Bellone's early fundraising raises bar

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Town of Babylon supervisor Steve Bellone. (Oct. 26, Town of Babylon supervisor Steve Bellone. (Oct. 26, 2010) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

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Call Steve Bellone the Democrats' $1-million man.

On Tuesday, the four-term Babylon supervisor, who's expected to challenge Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, will file a campaign report with the state board of elections showing that much in his war chest - more than double the $410,000 he had last July.

Levy, who is far better known, still has a wide fundraising edge - his report will show $4.2 million. But no other county executive challenger in Nassau or Suffolk - including Levy himself - has ever amassed as much, so early.

When Levy first ran in 2003, he had only about $70,000 in January before his election, most of it loans from his mother and aunt. Nassau's Republican County Executive Edward Mangano did not even file his first fundraising report until almost five months before his 2009 election. It showed only $78,000. Even former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a fundraising powerhouse, had just $692,135, 11 months before his first win in 2001.

"Steve Levy is going to be tested in a way he's never been tested before," said Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, one of several GOP officials weighing a primary against newly minted Republican Levy.

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Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer has lined up the bulk of the party behind Bellone, who is not likely to formally announce until April. Since the new year, Schaffer has organized seven Bellone events and Rep. Tim Bishop a week ago e-mailed his list of 5,000 donors on Bellone's behalf. Late last week, the developers of Tanger Arches hosted a $500-a-head event for Bellone.

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However, Mark Smith, Levy's spokesman, said, "While other governments are near fiscal collapse, Steve Levy's conservative fiscal leadership has kept Suffolk County strong and our taxes stabilized, and that is what this election will be all about."

John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chairman, called Bellone "a nice guy," but labeled him a triple A minor leaguer, unknown beyond town borders and untested by a tough race. He also noted Bellone's wife, Tracey, is the county executive's $105,820-a-year deputy parks commissioner and must "obviously believe in Steve Levy."

The GOP leader said Democrats' quest for quick cash will backfire. "They are draining all their resources," said LaValle. "The day after the election, Democrats will have zero dollars, lost the race and lose a lot of others as well." LaValle said the fundraising will "put a spotlight" on whether Democrats are engaged in "pay to play" with town vendors.

However, Democrats see Bellone, 41, as a highly credible nine-year incumbent, who doesn't have to risk his job to run. They expect Schaffer to use the same playbook he used to defeat late GOP District Attorney James M. Catterson Jr. in 2000 when he tarred Catterson as a bully.

Critics say Levy's hard-line stances on immigration, police staffing and public unions will allow Schaffer to knit together a coalition of Levy foes. "Levy has no right to get a pass, after everything he's done to everybody," said Schaffer. Critics add the county executive faces a backlash over his party switch, potential primaries, a legislative ethics probe, and potential trial testimony from convicted mortgage scammer Ethan Ellner, whom Levy recommended for title work.

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However, Michael Dawidziak, veteran Levy campaign adviser, said Levy is "unassailable," with strong backing among independent voters, who largely disregard as "inside baseball" the sniping of Levy's political enemies. "For 25 years Steve Levy has been singing the same song - 'You can't spend money you don't have,' " he said. "Once he was an outsider, almost a gadfly, but right now that song is very popular. It's what voters want to hear."

And though it may be wishful thinking, Edward Walsh, Suffolk Conservative chairman, who has endorsed both men in the past, is not convinced Bellone will follow through. "I think he'll hold some events to raise money, but if it looks like Levy will wipe him out, he'll stay put."

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