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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

A Levy-Cuomo matchup would evoke '82 election

Suffolk County executive Steve Levy, second from left,

Suffolk County executive Steve Levy, second from left, is thanked by New York State Republican Chairman Ed Cox, left, during Levy's announcement. (March 19, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

A combative elected executive from downstate takes a surprise shot at becoming New York's governor. He's proven popular with voters at home - and won a second term with both major-party lines.

Proclaiming fiscal fortitude, this politician prepares to run to the right of a Democrat named Cuomo - who stands to draw key backing from labor, upstaters and minority communities.

The year is 1982 - midway into the term of a new president. And while the parallel is far from perfect, that year's statewide contest between New York City Mayor Ed Koch and Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo has some veteran political professionals hearing echoes of the distant past.

Koch, of course, faced the elder Cuomo 28 years ago in a Democratic primary. Cuomo won the nomination, then the election.

By contrast, Suffolk Executive Steve Levy, newly signed on as Republican, may or may not get to face Democratic Attorney Gen. Andrew Cuomo. If he does, however, it will be on the general election ballot in November - a game on a different kind of field.

Still, the comparison seems useful - as it is for a potential GOP contest between Levy and Rick Lazio, according to Bruce Gyory, an Albany-based consultant to Democrats who'd advised some Republicans.

"The rationale for Levy is this notion that he has strength from Suffolk and Nassau, and that is a critical swing region in both the Republican primary and the general election," said Gyory, an adjunct political science professor at the University at Albany. "And, that he'll do well upstate - because he's the, quote, more conservative candidate. That was the rationale for Koch in '82."

But beyond having to compete for the top slot in a party he just joined, Gyory suggested, Levy could face a Koch-like problem: "the kind of brashness that may not play well upstate."

To that, Mike Dawidziak, Levy campaign consultant, responded: "I'll take Steve's alleged brashness to [Andrew] Cuomo's alleged arrogance."

A Lazio supporter, who declined to be identified, insisted that sizing up any Cuomo-Levy matchup will prove academic. "The better question for Steve Levy is how he plans to get the 51 percent of the [weighted] convention vote he needs to get on the Republican ballot," the backer said. The Lazio camp maintains it has more than 50 percent.

George Arzt, a New York City-based consultant who was once Koch's mayoral spokesman, emphasizes a major difference between 1982 and today.

"Koch and Cuomo had a bitter mayoral campaign in 1977, and so the rematch in 1982 had that much more passion, emotion and antagonism," Arzt says. "Levy has to get through this primary first, if there is a primary. But the emotion that was involved in that race cannot be recaptured in this race or perhaps any other."

Because of Levy's party switch, the angles in this one may be more complex. Levy these days focuses his attacks on Lazio - with Lazio calling Levy a liberal opportunist in conservative garb, and citing the latter's votes as an assemblyman in Speaker Sheldon Silver's conference.

In an interesting turn, Dawidziak Tuesday was blasting Lazio's 1990s House votes in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other measures since blamed for exporting jobs.

The categories, the characters and the controversies have changed. But at this moment in the preseason, this campaign carries the promise of 1982-style intensity.


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