"It's been an incredible year, overall," said Nassau County Legislator Craig Johnson, who was elected to represent the 11th Legislative District in May of 2000. A special election was held at that time, to fill the position held by his mother, Legislator Barbara Johnson, until her untimely death. We caught up with the Legislator recently, who shared his reflections of his accomplishments and progress made to improve the county's financial state.
Mr. Johnson, a tall, slim man with a winning smile, is passionate about many issues affecting the lives of those in his district, which includes Port Washington, Roslyn, Manhasset, Greenvale, and portions of Old Westbury and Westbury, as well as county residents. He sees his role as "improving people's lives, and finding ways to do that." Helping the most vulnerable in our society -- children, senior citizens, and minorities -- is of great interest to the legislator. As a result, many of his efforts over the last year have focused on these groups -- and he has been successful. Witnessing a child falling off a scooter one day, he proposed legislation requiring children under 14 to wear helmets when using foot-operated scooters. The legislation, which is up for a full vote on Monday, March 19, "should pass easily," Johnson said. "It has bipartisan support." He spoke too, of passing a partial property tax exemption for seniors on limited incomes and the disabled, and a similar plan for Gold Star families.
Moreover, he described an anti-bullying, pro-tolerance in-school program he began at the suggestion of a resident of the district. In-person, he has taught third and fourth graders of PW's Guggenheim Elementary School and the Munsey Park School in Manhasset; other talks are being scheduled throughout the area. "It is so important to teach chidren that we live in a diverse community, and that differences are OK," he said. "The letters I have received from children as a result of this program are amazing and so gratifying," he added.
Johnson is also proud that he secured $250,000 for the PW Business Improvement District to enhance the Main Street area. As chairman of the Towns, Villages, and Cities Committee, he has helped to have some funds returned to the villages as part of revenue sharing. In this case, it is a percentage of sales tax revenue that is returned to the local villages, and while it is small, "it is a start," he said, "a foot in the door." He noted proudly his part in the passage of human rights legislation that expanded protected groups to include gays and lesbians.
Environmental issues are of major concern to the legislator. He related that he was the second sponsor on a pesticide notification law. After studying Nassau County's dwindling open spaces, he created an open space and park advisory committee, to protect and preserve these areas. "The legislation is in the drafting phase, but should be in committee shortly," he explained. "It calls for evaluating open space, and preserving and protecting what we've got left."
But the legislator is also a highly pragmatic man, so much of his efforts have been directed to changes to put Nassau County on the road to fiscal health. He credits the Democratic majority with making the reforms needed to begin to restore the county's financial health and stability. Johnson is critical of the year-to-year budgeting that was done in the past. "You can't run a business that way...for the first time, we have put together a four-year plan, including a 'rainy day fund,' for emergencies." Looking to make "compassionate and responsible cuts" and to make "government more efficient," he has, with his Democratic colleagues, eliminated unjustifiable benefits, like meal expenditures and cars for government officials. These resulted in an annual saving of $2 million. They have called for the elimination of 60 patronage positions, which will happen through retirements, severance packages, and similar actions. Johnson chairs a multi-government task force that strives to eliminate duplication and save dollars. Previously, "it was essentially a one-party system" that ran the county "with a credit card...and didn't want to pay its bills," he said. "We've instituted policies, reform, and laws to build the county responsibly. The work is far from finished, though. "It's delusional for the county executive to talk of a surplus," Johnson said.
And how does he like the job? Johnson clearly relishes being a legislator. He's always had a strong interest in government and politics. And he has great praise for his colleagues on both sides of the aisle but the Democrats in particular. "My colleagues are good people...they have the best interests of the people of Nassau County at heart," he said, adding "I have a great working relationship with Mike Balboni." And of Tom DiNapoli, he comments, "He is a mentor to me...I have the utmost respect for him, as a legislator but also as a person." Johnson, who just left a NYC law firm, will be joining one in Garden City, and will continue to juggle practicing law with being a county legislator. How does he manage? "I have a very patient and understanding wife," he said with obvious deep feeling. "She's my best friend, and a wonderful woman." Johnson and his wife Liz, also an attorney, have just moved into a home in PW, the town in which he grew up. It's clear he has never stopped being a major fan of Port. "It is a terrific community," he said, smiling. And he is looking forward to running again, come November.