Levy looks ahead to life after office

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Rick Brand Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on

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

Move over, Empire Center for New York State Policy. Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy wants to create a Long Island-based think tank on taxes when he leaves office in January.

"I've always felt that Long Island taxpayers needed their own full-time advocacy group to protect their interests," said Levy, noting the Island's population of more than 3 million -- larger than that of 19 states.

"Once a policy wonk, always a policy wonk," said Levy. "I don't know if I can make it into a living, but if I could work it out, it would be wonderful."

Levy is giving his first hints about his future, and he has started talking with friends and former aides about his prospects. Speculation also has arisen that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has squashed a Levy bid for a job at Stony Brook University or that Levy might leave office as early as Aug. 8, the date after which no special election would be held.

Levy, who turns 52 next month, said he has no intention of exiting early, saying "there's so much work to be done" on a 2012 budget amid continuing fiscal woes. An early departure would also cost him dearly -- more than $73,000 of his $191,297 annual salary as well as nearly five months' pension credit. He also said that he's had no discussions with college officials other than "off-the-cuff" talk at cocktail parties. He is "not looking to rush into anything" and may use a headhunter later to "sort out options."

Levy will leave only a year after he vaulted into statewide politics, switching parties to seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination. He then shocked the political world on March 24, disclosing that he would not seek re-election and was handing over his $4.1 million campaign fund to prosecutors to resolve part of an ongoing DA fundraising probe.

The settlement, the basis of which was never disclosed, cast a cloud over Levy's aspirations, critics say. "He owes it to Suffolk voters to come clean and explain why he didn't run and gave up his money," said Suffolk Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, a Republican once mentioned as a potential Levy rival. "If he fails to do that, there will be a question mark over his whole county executive tenure and his future."

But Kevin Law, Levy's former top aide and now head of the Long Island Association, said Levy -- never charged with a crime -- will recover. "Long Islanders are a forgiving people . . . and time heals all wounds," Law said.

An attorney, Levy concedes that he has only "dabbled in some light general practice" during his 26-year public career. If a think tank does not pan out, he said he would consider working for business or a law firm as a troubleshooter. Levy said he wants no appointive government post or lobbyist's job. "I don't have to kneel down to a bunch of hacks or sell my soul to make a living," he said.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, sees Levy's think-tank plan as a way to promote himself to run again. However, Schaffer said it is his party switch that will haunt him.

"He'll have a problem with any of the major parties -- particularly the rank and file," Schaffer said. "They know he doesn't play well with others and . . . will question what he truly believes because of the switch."

Levy could run for his old county legislative seat in 2013 when Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) will be term-limited. Or he could take on Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills). Levy does not rule out running but is no more specific.

John Jay Lavalle, Suffolk GOP chairman, said Levy's reputation as "a tax fighter remains intact" and his poll numbers, while "no longer in the stratosphere are still stronger than most -- if not all -- other elected officials." Yet LaValle said he has not asked for Levy's help in this year's county executive race and was noncommittal on a future Levy run.

Levy backer Richard Johannesen, executive vice chairman of the Suffolk Conservatives, said doubters will come around.

"I've seen so many people who have burned bridges, but if they are the candidate most likely to win, Democrats would take him back in a minute and LaValle would be happy to run him," he said.

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