Top Suffolk Republicans were horrified in 1996 when most of their county legislators voted to make English Suffolk's official language. County Executive Robert Gaffney vetoed the bill, decrying its "message of intolerance." Then-county chairman John Powell said the GOP would not be the "party of exclusion."
But no one failed to notice how the controversy had packed the hall and set their phones ringing in what would prove an early warning of explosive tensions over illegal immigration. For then-Legis. Steve Levy, a Democrat who helped craft the bill, the fear and anger bared by the English-only debate was a seam of political gold.
A prime topic
Levy has gone on to make illegal immigration a signature issue, pursuing a law-and-order crackdown and, as he puts it, "standing up to the politically correct crowd." He has used phrases like "anchor babies"; outraged critics accuse him of "ethnic cleansing." It's won him a national audience from conservatives and a running battle with the Hispanic delegation in Albany.
Now many in the GOP are banking that Levy's instinct for what voters really want will carry him to the governor's office. Levy's Republican rivals, former Rep. Rick Lazio and developer Carl Paladino, haven't brought up the topic of immigration - a sign, some say, they may think Levy's hard line plays well with their base. But Democrats are looking forward to bringing it up.
"I think Steve Levy is going to suffer because of his history of playing with divisive politics," said state Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs. "For as many people as he thinks he is going to excite . . . he will lose far more."Illegal immigration was never a prime topic for Lazio, the congressman. He was a moderate Republican whose campaign found little to discuss about the issue with Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, though two Mexican day laborers were beaten nearly to death in Shirley in the last days of their 2000 Senate race. Like Clinton, he backed a narrowly drawn amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
But Levy opposes any amnesty - saying it's legal, not illegal immigration that should be made easier.
His tenure as county executive has been a drumbeat of enforcement efforts: a failed proposal to deputize county police as immigration officers; immigration checks for those arrested in connection with serious crimes; requiring county vendors to prove all employees are legal; and, in 2006, ordering a raid of a house jammed with 60 day laborers. The landlord was arrested and the tenants evicted. That stirred a storm of controversy when the men were left homeless - and a sympathetic national audience on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor."
"They're not intimidating this county executive," Levy told host Bill O'Reilly. "I know the people of this county are squarely behind me."
In 2007, Levy joined New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in protesting then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. And he found himself in a showdown with Hispanic lawmakers in Albany, led by Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), who blocked a routine sales-tax extension for Suffolk, demanding Levy authorize a hiring hall for illegal day laborers. Levy called it "blackmail" and the lawmakers ultimately backed down.
Levy says all he is doing is defending the American dream taxpayers of all ethnicities have worked to build: "We invest all this money for our homes," he told O'Reilly. "We want a nice picket fence, a safe area for our kids."
Hispanic voters support him, he says, but evidence is elusive: He was viewed favorably by 57 percent in a Siena/Newsday poll last fall - but the sample was an insignificant 37 people.
Patricia Avalos of Wading River, a descendant of Salvadoran immigrants, said Levy has become known among Hispanics statewide for hurtful and insensitive remarks. By bringing him on board, the state GOP is undoing years of bridge-building. "This is not good for the Republican Party," said Avalos, a registered Republican.
Lorraine Lopez of Yonkers, state chair of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said Levy "definitely needs some diversity training. . . . There are many Latinos who are not interested in him because when he opens his mouth he just doesn't know what to say."
Still, Levy seemed to have a feel for the crowd at an anti-gang forum with hundreds of mostly black and Hispanic residents in Brentwood on April 5. When he vowed a crackdown on the criminal element that has blanketed their homes with graffiti, Levy might as easily have been talking to white homeowners in Farmingville.
"You're mad as hell - I get it," he said. As for the Salvadoran gang members suspected of murdering one woman's son, "if they're not here legally, they'll be on the first boat if I can help it, I'll tell you that!"
The room erupted in cheers and whistles.
With Jennifer Maloney
Where the GOP candidates stand
Insists his strong and vocal stance against illegal immigration reflects the concerns of local residents - including many Hispanics - who favor legal immigration but strongly oppose illegal entry into the United States. But critics including some Suffolk legislators say Levy's administration has set an intolerant tone that helped foster criminal incidents, including the 2008 killing of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, in Patchogue. Levy says he decries all anti-immigrant incidents.
As governor, he'd support the use of E-Verify, an Internet-based system managed by the federal government that allows employers to check the eligibility of new employees to work in the United States. Levy believes the system also should be used for existing state employees.
As a member of Congress during the 1990s, he voted to allow more immigrant visas for high-tech and skilled workers. But he also voted in 2000 for an amendment authorizing the secretary of Defense, with the president's approval, to use the Armed Forces to help then-Immigration and Naturalization Service officers with border control duties.
As governor, he'd be mindful of post-9/11 security concerns about illegal immigration but would welcome new legal immigrants. "Rick believes that state government must play a role in attracting new immigrants to New York while enforcing the law," said campaign spokesman Barney Keller.
Rejects any measures to allow those here illegally to remain. Undocumented immigrants "took advantage of the United States; they broke our laws and many jumped on New York's Medicaid and social welfare systems the day they arrived. . . . I am open-minded about how to pursue immigration reform going forward. But we must first unburden the taxpayers of New York because we are supporting alien residents who just don't care to obey the law. That means sending illegals home."
- Thomas Maier