A leader ponders her political future
Former Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning, who ran in a Democratic primary to challenge Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, discussed possible future options recently at Rooster’s Café in Bellport.

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A leader ponders her political future

Story By: LINDA LEUZZI
1/17/2019


 

People continue to stop Kate Browning when they see her.

“I know you,” said Linda Nowicki, as Kate Browning was starting to exit Rooster’s Café in Bellport Village on a recent Saturday. Browning introduced herself, and the name clicked. “Thank you for your service. If you run again, you have our support,” said Nowicki, who was with her husband Paul. They hail from East Patchogue.

“That’s the hard part,” Browning said of several choices she’s mulling: whether to run again against Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (she came in second in last year’s primary to Perry Gershon, and was still on November’s ballot), enter the Legislature again after she was term-limited in 2016, or even run for a Brookhaven Town position. 

Brookhaven Town highway superintendent has been dangled as a possibility by Suffolk County Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer.

“Kate Browning is qualified for any local, state or federal position that she could possibly run for,” Schaffer said. “I believe she is very qualified because of her life experiences, her creative bipartisan approach to governing and her past record of accomplishment. She’s looking at a congressional run, something potentially in the town, maybe highway superintendent, and possibly a run again in the county Legislature, but she would have to make that decision, because there would be a Republican challenge about the term limits. They don’t want her to run again.”

“I have nothing to be ashamed of and enjoyed public service,” Browning said. “I’ve always worked across the party lines. Even when Ed Romaine was a legislator, I worked with him on projects. I can’t say that about other ones.” 

Browning admits she misses the public service part, helping people when they called or met with her, whether it was a pothole, stop sign, or other quality-of-life issues, including drugs. 

Those efforts dovetailed with her problem-solving solutions as county legislator that included creating a Sober Home Oversight Board in 2011, charged with addressing the lack of standards in sober homes. In 2012, Browning led the condemnation of 4 Sunburst Lane in Bellport with Brookhaven Town because of the absence of state regulation for subsidized housing. She also pushed the county to approve initial funding for the ShotSpotter crime tool into North Bellport in 2011 that has continued and, in 2017, introduced a bill that would withhold funds from two sober home operations in Suffolk County due to complaints against them and a lack of regulation. 

What Browning considers her biggest accomplishment during her 12-year county legislative stint, the Forge River Watershed Sewer Project, is coming up for referendum on Jan. 22. It is one of three sewer referendums scheduled in Suffolk County. 

“For 10 years I worked on the sewer district,” she said of her time as legislator of the Third District. “I was told at the beginning it was political suicide and I didn’t care. It was the right thing to do. What’s more important is the water-quality issue because those people who use cesspools, they’re impacting the Forge River.”

Browning admitted the project was a learning curve. “Not just for me, but for the county workers,” she said. “The last big one they worked on was the Southwest Sewer District.”

One of its big goals, she said, was to ensure that the building of the sewer district and the hookups was affordable.  “It couldn’t go to a referendum before that,” she said.

The annual cost to the homeowner of a single-family property is estimated at $470 a year ($356 for annual operating and maintenance, $114 to pay for the loan for the system-design engineering costs); there’s no residential connection fee, according to the Forge River Watershed Sewer Project website. Commercial property owners would pay according to size and water use of their business and can start at approximately $20,000.

Public information sessions were held on Jan. 8 at the Mastic Fire Department. 

“Many residents are pumping out their cesspools a couple of times a year, so economically, it’s a great project,” Browning said.

“We talked about the potential run for Congress,” said Browning, referring to a recent meeting with Schaffer. “There are a couple others who have an interest, but I don’t have that ego that says, ‘I should be the only one to do it.’ It should be the best candidate. I think it’s important this time around to support one candidate; there shouldn’t be a primary.” 

Former Suffolk County chief deputy executive Jim Morgo, who has held several government positions, felt Browning would have been the stronger candidate. Suffolk County Board of Elections’ final count with absentee ballots showed Zeldin winning with 139,027 votes; Perry Gershon received 127,991 votes and Browning, 2,988. 

“She was outspent in the primary, and because Gershon was able to use so much of his own money, he reached Democrats who had never heard of anyone else in the county,” Morgo said. “She was the best local candidate and had a base because she was elected in the district six times and had more roots than the nominee.”

Gershon lives in East Hampton and Manhattan; Browning resides in Shirley.

“She won the district over her 12 years because people knew her, liked and respected her,” he said. “No one would deny she’s a hard worker. And the fact that she went against both county executives when she disagreed with their policies speaks to her independence.”

Brookhaven Republican chairman Jesse Garcia voiced a different view. 

“In the 12 years she was legislator, the communities she represented all suffered,” he said.  “The quality of life suffered, the county debt exploded, the facts are there. We had more welfare dumping when she was in the majority. Her top aide [Josh Slaughter] ran on her record against Rudy [Sunderman] and lost.” 

Garcia pointed out that her legislative district is 33 percent Democratic, with areas like Bellport and Brookhaven hamlet primarily Democrats, and 31 percent Republican, with the tri-hamlet area mostly Republican. “If you ask anyone who lived in her community, they’ve seen the quality of life decline.”

Browning’s job as legislator was full-time, that is, what was in front of her. She did not have an attorney or consulting position.

“I don’t think she’s finished with elected politics,” Morgo said. “She’s still relatively young. I visited her two sisters, who live in Belfast in the Catholic section, and was impressed with the family’s background and with their toughness going through The Troubles.” The Troubles was a violent, three-decade period in Northern Ireland, pitting those who wanted to leave the United Kingdom’s rule and become part of the Republic of Ireland, and those who wanted to remain. Over 3,500 died in the conflict.

After leaving Belfast, she moved to Germany, where she met her husband Steve, who was serving in the military. They married, then eventually relocated to Shirley. Steve worked for the NYPD (he is a decorated New York City police detective and retired from the Army National Guard in 2006) and Browning got a job as a school bus driver for the William Floyd School District so she could be with her three children when they were home. She served as a representative for the local transportation labor union.

“We didn’t have money for child care,” she said. Browning also sought and received a bachelor’s degree in labor studies from National Labor College while working.

Browning began mid-October 2018 as the $62,000-a-year director of code enforcement in Babylon. 

Shots have been taken at her current position as being opportunist. 

“The former director was leaving and Rich [Schaffer] knew there were quality-of-life issues that needed to be addressed,” she said. It’s a Babylon Town subcontracted position, with a staff of seven. “I’m not making top dollar (she makes $30 an hour); there are no benefits, no vacation money, no sick days. I get paid when I come in. I am loving it. When I first got there, I started seeing issues with these illegal massage parlors.” 

As for her future options, which were discussed with her family, “my husband and three children support whatever I do,” she said.

Schaffer added a candid comment. “Selfishly, I feel her best place is running our code enforcement division,” he said. “She’s doing a bang-up job clearing cases and creating a very responsive and efficient operation. But how she stands up for what she feels is right in particular to two county executives. That’s why she’s in high demand, because of the way she carries herself and how responsive she is.”

Browning said she does enjoy the job. “It’s something as not being in an elected office but public service as a whole,” she said. 

But still, running for an elected position is still a possibility. 

“I am considering jumping back, but haven’t made my decision,” she said.