NYT: Planned Switch to G.O.P. Stirs New York Governor Race
ALBANY — A governor’s race that seemed all but settled is about to be upended again, by a popular Democrat from Long Island who is set to announce that he is switching parties. The move is certain to excite Republican leaders pessimistic about their party’s hopes this fall.
Those leaders believe that the official, Steve Levy, a blunt-spoken fiscal hawk and contrarian who collected 96 percent of the vote in his last re-election bid, can tap into the public’s anti-incumbent sentiment and frustration with Albany’s overspending.
Mr. Levy, 50, the Suffolk County executive, said he wanted voters to see him as “Scott Brown II,” referring to the Massachusetts senator who pulled off an upset against a heavily favored Democrat in January. “There really seems to be a void out there that I can fit perfectly,” Mr. Levy said, describing Albany’s political culture as a “cesspool.”
“We’ve got to clean house, tear that place down and build it back in a cleaner, more efficient manner,” he added.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Levy, Rene Babich, said late Wednesday that Mr. Levy would announce in a news conference in Albany on Friday that he was seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
His candidacy could touch off an intraparty battle with former Representative Rick A. Lazio, a Republican who has been running since September but has failed to attract much enthusiasm or financial support.
Mr. Levy’s move put the Lazio campaign on the defensive on Thursday. It hit back against Mr. Levy, attacking his record on fiscal policy — his signature issue — as too liberal for the Republican Party. The campaign also released a list of prominent Republicans supporting it, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Gov. George E. Pataki, who will serve as honorary co-chairmen of the Lazio campaign.
A spokesman for the campaign, Barney Keller, said he felt Mr. Levy’s entrance into the race as a Republican would not damage Mr. Lazio’s chances of becoming the party’s nominee.
“It’s just bizarre that anyone would support him,” Mr. Keller said, pointing out that Mr. Levy supported an income tax increase when he was a member of the State Assembly in 2003. “We remain extremely confident that we’re going to be the nominee of the Conservative Party and the Republican Party, and we remain baffled by the bizarre notion that any Republican would support a left-wing, liberal Democrat like Steve Levy.”
Even if Mr. Levy were to prevail against Mr. Lazio, he would be likely to face a formidable Democratic opponent in Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.
There is no question that Mr. Levy would add unpredictability to the race. He is known not only for his Puritan work ethic and stubborn frugality but also for his occasionally incendiary comments, especially on immigration. His detractors say he has stoked the anger of the largely white middle-class residents of Suffolk County, which is grappling with an influx of immigrants who are straining the social service system.
In 2005, Mr. Levy helped orchestrate a highly publicized raid on a house in Brookhaven, where the authorities rounded up dozens of suspected illegal immigrants. He once described foreign women who give birth after moving to the United States as having “anchor babies,” a term often used derisively by anti-immigrant groups. Asked in a recent interview whether he might have chosen his words more carefully, he was unapologetic. “There’s no need to,” he said. “The public is in agreement with me.”
His tendency to say what he believes is what he thinks voters find appealing about him. “I mean, I came out of nowhere for a lot of people,” he said. “And when they started paying attention to what I was saying, it’s like: ‘Wow. This guy is saying what I’ve been thinking for years.’ ”
Still, Mr. Levy’s staff has prepared a 1,300-word point-by-point rebuttal to critiques of his record on illegal immigration. It also highlights his administration’s appointment of a Hispanic police commander and the county’s distribution of a play about immigration to local schools.
It is clear that Mr. Levy is drawn to running as a Republican for ideological and strategic reasons. He often says that the Democratic Party, with its ties to unions and expansive spending practices, has abandoned more-conservative Democrats like him. And defeating Mr. Lazio would probably be far easier than beating Mr. Cuomo in a primary. (Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, upended the political dynamic last month when he announced that he would not seek election.)
Even so, Mr. Levy would face considerable hurdles in winning the Republican nomination. Technically, his change in party registration would not take effect until after the November election; so to gain a spot on the Republican primary ballot, he would have to receive more than 50 percent of the vote at the state party convention in June.
Many local Republican leaders have pledged their support for Mr. Lazio. But Mr. Levy and his backers, including the party chairman, Edward F. Cox, see an opening. And while Mr. Lazio had just under $640,000 in his campaign account as of January, Mr. Levy had $4.1 million.
Mr. Lazio’s campaign publicly plays down the threat of Mr. Levy’s entry into the race but appears unsettled by the possibility. “It’s laughable, of course, that Steve Levy would find support in the Republican Party,” said a Lazio spokesman, Barney Keller.
In Suffolk County, Mr. Levy has been a figure of fascination and scorn. Though he earns nearly $185,000 as county executive — some $13,000 less than the county allows him to make, he points out — he drives an old Ford Taurus to work most mornings. (His family car, he said, is a decade-old Mercedes.) When he travels on business, he often stays at the Red Roof Inn.
In the county, he has reduced spending throughout the $2.6 billion budget, through steps like doing away with county vehicles, authorizing fewer hires of county employees and leaving unfilled positions vacant. He has fiercely battled public employee unions, and says he will do the same if he goes to Albany.
He requires long hours of his staff. People who drive by the municipal building in Hauppauge say it is not uncommon for the lights in the 12th-floor executive offices to be on at 10 p.m. Even at a wake, Connie R. Corso, Mr. Levy’s deputy for finance, recalled with a chuckle, staff members are not safe from Mr. Levy’s calls. “You’re really 24-7 available to him,” she said.
In an era when retail politics is often replaced with outreach through social media and the Internet, Mr. Levy claims to have knocked on nearly every door in Suffolk County. He was first elected to the Suffolk County Legislature in 1985 at age 26, after running his campaign out of his mother’s house in Holbrook, using savings he had accumulated delivering newspapers as a boy.
And, despite his image as a bomb-thrower, he remains quite sensitive to how he is perceived.
Each morning his staff members hand him a packet of newspaper articles from Suffolk County and beyond. If he reads something he does not like, he calls up the reporters, editors or editorial writers responsible to debate the finer points of their articles.
He can be particular about having his picture taken, telling a visiting newspaper photographer at his office, “Am I being too much of an image-conscious guy if I say, ‘Can you get my front?’ ” He then sheepishly explained that a recent photo of him that appeared in print had made his nose look too big. He is a sturdy 5-foot-6 with a broad chest built up from years of weight lifting.
And, when he dug into his briefcase to find a copy of his “Plan to Save Our State” to give to a reporter, he pulled out two hairbrushes and a makeup compact.
His relentless attention to how he is depicted — or criticized — is a trait that many who have crossed paths with Mr. Levy mention. But they also say it would be a mistake to dismiss his potential in a governor’s race.
“The fact that people have underestimated him I think is what drives him,” said Jim Morgo, a former chief deputy to Mr. Levy and a friend of his. “And he has proven them wrong.”