Levy could face tough re-election bid in 2011

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy discusses his proposed Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy discusses his proposed budget transparency reforms during a news conference in Hauppauge. Photo Credit: John Dunn

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Steve Levy's supporters predict the third time will be the charm for the newly converted Republican in his expected bid in 2011 for a third and final term as Suffolk's County executive.

But critics say Levy's 2011 re-election effort, funded by a more than $4 million war chest, could be hampered by recriminations from former Democratic friends and challenges by other Republicans looking to face him in a GOP primary.

While Levy is expected to have to focus on a variety of major issues, including continuing fiscal problems and the fate of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank, many expect that if he runs for re-election, he'll face a hard-fought contest - a far cry from 2007, when he was unopposed.

Most political observers and experts agree the biggest issue in the campaign will be Levy himself. Levy, who has yet to formally announce a bid for re-election, acknowledges the upcoming race "will be pretty much a referendum on my policies and my effectiveness as a county executive - and I think my record will hold up fairly well."

At the top of the issues list is Levy's recent party-switching. Last March, Republican leaders persuaded Levy, a longtime Democrat, to change parties, hoping he'd face Democrat Andrew Cuomo in the governor's race. But Levy failed to get the GOP convention's approval to even run in the primary and dropped out of the race.

Now, somewhat battered and bruised politically, the 52-year-old county executive is fending off attacks from his critics, including many in the county Legislature, who portray him as a "party of one." They call him an opportunist with little political conviction and who may already be making plans to run for governor in 2014.

"I think his star has certainly lost its luster," said Vivian Viloria-Fisher, the legislature's deputy presiding officer, the first Democrat to announce a candidacy for county executive. "In his changing of parties, he [Levy] certainly has lost all the Democratic votes. I believe many people in the Republican Party see him as someone who is an opportunist . . . "

But Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) called Levy's political switch "the best thing that has happened to the Republican Party here in 10 years . . . Steve Levy really represents that person living in a three-bedroom ranch who wants someone in county government watching the store - and when you're doing that you're going to make enemies."

Still, Levy could face a GOP primary battle, possibly against county Comptroller Joseph Sawicki Jr. and county Treasurer Angie Carpenter.

Sawicki said that if he runs, he's prepared to challenge Levy as "an Obama liberal" rather than a true Republican.

"People are always wary of someone who changes his party affiliation like he has," said Sawicki, who has $260,000 in campaign cash and expects to decide on his bid for the job by mid-February. In addition, Sawicki said Levy has trouble attracting bipartisan support for his proposals.

"He's incapable of governing and is an ineffective administrator because he's always fighting with everyone," Sawicki said.

One prominent Democrat eyeing the race, Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone, is expected to try to increase his $400,000 war chest to $1 million by early in the new year, say fellow Democrats. Officials in both parties say they expect Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo to help raise funds for a bid by the Democratic candidate against Levy - partly as a way of knocking off Levy as a potential gubernatorial rival in 2014.

Bellone said many feel betrayed by Levy's party switch and are determined to see a Democrat again in Suffolk's top office. Many Democratic supporters who once rang doorbells or made phone calls for Levy hold "some real disappointment and will be motivated" to defeat him, Bellone said.

But Levy said he doesn't expect any political fallout from his new Republican status. "It was a big yawn out with the electorate," Levy said. "It wasn't like I was this big-spending liberal in 2009 and then suddenly became a fiscal conservative in 2010."

Levy said Suffolk's finances - he faced a projected $238 million deficit when he first took office in 2004 - have improved markedly without any significant tax increase. In these recessionary times, Levy says his appeal as a budget-cutter remains strong.

"Seven straight years without a tax increase - that's phenomenal," said Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, a strong backer of Levy's gubernatorial bid. "There's no other county [of Suffolk's size] that can make the same claim."

As an example, Levy pointed to his replacement of county highway patrol officers on the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway with lower-cost sheriffs deputies. Levy asserts the move saved $8 million annually, and highlighted the kind of boldness that voters like and remember on Election Day.

But others say Levy has needlessly antagonized the county police, especially in a battle last year over hiring more cops. The county Legislature authorized a tax increase to pay for 200 more officers, but Levy balked at hiring more than 70. After highly publicized violent incidents in Huntington Station, Brentwood and elsewhere, Levy agreed to the 200, saying his concerns about how to pay for them had abated.

Levy's stance against illegal and undocumented immigrant workers also has drawn criticism from minority groups, especially after the 2008 killing of 37-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero by seven teenagers later convicted of hate-crime related charges. Though Levy condemned the killing and its circumstances, Viloria-Fisher said his inflammatory rhetoric - such as using the term "anchor babies" in referring to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants - has fostered a climate for intolerance in Suffolk County.

Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said the Democrats realize Levy will be tough to beat, but that they can win with a strong candidate and by combining forces with "about 15" different interest groups and voting blocs who object to Levy's policies.

"When you mention his name, you do hear 'hard work' and 'strong work ethic'," said Schaffer, a longtime ally until Levy switched parties. "But you also hear 'someone who is unwilling to compromise' and 'someone who believes he's right 150 percent of the time' and 'doesn't want to take into consideration other opinions.' "

LaValle said he's discouraging other Republicans from challenging Levy so the GOP can focus on winning in November. "The members of our committee and the residents have certainly embraced County Executive Levy as a Republican," LaValle said. "The reality is that he's always acted like a Republican."

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