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Michael Miller

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By Michael Miller
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1959: The Year The Music Stopped Playing

Nelson Rockefeller’s nomination for Governor in 1958 was partly an upstate revolt against the continued domination of party affairs by the Nassau Republican organization. Rockefeller was a man who always had bigger fish to fry, and throughout his almost 15 years as governor, he often went out of his way not to step on the toes of the touchy Nassau GOP. That’s why Nassau is the only large New York county without a state office building. Respect the turf.

Just before taking office, Rockefeller announced that State Senator William Hults would be Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, but not until the end of the 1959 legislative session, so that Glen Cove, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay and a sliver of Hempstead wouldn’t lose their Senate representation until 1960.

It was a period of rare public turmoil for Nassau Republicans, who could feel the breath down their necks from an invigorated, energized Nassau Democratic organization that was using the latest techniques and technology to appeal to new and younger residents. There even was a public “young turks” revolt out of the Oyster Bay Republicans against the aging party leadership. And now there would be a State Senate special election in 1959, which Democrats were already pledging to win.

Both the Oyster Bay and the North Hempstead Republicans insisted that they were owed the State Senate nomination. To avoid a divisive primary, the nomination was given to someone interesting, qualified, uncontroversial, and who would presumably hold the seat for a short period of time. They picked long-time Member of Assembly Genesta Strong, now almost 74, for the same reasons that she was first nominated in 1944, when she replaced Hults in the Assembly.

Oyster Bay Republicans grumbled but relented. Strong resigned from the Assembly so that North Hempstead could elect a representative for the next session. In November 1959, while Democrats came a whisker from electing a Presiding Supervisor of Hempstead (49 percent), Genesta Strong was elected to the State Senate by a comfortable 11,000 votes. She was sworn in just as the governor was telegraphing his intention to fix the growing school tax crisis, once and for all.

With remaining farms and mansion estates transforming into housing colonies, total assessed valuations across the county doubled in the decade after the Second World War. In any developed, urbanized community, there are limits to how much the property tax base can grow. In Nassau County, the music began fading in the late 1950s. In 1958, Oyster Bay assessed a general town tax for the first time in 16 years. But it was the school districts and their exploding capital costs that were shoved into the center ring.

Several Nassau districts were on austerity budgets for 1959-1960, and construction bonds were defeated in 19 districts. The phrase “tax revolt” became common in newspaper stories about Long Island.

Nelson Rockefeller was born, bred, trained and already proven in the use of power to build and move very big things. A former Assistant Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, he saw the wide disparities in quality between public programs as an issue of long-term national public safety and regional survival.

And he had plans to radically change the school finance system. They were already being studied in secret by legislators and speculated upon by the media. Editorials were popping up declaring the school property tax a dead end and calling for more tax diversity and equity.

Then, near the end of November, Senator Strong suffered a small heart attack.

On Jan. 6, 1960, on the advice of her doctor, she submitted her resignation from the Senate.

That same day, almost that same minute, details of the Rockefeller plans were made public. All hell broke loose.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net