Bruce Blakeman, former presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, declared his candidacy for U.S. Senate Sunday with a challenge that drew excitement from prominent Republicans and was quickly accepted by his likely opponent, Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Blakeman, a lawyer and Valley Stream native who now lives in Manhattan, made his announcement Sunday before a crowd of about 500 at an American Legion hall in his boyhood hometown.
The Republican pledged to work to improve national security, cut government spending and promote "middle class values." Several high-ranking Republicans - including Rep. Peter King, who reaffirmed last week that he would not run for the seat - attended the event.
"I have done the practice lap and I am ready to win," said Blakeman in a reference to his unsuccessful 1998 campaign for state comptroller.
Gillibrand "welcomes the competition" and plans to continue "fighting for Long Island and working with President [Barack] Obama to create jobs in this difficult economy," said spokesman Matt Canter in a statement.
>>VIDEO: Missed the announcement? Click here to watch
Blakeman, who is also a former board member of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a former Hempstead Town Board member, could face Gillibrand in November if chosen in the state Republican convention, which is likely to take place in May. Gillibrand was appointed last January to fill the seat left vacant when Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted the post of secretary of state in the Obama administration. Gillibrand also faces a potential challenge from a Democrat, former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr.
The state Republican Party welcomes Blakeman's campaign but has not ruled out the possibility of other contenders, said state Republican executive director Thomas Basile. Some other possible candidates, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have dropped out.
"Kirsten Gillibrand's record shows she is clearly out of step and out of touch with the needs of New Yorkers," Basile said. "We welcome high quality, experienced candidates like Bruce into this race."
Nassau Republicans including county GOP leader Joseph Mondello voiced support for Blakeman at yesterday's event. King said he believes there is "a unified party behind" Blakeman.
Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato also attended the event and said Blakeman can win even though he may be perceived as an underdog. D'Amato referenced his own victory over Sen. Jacob Javits in the 1980 senatorial primary.
"Bruce Blakeman can do that again," D'Amato told the crowd.
Blakeman addressed reporters briefly after the midday event, saying he believed voters' frustration with Obama's economic policies could help propel him to victory.
"I share the anger, frustration and worry of many families in New York," he said.