East Hampton would not submit to the new rule, a problem that was quickly defused by the British and the Connecticut Colony.

Long Island would play host to the largest battle of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Long Island. Long Island was controlled by the English crown for much of the war. Primarily rooted in Kings County – now Brooklyn – the battle saw espionage and raids across the Long Island Sound. Arguably the most famous contribution from Long Island was that of George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge’s Culper Spy Ring, which was instrumental in uncovering Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of the United States with his intention of handing over the American fort at West Point, among other findings.

A famous landmark of the Culper Spy Ring was that of Roe Tavern in Setauket, where Washington spent the night in April of 1790, as Austin Roe, the innkeeper, was one of his spies during the war.
Sag Harbor also played host to a famous raid in eastern Long Island in 1777, as colonists carried out raids against the British using whaleboats across the Long Island Sound.

Industrialization and Twentieth Century Politics –
A Republican Machine

Long Island, as well as New York, had modest slave populations until laws gradually instilling abolition passed in 1799, with the last Long Island slaves freed in 1827. Long Island has always been home to small family farms and an industrial economy, as was primarily the case in the Northern states. The demand for slavery on Long Island was markedly less than it was in the South.

No Civil War battles were fought on Long Island, but camps and regiments trained and housed soldiers before they headed south. Long Island felt the positive and negative economic effects of the war, from manufacturing war materials, to feeling the disruption of commerce due to shortages and interruptions of the shipping industry.

Long Island was still mostly agricultural and rural going into the 1800s, as suburbanization started with wealthy New Yorkers looking for new, quick ways to commute from Brooklyn Heights into New York City. Steam ferries and streetcar lines began to tie southern Kings and Queens counties together. The Long Island Rail Road began in 1836 as a ferry-to-rail route from Manhattan to Greenport, with connections to Boston as well. The LIRR is the oldest railroad in the country still operating under its original name and charter. As the “Gateway to Boston,” the LIRR would easily set the stage for suburbanization on Long Island.

The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 finally connected Long Island to the rest of the United States.

Long Island was originally home to three counties: Kings, Queens, and Suffolk. In 1898, Kings and Queens were incorporated into the City of Greater New York, which abolished all cities and towns within them. The eastern 280 square miles of Queens County was not part of the plan, which formed into a new county, Nassau County, in 1899.

Both Nassau and Suffolk counties were controlled by the Republican Party for most of their histories. Since the advent of the Republican Party in the 1856 election, Suffolk has backed Democrats at the presidential level only nine times: 1976, 1884, 1912, 1964, and the five elections from 1996 to 2012. Its distinct Republican lean is derived from its cultural alignment with the classical Yankee liberalism of New England, combined with distinct economic and industrial development as an advantage of its proximity to New York City. Of all elections going back to 1884, the GOP only had three elections within ten points: 1888, 1976, and 1992, the latter of which was affected by Ross Perot’s (I-TX) 21% of the vote. In short, the GOP had a firm hold on Suffolk County.

Since Nassau’s first election in 1900, it has backed Democrats ten times: 1912, 1964, and in every election from 1992 to 2020. Like Suffolk, Nassau was won by Woodrow Wilson (D-NJ) in 1912 due to the vote-splitting between native son Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft (R-OH). Both counties were won by Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) in his 1964 national landslide over Barry Goldwater (R-AZ).

With Bill Clinton’s (D-AR) watershed 1992 election, working-class and classically liberal voters realigned with the Democratic Party, pushing states like Connecticut, Maine, and New Jersey to be consistently blue states today. Since New York was already a blue state at that point, the realignment of Long Island was less pronounced.

A point that is incredibly unique to Long Island is that of the relationship between organized labor and the Republican Party. Even in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (D-NY) four wins in New York – and nationally – he failed to carry both Suffolk and Nassau. This was mostly due to Long Island’s separation from the corruption and gamesmanship of NYC’s Tammany Hall. As many from the City moved to Long Island, as well as many ethnic groups, the Island’s population exploded, and with it, the need for work and organized labor.

Labor leaders and politicians mimicked the playbook from Tammany Hall and created a strong base of ancestral voting by recruiting then-discriminated-against Italian Americans from NYC. In short, political support turned into jobs, jobs turned into permanent residence, and permanent residence allowed for generational support of the GOP. Unions still hold outsized influence on Long Island, and as organized labor appears to be flirting with the GOP on a national level in the era of Trump, it has only helped swing Suffolk and Nassau back to the right.

Geography – Strong Island

  1. Kings County – Home to Brooklyn; Democrats can usually rely on 70% of the vote here in any given election. Since the advent of the GOP, Kings has backed them only six times since 1896, the last being in 1924. Some southern neighborhoods, such as Park Slope and Bensonhurst, have been trending red, flipped by Curtis Sliwa (R) in the 2021 NYC Mayoral race and consolidated by Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in the 2022 gubernatorial election. As the GOP looks to court Jewish and Asian voters, margins in Brooklyn will be key to seeing how those efforts play out.
  2. Queens County – Home to Queens Borough, the least Democratic of the four solidly blue Boroughs. Home to JFK and LGA airports and notable neighborhoods such as Jamaica and Flushing, Queens is one of the most diverse parts of the country. Queens has backed the GOP presidential candidate eleven times since 1872, most recently in 1972 for Richard Nixon (R-CA). Zeldin scored an impressive 40% of the vote here in 2022, a margin that the GOP will certainly attempt to repeat and expand upon to make New York more competitive.
  3. Nassau County – One of the wealthiest counties in the nation, Nassau is home to two cities – Long Beach and Glen Cove – the four Towns of Oyster Bay, Hempstead, Massapequa, and North Hempstead, as well as 64 villages and 60 hamlets. Nassau is Democratic-leaning at the presidential level but is much more Republican down ballot.
  4. Western Suffolk – Home to the Towns of Babylon, Brookhaven, Huntington, Islip, and Smithtown; all except Babylon are at least Republican-leaning. Republicans have solid locks on the quaint Smithtown on the North Shore, working-class Islip on the South Shore, and sprawling, diverse Brookhaven in the center of the county. Western Suffolk is home to Congressmen Nick LaLota (R-Amityville) and Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) and is the base of the working-class population in Suffolk County.
  5. Eastern Suffolk – Home to the five Towns of East Hampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Southampton, and Southold; more Democratic-leaning overall. Home to the lion’s share of Suffolk’s agriculture, snowbird communities, fisheries, tourism, and prime real estate. East Hampton, home to Montauk, Sag Harbor, and Gardiner’s Island (by proxy) is the Democratic bastion of Suffolk. Southampton is generally GOP-working-class to the west of the Shinnecock Canal, with upscale Democratic communities to the east. Riverhead is a solid lock for Republicans, while Southold appears to be trending Democratic due to new arrivals from NYC. Southold is home to the famous Plum Island, as well as Fisher’s Island, just several miles off the coast of Connecticut. Shelter Island is a mixed bag entirely, but elected a Republican Supervisor in 2023. Interestingly, Shelter Island is home to New York’s lowest-population village, Dering Harbor, at just 50 people as of 2020. Environmentalism goes far on the East End, creating another unique niche for local Republicans.
    Suffolk overall is home to thirty-three villages and over
    150 hamlets.

Current Political Leanings – A Red Sandbar

Republicans took control of the County Legislature in 2021 and formed a supermajority in 2023. Ray Tierney (R) was elected District Attorney in 2021, flipping the seat red. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) became the first Republican to be elected as County Executive in 2023, consolidating total GOP control of all county offices in Suffolk and, in conjunction with Nassau, on Long Island overall for the first time since the 1960s. In 2023, the GOP secured a 5-0 majority on the Huntington Town Board, and County Executive Romaine won Democratic-leaning Babylon by four points. Central Islip and Brentwood are home to considerable Hispanic populations, where rightward shifts among Latino voters have been observed in the Fourth Senate District in 2022 and the Ninth Legislative District in 2023.

The first Nassau County Legislature was seated with a 13-6 Republican majority in 1996, and now-County Executive Bruce Blakeman (R-Atlantic Beach) was the first Presiding Officer. The GOP made major gains in Nassau in 2021 by electing Blakeman as County Executive and they retained the County Legislature, District Attorney, and Comptroller offices. The Town of North Hempstead elected a Republican Supervisor – Jennifer DeSena (R-Manhasset) – for the first time since 1989. In 2023, Republicans defeated three Democratic incumbents on the Long Beach City Council, winning control for the first time in nearly fifteen years.

Long Island has also been home to statehood movements. The unofficial flag was designed by Cesidio Tallini, with the four stars depicting the four counties, and he called the state “Winnecomac.” In 2022, Assemblyman Keith Brown (R-Northport) proposed secession from New York, stating Long Island can be financially independent. Additionally, secession movements also apply to the East End, where the proposed county of Peconic County has been floated for the same idea that Long Island should secede from New York: finances.

As working-class voters, labor unions, and the Latino population, to name a few key demographics, trend Republican nationally, it’s difficult to see where Democrats can quickly take back ground on Long Island. The young, college-educated population is considerable, but due to fundamental gains made by the GOP in such a short period of time, the momentum is truly unparalleled elsewhere. Long Island continues to be a prime battleground and possibly a bellwether for national politics, and as the GOP looks to contend New York in November, Long Island will be ground-zero in that endeavor.

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