As the new presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature (giving Democrats control for the first time since the county adopted a legislative form of government in 1917) Judy Jacobs vows to bring a new "openness" and "humanness" to a county government saddled with a $100 million budget deficit.
"I think the people of this county are fed up with partisan bickering when their pocketbooks are at stake," she said recently in an interview in her office in the Nassau County Executive Building in Mineola. "We have to have open communication with the public and not keep the public in the dark. For so many years, things were shuffled under the rug."
Jacobs vowed that legislative meetings will start on time, or an announcement will be made explaining the reason for any delay and how long it will be.
"You can’t keep people waiting in their seats," she said. "Be human. Let people know what’s going on and not just take them for granted. We have to bring some humanness in here."
Jacobs, who was sworn in Monday, said she was as surprised as anyone with the depth of public antipathy toward the once-heralded Nassau Republican Party. She had hoped that voters would increase from five to seven the number of seats Democrats held in the Legislature, giving them the power to block bonding "and make us players."
That voters would actually wrest control of the 19-member Legislature from the Republicans by sending 10 Democrats there was never a thought, she said.
Even before she took office, estimates of the size of the 2000 budget deficit increased to $115 million.
"We need the best experts we can get" to help deal with the budget crisis, Jacobs said. "I think it would have been better for us [Democrats] to have been a strong minority for another two years because this is their mess."
Jacobs, 60, and her husband of 40 years, Sid, are the parents of three grown children. As she talked, she picked up a picture on her desk taken a year ago at a local public Christmas tree and menorah lighting ceremony. She was in the photo along with two of her four grandchildren. It was taken in Oyster Bay, her political base.
Her ascendancy to one of the most powerful political positions in the county comes as no surprise to those who have watched her since she moved to Woodbury in 1967. She immediately became an activist.
"I was approached by Women’s American ORT about joining their day chapter," Jacobs recalled. "I said that because of my children I couldn’t handle it. And then I got a call asking how I would like to form a night chapter, so I founded the Woodset Chapter. We needed 15 people and in nearly two years we had close to 300.
"It was a wonderful chapter of young women. We all had the same needs: young women who had moved into the same community and were looking for places to channel our energy. ORT provided that."
She noted that the mission of ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training) is one of helping people to help themselves.
"It is an appealing concept for me," said Jacobs. "To this day when I campaign, people remember me from ORT Woodset."
She served as president of the chapter for three years. It has since been merged into the Woodbury chapter, and Jacobs said she remains a member and a donor. She and her husband are also members of the North Shore Synagogue in Syosset.
Her political career coincided with the end of her ORT presidency when bulldozers suddenly appeared along Woodbury Road and began tearing down trees to make room for a four-story office building. Jacobs and other area homeowners formed the Mad Mothers of Woodbury. "We had 75 women with baby carriages blocking traffic on Woodbury Road," she recalled. "Woodbury Road was a two-lane, tree-lined road with farms on either side when we moved here; we thought this was wonderful. Now their plan was to use private homes to buffer two industrially zoned areas."
Jacobs said the protests led the builder to work with them to ensure that the area would still be livable, that traffic lights would be erected and flow charts devised. It was at that time that she began working in the campaign of Lewis Yevoli, then a young Democratic Oyster Bay Town Councilman and later an assemblyman and town supervisor.
She was asked to become active in the Democratic Party and Jacobs worked her way up, from committeewoman to zone leader, Assembly leader and then town leader of Oyster Bay. Two bids for the town board were unsuccessful.
"It is a good experience to lose before you win because it teaches you to be a little more humble," she said.
When the Nassau Legislature was formed in 1995 to replace the Board of Supervisors, Jacobs was a natural candidate. She ran for the seat that represented the central part of Oyster Bay. It had a 50-50 Democratic-Republican registration, but tended to vote Democratic. She was elected with 72 percent of the vote, and this year with 79 percent.
"This election was like a big tornado going through Nassau County," she said, adding that now was the time for bipartisan action to correct the problems the Democrats have inherited.