Recently, I attended a candidate forum hosted by the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury. My friend Faisal Zakaria organized the event and invited me to spend the evening with some local candidates running for office. There were candidates for NY State Assembly, NY State Senate and U.S. Congress talking about their careers and answering questions from the audience.
Some of the candidates have served the public for more than 30 years and were glowingly touting their accomplishments. Local politicians have more control over quality-of-life issues affecting the Average Joe than President Trump. Yet most people will turn out to cast their vote for President rather than the Assembly District 18 candidate. People just aren’t excited about local politics.
A few candidates identified themselves as “not a politician,” as if that was a badge of honor when running against an incumbent. But in today’s political climate, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. Many voters are disappointed with politicians that seem to get elected year after year. Elections have challengers and incumbents, but following President Trump’s improbable run to the White House after never having held public office, non-politicians seem to want to give it a go. I’ve often wondered why any Regular Joe (or Jane) would want to run for public office when the stigma associated with politicians is slightly above Used Car Salesman, so I thought I would ask one.
Faisal introduced me to Dan Debono, a former investment banker who is running for U.S. Congress in NY District 3, which covers a good portion of the North Shore of Long Island. With a handshake that could crush a bear, this former Navy Seal took the time to talk and then invited me to his campaign office in Huntington for a more detailed chat.
What struck me was his honesty as to why a non-politician would put himself and his family through the process of running a campaign that he may not win. “I don’t think I’m wasting my time, I’m very genuine. I like engaging with people,” he said. “It’s time for a change. The longer an incumbent is in there, the more entrenched they get.” The incumbent, of course, is Tom Suozzi, who is seeking reelection after completing his first term in Congress.
So how does a challenger get his name out there, when the incumbent has a war-chest with more than five times the amount of cash to spend? “It’s a word of mouth business,” DeBono offered. “People know I’m running thanks to the Internet and they will know my platform. Hopefully, I’ve done a good job marketing to people who will spread the word. You have to hope that the message is compelling enough to get people up off that couch and say, ‘I’m going to vote for that guy!’”
Debono hasn’t yet learned how to speak “politician,” but he is mindful of the power trip that can corrupt even the most evenhanded person once they hold elective office. “It’s seductive,” he said about power. “Human nature makes us susceptible to insider deals and corruption, but term limits will diminish the likelihood of that. If someone is there only six or eight years, versus 30, think of the favors those lifers owe other people.”
Most politicians today are making a career out of politics, which was not how the Founding Fathers envisioned public service. Understanding a single, two-year term in Congress will not allow him to get the things accomplished he wants; DeBono would limit his political career to just a few terms, allowing someone else to try. Although his family has been behind him 100 percent, he needed to dedicate a lot to this effort. “It’s a lot of time away from my family,” he said.
When I asked him if he had contemplated the enormity of the situation if he wins, he answered like a Navy veteran and a future politician. “I’ve done a lot of things,” he said, “And it would be challenging to get the job. But it’s nothing I fear, I thrive on it.”
But if he didn’t win, would he go through all of this again? “If I don’t win, then there would need to be a reason for next time. But my wife doesn’t want me to.”
Now that’s something you would never hear from a politician.
Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a 2018 Press Club of Long Island award-winning columnist and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.