How Bruce Blakeman Used a Mask Rebellion to Revive His Career

Since a surprise win on Long Island, Bruce Blakeman has been on a seemingly single-minded mission to challenge and defy Gov. Kathy Hochul over mask mandates.

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Bruce Blakeman, who has emerged as the leader of suburban Long Island’s revolt against mask mandates, has lost his fair share of elections.

In 1998, Mr. Blakeman — a lifelong Republican — was trounced in a statewide election for comptroller. A year later, he was stunned to be voted out of the Nassau County Legislature, losing his perch as its presiding officer and majority leader. After toying with a run for New York City mayor in 2009, he then lost a congressional race to Representative Kathleen Rice of Long Island in 2014.

But Mr. Blakeman’s surprising November win in the race for Nassau County executive — upsetting Laura Curran, a moderate, first-term Democrat — has led, after so many races, to his informal anointment as the state party’s unlikeliest new star.

Helping to fuel his rise has been Mr. Blakeman’s seemingly single-minded political mission to challenge and defy Gov. Kathy Hochul, the state’s top Democrat, over her mask mandates, as well as rising crime rates and bail reform, which have proved potent issues for Republicans.

“Bruce Blakeman is on the scene; he’s a major Republican leader in this state,” said Nick Langworthy, New York’s Republican Party chairman. “Everybody counted him out, but now Bruce has a great platform. And what I admire about him is he really wants to use it.”

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Johnny Milano for The New York Times

On Wednesday, Ms. Hochul announced that she would end some rules on indoor masking. Infection rates and hospitalizations have rapidly declined as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has waned. She added that counties and individual businesses could still require masks, framing that decision as empowering for local leaders.

Extending that sort of restriction seems unlikely in Nassau, at least as far as the county government is concerned. Shortly after being inaugurated in early January, Mr. Blakeman made headlines by issuing a flurry of executive orders directing county agencies to stop enforcing mask mandates, and proclaiming that local school districts had to vote on whether or not to grant children what he called “the constitutional right” to cast off masks in the classroom.

Whether those orders are legal or not — and Ms. Hochul says they clearly weren’t, considering that state orders outweigh local dictums — the defiant stance resulted in Mr. Blakeman’s ascension to the role of sought-after rabble-rouser, complete with repeated appearances on Fox News and a hero’s welcome in Republican circles in Albany.

All of which, Mr. Blakeman insists, stems from a genuine concern for parental rights, not political gain.

“I think good government is good politics,” Mr. Blakeman said in a recent interview in the State Capitol. “And part of good government is listening to your constituents.”

Mr. Blakeman’s opponents counter that such platitudes are a mere disguise for an ambitious and oft-thwarted politician who has found his moment amid the polarization of the Trump era.

“He’s following the tried-and-true Republican playbook,” said Jay Jacobs, who serves as both the Nassau County Democratic Party chair, as well as state chairman for the party. “You either scare the voters or make them angry.”

Mr. Blakeman’s sudden celebrity has already paid dividends in one way: Less than a week after he announced his executive orders, his party selected Nassau County as the host for its 2022 convention later this month, noting the “historic Republican resurgence” in the county.

Mr. Blakeman’s victory was part of a wave of Republican wins in Nassau, including by Anne Donnelly in the race for Nassau County district attorney, the first time that a Republican has held that position since 2005.

White-maned, blue-eyed and fond of snazzy three-piece suits, Mr. Blakeman, 66, exudes a kind of old-school New York political swagger, complete with providing Page Six fodder, in part because his ex-wife, Nancy Shevell, is married to Paul McCartney.

Politics is a bit of a Blakeman family business: Mr. Blakeman’s father, Robert, was a state assemblyman, and his younger brother, Bradley, was on President George W. Bush’s White House staff. One of five siblings who grew up in Valley Stream, on the Queens border, Mr. Blakeman recalls using Halloween as a campaign outing for his father.

“I’d go out with an empty bag and a full bag of literature,” Mr. Blakeman said. “I came back home with a full bag of candy and an empty bag of literature.”

After college and law school stints in Arizona and California — working for Republican campaigns and as a driver and aide to the former first lady Nancy Reagan — Mr. Blakeman returned to Long Island to serve as a partner in his father’s firm before being appointed Hempstead town councilman in 1993. He won a full term on the council later that same year, before being elected to the County Legislature in 1995.

Vic DeLucia/The New York Times

Last winter, he had come full circle, once again serving as a member of the Hempstead Town council, when the Nassau County Republican chairman, Joseph G. Cairo Jr., approached him about taking on Ms. Curran.

He was ambivalent, he said, because he was in “a very comfortable place in my life” and “wasn’t sure I wanted to go into that kind of a battle.”

But, Mr. Blakeman said, he saw an opening as he looked at polling, saying that while Ms. Curran was popular, “she was upside-down on every important issue,” including bail reform. A 2019 law passed by Democrats in Albany had effectively abolished bail for many nonviolent felonies and most misdemeanors.

To that end, Mr. Blakeman ran a law-and-order and anti-tax campaign. He seemingly galvanized concerned suburbanites and die-hard Trump conservatives into a winning coalition, despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans by about 25,000 in the county, with a tranche of some 200,000 independent voters.

The margin was thin, with Mr. Blakeman beating Ms. Curran by less than 1 percent, or about 2,100 votes.

Mr. Cairo said that Mr. Blakeman’s opponents “tried to portray him as being a loser, and that he’s only doing this because he’s Cairo’s friend.”

Mr. Blakeman proved to a dogged campaigner, however, impressing even some Democrats.

“I would see him along the way and he’d say, ‘Tom, we’re going to win this.’ And I would say, ‘Really?’” said Thomas DiNapoli, the state’s comptroller, a Democrat, and a figure in Nassau County politics for more than three decades. “But he believed in himself.”

Mr. Blakeman also won, said Lawrence Levy, the dean of suburban studies at Hofstra University, because he “leveraged concerns over bail reform and property tax assessments in ways that appealed both to his base and the sort of moderate independent who abandoned Trump in 2020.”

That combination, however, will prove to be difficult to maintain, Mr. Levy said.

“He is trying to thread a political and ideological needle,” he said. “He is getting a lot of attention for taking very conservative populist positions with Trump-style rhetoric, ostensibly to deliver on promises he made to his base. But he’s also trying not to entirely alienate the sort of suburban swing voter that decides national and local elections.”

Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Still, Mr. Blakeman’s victory gave particular hope to Republicans on Long Island, where liberals had celebrated in 2018, after an anti-Trump sentiment led to four State Senate seats flipping to Democrats on the island. The party then took control of the chamber for the first time in nearly a decade.

And while new redistricting maps may dash any Republican dreams of seizing the State Senate — the Democrats hold a 23-seat advantage in a 63-seat chamber — Robert Ortt, the Republican minority leader, said Mr. Blakeman showed the potential potency of “bail reform and crime and public safety” in elections all across the state.

“It’s a template from the standpoint that it’s a huge issue,” Mr. Ortt said, adding that “public safety is an issue we all campaign on.”

Even before taking office, Mr. Blakeman was invited to Albany in mid-December to headline an anti-bail-reform rally in the State Capitol and once again took an opportunity to criticize Ms. Hochul as someone “who likes to lecture me on the law.”

“When you look at this bail reform law it is nothing more than a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said, citing examples of gun charges in his county related to defendants released without bail. “It’s madness, it’s crazy and enough is enough.”

In a county in which President Biden won, of course, Mr. Blakeman may well have to walk a fine line between appealing to moderates and the Republican base. Asked about President Donald J. Trump, he said he was “a very effective president,” but added: “Our personalities and delivery style are very different.”

His ascension in Republican ranks has fostered some chatter that perhaps Mr. Blakeman — who lives in the well-to-do enclave of Atlantic Beach with his wife, Segal Blakeman, a lawyer — might want to challenge Ms. Hochul at some point.

But Mr. Blakeman denies this, saying he supports this year’s front-runner for the Republican nomination, Representative Lee Zeldin, and is happy staying put in Nassau.

“I have zero plans,” he said. “This is a great job, I love it. And I get to stay home.”

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