Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who turned Republican last April in a high-flying gubernatorial bid, is holding a free clambake to essentially reintroduce himself to local GOP committee members who have known him for decades as a Democrat.
Levy described the event at the waterfront Bayport manse of tax grievance guru Mark Lewis as a "thank you" to all those who have embraced him in the Grand Old Party. But don't expect lobster with Levy. There may be clams, but Levy says it will be mainly hot dogs and burgers, though ironically funds paying for the bash are largely left over from Democratic donors.
But the event underscores how Levy is treading a whole new landscape as he faces re-election next year. He's in a newly adopted party, still unsure of his commitment to the GOP. He is also taking more sniping from former Democratic allies. And his county government is still swooning in a sluggish economy while the one-shot revenue sources he can tap dwindle.
Backers say Levy is still hugely popular. Saved from a costly gubernatorial primary, his $4-million campaign fund is still intact and likely to grow by $1 million by next year. He has maintained he has kept taxes stable and avoided layoffs.
"When it comes to Suffolk, Steve Levy is well liked by middle-class voters," said Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip). "Where else has anyone kept taxes down for the last six years?" adding that Levy is now "where he should have been all along - a conservative Republican."
But critics say Levy's switch has cost him the Democratic base vote, while many Republicans are wary because Levy's conversion seemed based on ambition rather than seeing the error of his Democratic past. Names of noted Republicans such as state Sen. John Flanagan and Joseph Sawicki have surfaced as potential GOP primary foes.
"He is absolutely vulnerable," said Legis. John Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor). "The threads in his suit of armor are being pulled and starting to unravel."
But Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, who recruited Levy, says the statewide run made Levy stronger and his coattails will bring in a GOP county legislative majority in 2011. "Steve Levy is a tremendous asset," said LaValle, noting that Democrats won the majority by emblazoning a gold oval "Part of the Levy Reform Team" on all its campaign mail. "They got to say 'We're conservative, too' when they are as conservative as Al Sharpton," he said.
However, Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said Levy's endless battles over police staffing, sex offender housing and the Legacy Village development have worn out voters.
"The public is getting fatigued," he said, "They want solutions. They don't want grandstanding, pointing fingers . . . or WWF matches every other week."
Levy said voters know he only fights "to protect the taxpayer" and "singing 'Kumbaya' is irrelevant if people are being taxed to death." Levy said he will target five or six districts next year, though he would not name specific Democrats yet. "Unions have too much control over some legislators and I'll be promoting those who are . . . taxpayer friendly," he said.
Asked if he will target Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), who has his old seat, Levy said, "Bill has been making it tough" on his agenda, but went no further. Lindsay, who was an easy past winner with the aid of the Conservative line, could face a tough race if Levy presses an ally, Suffolk Conservative leader Edward Walsh, to deny Lindsay the line. But critics say Levy's campaigning in 2009 against Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Medford) and Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) had no impact and others who Levy backed lost.
Schaffer, who has a stable of Democratic town supervisors ready to run, warned Levy should worry about his own fate. "His plate is already too full," Schaffer said. "He should think about his own race, not others."