Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Hours after Steve Levy's gubernatorial ambitions went down in flames, his champion, Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, had a finger-pointing faceoff with veteran state Conservative leader Michael Long in a corner at last week's state GOP dinner.
That the two might be at odds is not surprising - Long backed GOP gubernatorial winner Rick Lazio, who LaValle once backed but later dumped in favor of the Suffolk County executive. LaValle has also excoriated millionaire Randy Altschuler, whom local Conservatives have backed for Congress with Long's blessing.
Long declined to detail their talk, but said, "I'm an animated guy." LaValle called it "cordial" but conceded Long was upset he'd attacked him in print and urged LaValle to call directly on future differences, adding they never discussed Altschuler. In the end, Long said, "We shook hands and agreed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder."
The exchange may be emblematic of how upstart LaValle comes out of the GOP convention after Levy's loss.
"Frankly, I think he's been playing with house money," said Michael Dawidziak, a Levy adviser. "Even before the convention, he turned the county executive Republican [and] inherited his $4-million war chest." At the convention, Dawidziak said, LaValle "gave the Suffolk GOP new momentum."
Discounting Levy's loss, LaValle even crowed that the Suffolk GOP put ex-CIA man Gary Berntsen of Port Jefferson and former Nassau Presiding Officer Bruce Blakeman over the top for Senate. "We put Suffolk back on the map," he said.
Yet while LaValle shows little political damage, some insiders see hairline cracks that increase pressure on him to produce in the fall elections. There's the congressional primary battle where party sources say he has backed Christopher Cox, along with key state races to unseat Democrats - freshman state Sen. Brian Foley (D-Blue Point) with Iraq veteran Lee Zeldin and Assembly incumbent Marc Alessi (D-Wading River) with close LaValle ally Legis. Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham).
"He's been firing a lot of shots in a lot of directions," said Jon Schneider, Brookhaven Democratic chairman and aide to Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). "At the end of the day, a lot of Republicans will be disappointed, if they don't walk away with something."
Others warn Levy might disappoint Republican leaders who expect their new GOP county executive to come across with significant patronage, leading to infighting. "They'll learn how pleasurable my life's been," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chair.
LaValle, the first county leader to back Lazio only to defect, said he has not spoken to Lazio but now supports him "110 percent." Barney Keller, Lazio spokesman, said only Lazio is "committed to a united Republican Party."
But Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) does not blame LaValle for backing the highly popular Levy. "He exhibited leadership and showed that he was not afraid to take a stand," he said.
And if Lazio fails to beat Cuomo, Barraga said Levy will be ready to take him on in four years. "Steve's already gotten tremendous publicity statewide, his campaign fund will go from $4 million to $5, $6 or $7 million, and his phone will be ringing off the hook," he said.
The worst scenarios for LaValle are if Lazio wins and shuts out LaValle, or if Cuomo buries Lazio, killing GOP efforts to take back the State Senate and causing local GOP losses. Both could lead to a GOP primary against Levy in next year's county executive race and a challenge to LaValle's leadership. Win or lose, Altschuler with his deep pockets also poses a future threat to LaValle.
But for better or worse, LaValle's fate is now tied to Levy's. "His future resolves around the fact he's now married to Steve Levy. They are joined at the hip," said Desmond Ryan, veteran GOP lobbyist.