By Karl Grossman
A giant in Suffolk County politics and government is leaving office this week.
Gregory Blass, extraordinarily independent and courageous as the presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, compassionate as the county’s social services commissioner and a Family Court judge, is retiring from government.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr, of Sag Harbor, who served with Mr. Blass on the Suffolk Legislature, describes him as having been “transformative to Suffolk County politics and government. He led the way for a lot of us.” When Mr. Blass got involved in politics here in 1979, “Suffolk government was dominated by party leaders and party politics. Greg changed that forever. He changed the dynamics of politics in Suffolk away from the party leaders to elected officials. And his leadership in issues such as open space and Shoreham helped set the agenda.”
Mr. Blass came to Suffolk in 1978, settling in Jamesport, after serving as an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the Navy.
“My father’s mother was raised on a farm in Riverhead and I always wanted to get to the East End,” he recounted last week.
Raised in Freeport, he was a Republican with two “wonderful guideposts” of that party, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. He was awed by Lincoln’s humanism, and Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation “and the way he used the offices of president and governor — he was a great progressive.”
Mr. Blass began practicing law in Riverhead but got drawn into politics as a result of the Long Island Lighting Company’s plan to build four nuclear power plants in Jamesport. He organized a referendum in Riverhead linked to the Jamesport project — with voters strongly voicing opposition to it — and in a Republican primary challenged the party leader’s choice in 1979 of a candidate for the Suffolk Legislature in a district that included both the North and South Forks and Shelter Island.
He won the GOP primary — an uphill proposition — and then the election. And as a Suffolk legislator, continued in David-and-Goliath situations. The highly independent, reform-minded Mr. Blass was integral to a revitalization of the Suffolk Farmland Preservation Program, championed open space acquisition and reform in department after department in county government, battled to open radiation-polluting Brookhaven National Laboratory to scrutiny, fought for changes in health and social services, and was central in the battle against LILCO’s Shoreham nuclear plant. In addition to the four nuclear plants LILCO wanted at Jamesport, it planned for three at Shoreham with, in the 1980s, the first Shoreham unit all but completed — and hardly anyone thinking it could be stopped considering the powers arrayed behind it.
But, as Mr. Blass declared upon being elected the legislature’s presiding officer — with bipartisan backing — in 1986: “We stand strongly united against a concerted effort by LILCO, the nuclear power industry and elements of the federal bureaucracy to force this boondoggle down the throats of the people of this county.”
And, with Mr. Blass a leader, Shoreham was stopped.
However, the pro-nuclear interests moved to stop Mr. Blass. Knowing they couldn’t defeat him in a general election, they had a nuclear advocate run in a GOP primary against him in 1989 and organized having Shoreham construction workers pour out to cut Mr. Blass off at the political pass. The ploy worked, and Mr. Blass was off the legislature — before he was voted back on to it four years later in a Rocky-like rematch.
In elected office, Mr. Blass says he saw “the magic of the political process, that when used the right way you can cause a sea change to a community, even to a country.”
He would move to Family Court where it was “so challenging and rewarding on a case-by-case basis taking so many tragic life situations and turning them around to the better.”
He became social services commissioner continuing his activist ways. He has at times, he noted, “put on old clothes and sunglasses, pulled a hat down over my head” and visited county social services centers to investigate first-hand how people are handled — and making sure insensitive, bureaucratic behavior is changed.
At 63, he plans to travel with his wife, Barbara, whom he met through Suffolk politics, and write a book on politics and government. He wants people to know how there will be “endless rejections. But don’t get discouraged. It’s daunting. But you can succeed.”