Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
It was with great fanfare in Albany that Steve Levy last month announced his defection to the Republican Party. But the most fateful date in the county executive's GOP bid for governor may have come six months ago - on Oct. 9, 2009.
That was the deadline when Levy could have switched parties enabling him to now be a bona fide member of the Grand Old Party.
"It would have certainly made the road to the governor's mansion a lot easier," said John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chairman and Levy's hometown champion who still believes Levy will win at the convention.
While Levy signed a new voter enrollment card last month, he is officially still a Democrat. And if there is a GOP primary, Levy will not even be able to vote for himself. He will become a Republican after Election Day.
To even qualify for the primary, Levy must win 51 percent of the state committee's weighted vote, becoming the GOP's designated candidate at the state convention in June. Those chances remain uncertain - right after his switch, Levy backers claimed to have 40 percent of the vote; LaValle now says it's "30 percent and growing." But an upstate poll of county GOP leaders last week put Levy at 25 percent and rival Rick Lazio at 51 percent.
If Levy were already a Republican, even 25 percent would automatically qualify him for the primary. And if he fell below that number, he could still circulate petitions to get into a GOP primary, something he can't do as a Republican-in-waiting. "There are 4 million reasons why Levy could circulate petitions if necessary," said Frank McKay, state Independence Party chair, alluding to Levy's $4-million war chest.
LaValle said he tried last fall, over pizza, to persuade Levy to make the switch before the deadline because he has "no future as a Democrat." However, LaValle, who at the time was backing Lazio, concedes he was then trying to get Levy to run for comptroller.
Some experts said an earlier move would have given Republicans more time to feel comfortable with Levy and more time for Levy to sell his record as fiscally conservative county executive.
Levy might have also blunted Lazio's early efforts to line up support among the state's 62 GOP county leaders. "In retrospect, it was a colossal blunder," said Stanley Klein, a C.W. Post College political science professor.
But Levy said running as a Republican was "never in my equation" until some GOP leaders approached him early this year. "I wasn't going to jump into a pool, if there was no water," said Levy. "I would have been a man without a country."
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said Levy was initially reluctant to switch because "he was trying to protect his [Democratic] base . . . he thought he could pull it off without having to switch parties." But Levy's vision of winning a crowded Democratic primary turned into a pipe dream when Gov. David A. Paterson exited the race.
Schaffer said Levy tried finessing his party ties, but Republicans "wouldn't even consider him unless he changed." Had Levy changed earlier, Schaffer said, "He would have controlled his own destiny."
Should Levy fail to win at the GOP convention, as a nonparty member he's not permitted to wage a primary. But that has a silver lining: Levy's $4-million war chest would be preserved, presenting a formidable hurdle for potential challengers from either major party contemplating taking him on in next year's county executive race.
But Levy, not much for looking back, does not dwell on whether he should have changed sooner and still believes he has a better-than-even shot at the GOP nod.
"Four years ago, we had a popular attorney general and a coronation," he said. "Now the state is on the verge of collapse and everyone is asking for a plan to save us. I'm the only guy with a plan and that trumps everything else."