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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Levy's a wild card in New York governor's race

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (Nov. 20, 2009)

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (Nov. 20, 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday / Joseph D. Sullivan

Even if it falters, a run for governor by Suffolk Executive Steve Levy could shake up the dynamic of this year's statewide Democratic primaries.

Gov. David A. Paterson and aides declined public comment Monday on Levy's announcement of an exploratory committee. So did Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, widely considered a likely candidate for governor.

>> PHOTOS: Steve Levy through the years

Their silence made tactical sense, given the wild card that Levy represents.

One possibility is that if he makes it to a primary ballot, Levy could help Paterson. Both Levy and Cuomo could be courting the same Democrats dissatisfied with the current governor - of whom there are many, polls show. With the opposition split, Paterson could eke out a nomination with, say, less than 40 percent.

Others, however, see Levy as a hidden blessing for Cuomo. They see Levy as helping initiate an unusual state party effort to unseat a fellow Democrat, sending the message that Paterson is failing.

"Anyone credible getting into this race really opens the door for Andrew," said a veteran Democratic consultant. "It would not be the most shocking thing in political history if it turns out Levy doesn't go all the way, that maybe he says, 'Well, I've looked at the polls and support, and it's . . . important to defeat Paterson.'

"If Levy gets in the race, I cannot imagine Cuomo not getting in, with a lot of cover. That's what this says to me."

From his perch, Levy knows other candidates who started with little statewide name recognition have prevailed. In an Albany radio interview Monday, he said former Gov. George Pataki was a virtual unknown at this time in 1994. He mentioned Nassau Executive Edward Mangano's recent upset victory.

Levy said he's developed skill as a manager who fended off fiscal disaster in his home county without hiking taxes. This matches, in part, the rationale of Erie County Executive Chris Collins, a Republican, also eyeing the governorship.

In Nassau, former executive Thomas Suozzi stated repeatedly in his 2006 bid for governor, "I can do it because I've done it." Levy said on Albany Talk 1300 AM: "I have the track record of righting a sinking ship."

For better or worse - probably both - Levy's taste for aggression on the playing fields of county government will follow him as he looks beyond familiar borders.

He's long soaked up attention and controversy for his outspoken stances on illegal immigration, confronting elected Latino Democrats from Brentwood to Washington Heights.

"At first I was shocked," said Assemb. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan) said, when he heard of Levy's exploration. "The tone, under his watch, has been an embarrassment for the rest of the state with regards to immigration. . . . But then I thought through it, and decided it would probably not be a bad thing for him to run. It would guarantee that thousands and thousands of immigrants who are now U.S. citizens will come out to vote against him."

Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Central Islip) said, "No one can win a Democratic primary in New York State without the support of New York City. And I'm convinced New York City would be opposed to Steve Levy as a bloc."

But even William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), presiding officer of the Suffolk legislature, who has drawn Levy's political wrath, warned against underrating the maybe-candidate.

"I think our county executive has had his eye on state office for quite a while now," Lindsay said. "And I wish him well. He's a very intense guy. Who knows? Maybe that's what Albany needs."

>> PHOTOS: Steve Levy through the years

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