Dillon oversaw a generation's worth of Nassau casesBy THOMAS MAIER}
August 16, 2010
Denis Dillon began one of the longest public careers ever seen on Long Island as a young Democratic insurgent, elected as Nassau County district attorney in 1974 by beating a longtime Republican incumbent. By the standard political calculus, it seemed only a matter of time until Dillon sought even higher office.
When he burst onto the Long Island scene, the Nassau Republican Party, then touted as one of the nation's most powerful political organizations, routinely won almost all countywide offices. But in 1974, Watergate cast a pall on the GOP, helping Dillon, a former New York City police officer and former federal prosecutor running for the first time, to overcome the odds.
Dillon's bright political future was touted by many in the press and in the Democratic Party, who likened his prosecutorial style and personal appearance to that of Bobby Kennedy, the slain former New York senator who once had been his Justice Department boss.
But over time, Dillon didn't follow the expected path of a career politician. Increasingly, Dillon, a devout Catholic, spoke out on issues that made others uncomfortable, such as his opposition to the death penalty. He was motivated more by his personal principles, friends say, than by political dictates. "He'd say, 'I'd rather lose an election over a matter of conscience than lose my soul,' " said Ed Grilli, his longtime top spokesman.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dillon went to Northern Ireland to criticize the use of plastic bullets and other alleged abuses by British police against the Catholic minority, said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who accompanied him. "Once he decided something was right, he was undeterred," King said.
But his political career was ultimately defined by his opposition to abortion. Dillon fervently agreed with his church's teachings that abortion was murder and he regularly marched with anti-abortion protesters. "His personal belief and religion always trumped any political ambition he may have had - or that others had for him," said State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).
Rebuffing his party's call to run for county executive, he surprised both parties in 1986 by running as the Right to Life candidate for governor. He lost, but wanted only to get the Right to Life Party enough votes to stay on the statewide ballot and remain a political force.
Dillon, whose re-election bids were often cross-endorsed, became a Republican in 1989. The move was prompted by the Democrats' abortion-rights stance, but he had also developed a close friendship with Nassau GOP leader Joseph Mondello. "Mondello let him know if he ever left the Democratic Party, then he would have a home in the Republican Party," recalled Grilli.
State Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs remembered talking with him about the switch. "It was a matter of conscience for him, not political opportunism."
Despite being treated for cancer twice, Dillon carried on. But in 2005, he lost to the newest Democratic star in Nassau - former federal prosecutor Kathleen Rice. On election night, he told supporters: "It's time to move on."