A Republican With the Name of a Beloved Democrat

John M. Kennedy, Suffolk County legislator and candidate for county comptroller
September 15, 2014 7:01 am Last Updated: September 16, 2014 11:32 am

John M. Kennedy, the 58-year-old, five-term incumbent legislator for the 12th Legislative District of Suffolk County, the County’s minority legislative leader and the current Republican candidate for the open seat of Suffolk County comptroller against 57-year-old Democrat Jim Gaughran in the upcoming November election, told me just as we were getting set to begin our recent interview that he was certain that I planned to ask him a question that had something to do with his name.

Wearing a big smile on his face as he sat comfortably on a bench outside his Suffolk County legislative office, Kennedy, whose 12th District spans through the western portions of the county, said, “I’m asked about my name all the time, so I guess that is something you plan to ask me about?”

He was right. I was going to question him about his sharing a name with the beloved 35th president of the United States. It seemed to be an obvious question, even though I knew John M. Kennedy was born in 1956, four years before John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president, making their sharing of their first and last names a likely coincidence. 

Yet, Kennedy told me with an easily detectible sound of pride in his voice, that his respect for JFK goes far beyond their common name. “President Kennedy has been a hero of mine since my childhood. And it goes way beyond kids from elementary school and on asking me if I was related to him. … President Kennedy’s call in his inaugural address for Americans to ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ to me defines the true meaning of patriotism, and still inspires me today.” 

While President Kennedy of course was a Democrat, and Legislator Kennedy is a self-described very proud Republican, he told me that he believes that JFK’s foreign policy would make him a Republican were he alive today.

“President Kennedy faced down the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile crisis,” Kennedy stated. “He was able to do this because he knew that America had both moral and military superiority over our adversaries. Today, I believe, he would side with the Republicans who more than most Democrats understand that the way to defeat today’s enemy, Islamic Fascism, is through military strength, not appeasement.”

Kennedy added that on the economic issues JFK would also clearly be in today’s Republican camp. “President Kennedy,” he asserted, “believed in fiscal responsibility as a prerequisite for maintaining a strong and stable economic environment and believed in low personal and business tax rates as a fundamental tool to move the economy forward for all Americans, just as did Reagan 30 years ago today.”

Comptroller’s Platform

We then moved the interview back to the present on to its intended topic—the Suffolk County comptroller’s race. “I believe that the voters will be receptive to my economic policies,” Kennedy responded when I asked him about the race and what policies he will pursue if he wins in November. “I will use the platform of the comptroller’s office to push for ending unnecessary spending that serves only to increase our taxes,” he continued,” and I will [use the platform of comptroller] to make certain that our financial resources are used to make the streets safer for our citizens and the schools better for our children.”

If Kennedy is elected this fall in what most Suffolk County political insiders currently view as a tossup contest, much of his power will in fact be grounded in the verbal platform he cited rather than in the comptroller’s actual legal powers. Mainly involving ensuring that the county’s spending complies with state, town, and county laws, rules, and regulations, the comptroller’s position, sans the aforementioned power of the political soapbox, could easily be described as being essentially nonpartisan in nature.

Nevertheless, the election itself may well hinge on an issue that has become much debated and highly politicized. A referendum initiative, that if passed by the voters in November would eliminate the office of county treasurer and transfer its powers to the comptroller’s office beginning the day after the current treasurer Republican Angie Carpenter’s term expires on Dec. 31, 2017, has taken center stage in the race.

Gaughran strongly supports and has been campaigning on the proposal, which was first pushed by Suffolk County Executive Democrat Steve Bellone and has the backing of several key Suffolk County Democratic legislators. Kennedy strongly opposes the initiative, as do most Suffolk County Republican elected officials.

Pointing out that, out of the 62 counties in NYS, Suffolk County remains the only one that has both an elected comptroller and an elected treasurer, Gaughran has argued that eliminating the treasurer’s office and transferring its powers to that of the comptroller would save Suffolk County over one million dollars and would also, by eliminating duplications, create a greater degree of efficiency in the county government. 

While acknowledging that there might be short-term savings if the initiative is passed, Kennedy told me that he views it as being shortsighted. “The money that can be saved by eliminating the treasurer’s office would pale in comparison to the money we stand to lose by eliminating a position that has served the county well in the past. Remember, Suffolk is one of the largest counties in America,” Kennedy stated. “We have a budget of $2.6 billion, and we have almost one and a half million residents, which makes us larger in population than eleven states. So to use an old but wise saying, eliminating the position of treasurer would be ‘penny wise but pound foolish.'”

Comparing Résumés

There appears to be a consensus in Suffolk that in a close election whoever wins over the majority of the voters in that debate will likely go on to win the election. Still, while Kennedy didn’t completely dispute the importance of the referendum initiative, he said that he believes that the outcome of the race will ultimately be decided based on which candidate the voters believe possesses the better qualifications to perform the job of comptroller.

Actually, both candidates appear to possess impressive résumés. Kennedy, an attorney also holding an MBA in capital budgeting and a former examiner of title for the Suffolk County Clerk’s Office, currently serves in the Legislature as chairman of the Republican Caucus and as a member of the Public Safety, Ways and Means, Budget and Finance, and Economic Development committees. Gaughran, an attorney himself and a former Suffolk County legislator and a former member of the Board of the Town of Huntington, has been serving as the Suffolk County Water Authority chairman the past four years. 

Kennedy, who has been said to bemuse some Republicans and befuddle some Democrats by speaking kindly of his opponents, complimented Gaughran even as he stated that he, Kennedy, was the better qualified of the two to perform the comptroller’s job.

“Jim was an able legislator and has been an effective chairman,” Kennedy said. “But I believe that my 10 years in office have given me a hands-on working knowledge of the budget that Jim doesn’t possess. I also know of the propensity of the Bellone administration to borrow. I believe that I am the best person to rein in this excessive borrowing, which, if it continues at this rate, will become an overwhelming burden to our citizens and will prevent our economy from growing and creating private sector jobs.”

Kennedy, married to his high-school sweetheart Leslie for the past 39 years, is the father of four adult children—all of whom grew up in Suffolk County—and the grandfather of five.  He said to me with a slight sound of melancholy in his voice as the 60-minute interview was coming to an end,” Seeing my four children growing up right here in Suffolk to become productive adults as well, most importantly, as kind and caring human beings, was the most treasured and blessed experience for Leslie and me. And as a public official my first priority has always been and will always continue to be to make Suffolk County the best place in the nation to raise a family for all of our parents. “

Spoken like a true Kennedy. 

Robert Golomb is a nationally published columnist. MrBob347@aol.com and Twitter @RobertGolomb

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