In a county where politics can be unparalleled, unpredictable and unforgiving, outgoing Legislator Sam Oliverio has remained a constant at the county level for the last 18 years, an impressive feat for a man who in high school aspired to one day become the president of the United States.
Talking with a past classmate recently from his days at Lakeland High School, the classmate reminded Oliverio of the time a former state senator visited their US history and government class and Oliverio asked, “What do you have to do to become president of the United States?”
“I had governmental ambition even then,” Oliverio, with his trademark chuckle, said. “Of course you age and realize president’s pretty tough, but I knew I wanted to be involved in politics at a local level and that’s what I’ve done.”
While never reaching the presidency (hey, only 44 men have been able to) in more than one way, Oliverio is a Putnam politico rarity.
In a county run by Republicans at almost every level, and a Putnam County Legislature that will be completely Republican run on Jan. 1, Oliverio found a way to win election after election remaining the sole Democrat on the board for multiple years. And by surviving each election, the Putnam Valley resident will be noted as the final legislator to ever reach close to two decades of service with term limits now enforced at the county level that cuts all legislators off after 12 years.
As a young man who was recently discharged from the Army, Oliverio returned to Putnam Valley and cut his teeth in Putnam politics by helping his father Samuel Oliverio Sr. (who died in 2001) with his legislative races, assuming the position of his campaign co-chairman. With his son’s help, Samuel Oliverio Sr. was able to win two county elections to earn a seat on the legislature.
Then when Oliverio actually started his own political career, it was as a Republican, until he switched to the Democratic party when there was a debate in Putnam Valley on whether to keep the town’s police force or disband that police department and go with the sheriff ’s department instead. Oliverio and his new friends on the Democratic side wanted there to be a town police force, while Republicans were advocating for the county to take control.
After he was a Putnam Valley town councilman for a few years, Oliverio decided he wanted to run for a county seat, winning on his first try to represent Putnam Valley on the county Legislature. Oliverio recalls his father’s two proudest moments were when he joined the army, and when he won the same legislative seat he held for two terms.
After Oliverio won that District 2 seat, his father’s advice was “Listen to the people because they are the ones that put us in office. They are the ones that had faith that you will represent them with a clear conscience and do the best that you possibly can.”
“And I’ve always tried to do that,” Oliverio said. “That always stayed with me.”
The three tenants Oliverio has always governed by is does it server the greater good, is it the people’s will and does it influence the health and safety of the county’s residents.
“You have to compromise,” Oliverio said of working on the legislature. “That more than anything else was the biggest lesson I learned. Not only learn that you have to compromise, but learn how to compromise. Many, many times, I got the exact thing that I wanted.”
To Democrats running for county seats in the future, Oliverio has two pieces of advice for any candidate running: You must be willing to reach a middle ground with other legislators, Oliverio said, and you must be a moderate on “many, many issues.”
“The Democrats under the Obama administration have been murdered, we have been murdered,” Oliverio said. “Many people look at the Democratic Party as a left-wing, out of control faction and it’s not. We have real moderates in this county who on many issues are very conservative.”
Oliverio, while keeping his seat on the legislature for six terms, knows how tough being a Democrat can be, losing to Republican MaryEllen Odell for the county executive seat this year. But he received 300 more votes than Odell in Putnam Valley, even more impressive considering Democratic nominee Wendy Whetsel lost to Republican Bill Gouldman to replace Oliverio on the legislature.
“No liberal Democrat will ever win in this county,” Oliverio, who describes himself a conservative Democrat, concluded. “I’m certain of that.”
For at least the next year, not a single Democrat will sit on the legislature, which is troubling to Oliverio. But even more striking, Oliverio will be that final legislator that served longer than the term limits now allow, the last to have the institutional knowledge and sense of history any legislator can only attain when serving—and surviving that long.
Oliverio said, “I’m the last of that, I’m the last of that breed.”