ALBANY - Renouncing his lifelong membership in the Democratic Party, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy on Friday launched his bid for the Republican nomination for governor.

Levy, flanked by state GOP and Conservative Party leaders, promised a "crusade for fiscal reform" that would bring New York back from the brink of insolvency. If elected governor, he vowed to cap increases in state spending and local property taxes.

"The people of this state are crying out for someone with a proven record . . . who can balance budgets, make the tough decisions to protect taxpayers and save New York from financial ruin," Levy said outside the Capitol. "I am the leader that can solve these problems and that is why I am today announcing my candidacy as a Republican to become the next governor."

Minutes before Levy's midmorning announcement, former Rep. Rick Lazio of Brightwaters blasted what he said was Levy's "liberal Democrat voting record" during three years in the Assembly. Levy responded that he was a "contrarian" in the State Legislature and had clashed with Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

Lazio also reported picking up the endorsements of Staten Island Republicans and Conservatives in upstate Oneida County. Staten Island GOP chief John Friscia described Lazio as "as true conservative."

With Friscia's backing, the Lazio campaign claimed to have more than 50 percent of the weighted vote at this spring's Republican convention. But Levy said he had more than 40 percent of the vote, thanks to support from "seven or eight" of the party's nine vice chairmen and other county leaders.

Levy, 50, of Bayport, ended his three-decade association with the Democrats at 10:20 a.m. He was handed a pen by state Republican Committee chairman Edward Cox and signed a form switching his party enrollment, although it won't be official until after Election Day in November.

Cox said, "Steve, I welcome you into our party. . . . I endorse your run for governor."

In addition to caps on state spending and local property taxes, Levy wants to declare a state of emergency to rein in the cost of public employee benefits and permit the governor to withhold 10 percent of state payments to avert bankruptcy.

Later Friday, at a rally in Battery Park in Manhattan, Levy said, "The problem in Albany is it's embedded in the institution. The public employee unions and the special interests and the lobbyists control the place."

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Asked for his positions on gay marriage and abortion, he said, "I'm pro-choice, against partial-birth abortion. With the gay issues, I upon coming into office gave equal rights for benefits. I'm in favor of civil unions, but marriage - a man and a woman."

Levy said he has voted for a Republican in a presidential election, but he declined to say whether he voted for Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain in 2008. "That will be between me and the voting booth," he said.

Democrats heaped scorn on Levy.

Jay Jacobs, head of the state and Nassau Democratic committees, called Levy a political opportunist. Citing Levy's tough stance against illegal immigration, state Sen. John Sampson of Brooklyn, the Democratic chief, accused Levy of "hate-mongering rhetoric" that has divided groups.

Levy shot back that his position on immigration was misunderstood: "I simply oppose illegal immigration and that's where the vast majority of people are on that issue."

With Dan Janison