Bruce Blakeman signs revive debate over political branding at public properties

Whether driving to the Nassau County Museum of Art, visiting Christopher Morley Park or passing the county jail, it’s hard to miss the large signs announcing them along with the name of Nassau County’s top elected official: Bruce A. Blakeman.

Blakeman’s name is etched on red and blue pencils at the county’s golf courses, on Purple Heart posters honoring veterans, and atop the stage of the Harry Chapin Lakeside Theater at Eisenhower Park. 

Blakeman, a Republican who took office in 2022, is not the first county executive whose name has appeared prominently across Nassau. But his resurrection of the decades-old practice boiled over in late August when a group of musicians declined to play at a Harry Chapin tribute because of a Blakeman sign that dwarfed the one below it bearing the late singer’s name. 

The flap reignited a debate over politicians’ names on public properties: harmless self-promotion, or taxpayer-funded waste?

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman has reinstated a decades-old tradition of county executives putting their names on signs at parks and public properties. His spokesman says Blakeman believes it’s important for residents to know who represents them.
  • It’s a turnaround from 2018, when his predecessor, Laura Curran, covered the names with duct tape and said public spaces belong to residents, not politicians.
  • Political experts say the branding blitz is an easy way for politicians to keep their names in voters’ minds. Some residents say the signs are self-promotional and a waste of money, while others say they’re not bothered by them.

Blakeman declined an interview request.

His spokesman, Chris Boyle, said in a statement: “County Executive Blakeman is the top spokesman and chief marketing officer for Nassau County. He believes it’s important for residents to know who represents them.” 

Bruce Blakeman’s name on a sign at the Eisenhower Driving Range in East Meadow. Credit: Newsday/Scott Eidler

Signing off

The tradition took a four-year pause in 2018 when Blakeman’s predecessor, Democratic County Executive Laura Curran, ordered the county’s parks staff to use duct tape to cover the name of her Republican predecessor, Edward Mangano.

The decision — part of her campaign pitch in 2017 — resonated with voters fed up with county officials battling corruption charges, including Mangano, who began a 12-year prison sentence last year after a jury convicted him of bribery.

“My philosophy was that the parks and other county facilities don’t belong to me; they belong to the residents that pay for them,” said Curran, who now hosts a radio program on WABC/770 AM. “The idea was, ‘Enough with this old way of putting the new politician’s name on everything,’ and kind of show that this belongs to the residents, since they’re the ones that pay for it.”

Soon afterward, new green and white signs sprang up at Nassau parks, with no space for a politician — only the county’s logo and a “Nassau County Welcomes You To … ” greeting for visitors. 

Since her loss to Blakeman, the signs have undergone another makeover. His administration found enough space to add his name and title to the bottom of some and at the top of others.

The county did not respond to questions about the cost of the new signs, or how many had been altered or installed. 

Alan Ascher, a longtime Wantagh resident, said it’s infuriating to see signs touting elected officials.

“You’re supposed to help with improvements to county parks. Let the rest of us send kudos,” said Ascher, 58.

While passing by a sound check for a Led Zeppelin tribute performance this summer at Wantagh Park, he recalled seeing Blakeman’s name in big letters on a small stage.

“What was my big take-away? Not that the music was so good, but that sign …,” Ascher said.

On a recent Wednesday, Blakeman’s name was prominently displayed at the Eisenhower Park golf course. George Lewis, 86, of Levittown, said he wasn’t bothered by it.

Politicians “have to keep their name in the eye of the public, otherwise 90% of the people have no idea who they’re voting for,” he said as he finished his round.

Thomas Rosamilia, 82, of West Hempstead, said elected officials are “allowed a certain leeway with stuff like that.”

“I think it’s important we know who’s doing what, and [a sign] reminds us,” Rosamilia said, finding a Blakeman-etched pencil in his golf cart. “We need reminding sometimes.”

But Robert Nemeroff, 62, of East Meadow, said he doesn’t understand why the tradition needs to continue. 

“We know who maintains the park,” he said. “Why spend money, whether it’s a lot or a little, every time someone new gets elected?”

Bruce Blakeman’s name on a sign at Old Bethpage Village Restoration.  Credit: Newsday/Scott Eidler

Bipartisan blitz

Politicians plastering their names across public properties, using government employees and taxpayer funds to do so, crosses party lines.

Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s name has appeared on signs at county parks for years, as have the names of town supervisors in Suffolk and Nassau.

The name of Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, is on signs at state parks and properties. Her predecessor, Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo, was criticized for renaming the Tappan Zee Bridge for his father, the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo, in 2018.

In 2014, critics of Mangano said he had taken the practice to a new extreme after his name was added to golf pencils and marathon lanyards.

Fred Hamble, 81, of Locust Valley, recalled attending a county-sponsored birthday party at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration and said he still has pens emblazoned with Mangano’s name that were handed out by parks workers.

“I read about what the person does or plans to do, not what the pencil or paper signs say,” Hambel said.

Before Mangano, signs at parks and county properties included the name of County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, and before him, Thomas Gulotta, a Republican.

Curran, who derided taxpayer-funded mailings during her campaign, faced criticism from Republicans when she put her name on them as county executive, including one from the county board of elections that identified early voting sites weeks before the 2021 election. Her office said the mailer was educational and not meant to solicit votes. Other mailers with Curran’s name gave information on hurricane preparedness and blamed schools for causing tax increases. 

The branding blitz isn’t new for Republicans, who mastered it much earlier than Democrats on the national and local levels, said Kenneth Cosgrove, a professor of political science at Suffolk University in Boston who has studied political branding. 

Government officials are practicing a “saturation” approach that major companies like Walmart and Kraft have perfected, he said.

“It’s always in the background,” Cosgrove said of politicians’ names. “It’s an easy, cheap way to get attention. When election time comes, [it says] ‘This is what I did for you.’ ”

After the Chapin flap, Nassau Legis. Joshua Lafazan (D-Woodbury) filed a bill calling for the immediate removal of elected officials’ names from county signs and barring them from putting their names on new ones.

“People are certainly noticing that [Curran’s] policy has been reversed,” he said. “They want to be able to enjoy a show and not have politics shoved down their throats.”

Mary Studdert, a spokeswoman for majority Republican legislators, said the bill won’t get a hearing and criticized Lafazan for putting his name on county newsletters, certificates honoring residents and “giant ceremonial checks.”

One downside of the political promotion? County residents know where to point the finger if there are issues.

Rosamilia, the golfer who approved of the Blakeman signs, ticked off the things he loved in Nassau’s parks: GPS trackers on golf carts and “the greens, shrubbery, the flowers…”

But the benches, he acknowledged, were in “bad need of repair.”