The name Dominic Baranello no longer rings a bell among many in Southampton, or anywhere for that matter, but he once ruled the Democratic Party of Suffolk County as the last of the old-time political bosses. He rose to become chairman of the Democratic Party in New York State, making him one of the most powerful politicians in the country. Close to the unions, he backed the gigantic Southwest Sewer District that was going to pour tons of waste into Great South Bay, once a source of seafood. Jobs came before the environment for Baranello because jobs would enhance his power.
Diminutive with a bulbous nose, he was an orator of the old school, using soaring but sometimes incongruous rhetoric to make his points. He was what one might call an Al Smith Democrat, an ethnic organization politician who was concerned only with bread-and-butter issues. He once said that politics was a “business,” and he meant it. He was not in politics because of any lofty ideals.
I knew Baranello because I had been a Democratic candidate for the County Legislature as well as a member of the Southampton Democratic Committee. Writing a column for another local newspaper, I championed the preservation of the farms while opposing the sewer district.
I researched the sewer project throughout 1975 and 1976 and discovered that the figures being handed out by the county legislator from the First District at the time, Joyce Burland, were highly inaccurate. The project was going to be far more expensive than she was asserting. It was also a huge patronage trough, with firms hired to do the construction that had no previous experience building sewers. Some of them had alleged Mafia connections. And Wall Street had its hands in that trough, with the Smith Barney firm floating the bonds. Only Brecht could have done it justice.
Week after week I did my best to expose the hoax the project was. The people who lived in the district were going to see their property taxes soar. Great South Bay was threatened. I attacked Burland mercilessly as well as the pro-sewer environmental commissioner, Ed Flynn. Things got really sordid when Flynn’s mistress murdered him in a fit of rage. But before that happened, he somehow learned I was going to be a visiting lecturer at Duke University’s School of Environmental Studies and wrote to the dean denouncing me. When the dean told me what was in the letter, he said I should keep a copy as a reference. We had a big laugh over that.
The more I attacked Burland, the more the local Democrats hated me. She was the daughter of Clark Clifford, Lyndon Johnson’s last secretary of defense. She was Democratic Party royalty. She was tall, blond, and aristocratic. A Vassar graduate, she didn’t let you forget it. The leader of the East Hampton Democrats kept phoning me, taping our conversations, which Democratic committee members listened to. Asked to attend a meeting with several East Hampton Democratic friends of mine, I found myself being grilled as if it were a Stalinist interrogation.
Undeterred, I continued to write, not just in the local papers but also in The New York Times and Newsday, denouncing five Democrats in the County Legislature for opposing the farmland preservation project. One of them was married to a LILCO executive when the power company was fighting the legislation because it would cost the company business by stopping the building of more houses. I had drafted it with the assistance of Russell Stein, the lawyer for the Group for America’s South Fork, the environmental organization I had founded with an investment banker, Harold Witt. The legislation provided for the county to buy the development rights to farms whose owners would voluntarly sell those rights.
I gave speeches all over the county and helped to organize a sizable rally on the Wainscott property of the artist David Porter. I was a member of a group that called itself the Emergency Committee to Save Suffolk County. The developers wanted the farms and if they got all of them, our beloved East End would be no more. But in spite of this, we were getting nowhere.
I also kept up my attack on the sewers and published an article in Empire State Report that contained not only a report on the loss of farmland, but also a more severe assault on the sewers than any I had written to that point. To my surprise, the article got a lot of attention among the powerful in the county, one of them being Dominic Baranello.
Then one day I got a surprise phone call from Baranello, inviting me to meet with him at his office at party headquarters in Hauppauge. He said there was something he wanted to discuss with me, but said no more. At the appointed time, I walked into his office to find him with his feet up on his desk as he chatted on the phone while smoking a cigar. On the line was Meade Esposito, the powerful Democratic boss of Brooklyn. Baranello was delighted to inform me of this because I had written often on what I concluded was the close relationship between the two.
“You would walk in while I was on the phone with Meade,” he joked as he gestured for me to sit down.
He cut to the chase. The five Democrats in the Legislature whom I had called “the gang of five,” who were opposing the farmland preservation, were recalcitrant. “But if you stop writing about the sewers, I will get you the votes for the farms.”
I jumped out of the chair and extended my hand. “Deal,” I said.
“Deal,” he shot back, a big grin on his face.
Not long after our meeting, I read in Newsday that the County Legislature had passed the farmland preservation bill, with all five Democrats supporting it.
Baranello was a man of his word, the secret of political power. He did not often give his word, but when he did, he kept it. He didn’t double-deal. He was tough and ruthless and we had had many a shouting match. But, in the end, he came through. And if we haven’t saved as many acres as I had hoped, there are still working farms on the East End, saved by that legislation that never would have passed without him.
Baranello died in a nursing home, a forgotten man, in 2006. “Power,” as Spiro Agnew once said, “is an illusion.” That may be true, but in this one instance, the power of one old-time boss saved at least some of the farms. I remember him fondly for that.
Richard Cummings is the author of a forthcoming novel, “Prayers of an Ibo Rabbi.” He lives in Sag Harbor.