Rick Lazio is back. And he's testing the waters for a possible run for county executive.
Crushed last fall by GOP gubernatorial primary challenger Carl Paladino, Lazio re-entered the local political fray Thursday night as he circulated with about a half-dozen other potential contenders at the Suffolk Conservative fundraiser in Babylon.
Asked if he is interested in running, Lazio said: "The word 'interest' is overstated. I'm listening to people." If the party has a strong contender it can unite behind, he'll support that candidate. "But if there's a drift," he added, "that's a different story."
The GOP is scrambling since County Executive Steve Levy's surprise announcement that he will not seek re-election and will forfeit his $4-million campaign war chest in a deal that prosecutors said resolved an investigation into his fundraising. Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone, the Democrats' choice, will officially announce on April 27.
Yet after Levy, it is Lazio -- for better or worse -- who is Suffolk's best-known Republican, despite losses to Paladino and to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2000 U.S. Senate race. Despite his statewide totals, Lazio beat Paladino in Suffolk with 66 percent of the GOP primary vote. He upended Clinton in Suffolk with 57 percent of the general election vote.
Lazio is telegenic and he is a strong ally of state Conservative chairman Michael Long. Once considered a giant killer, Lazio dispatched onetime Watergate wunderkind Rep. Tom Downey in 1992. Nassau GOP chairman Joe Mondello in 2001 even asked him to run for county executive, even though Lazio had never lived in Nassau.
But Lazio has baggage after losing two big races; he also was bashed in the governor's race for taking a $1.3-million Wall Street bonus. While he has a home in Brightwaters, he resides mainly in New York City and is without a job, though backers say he serves on corporate boards and appears as a frequent TV news commentator.
John Jay Lavalle, Suffolk GOP chairman, said he got a call from Assemb. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore) about Lazio's interest, but has not heard from Lazio. "I've heard from his friends, but I don't know if it's his design or theirs," Lavalle said.
But that's no surprise. LaValle was the first county chairman to back Lazio for governor, only to later dump him for Levy. LaValle concedes he and Lazio haven't talked since, but added that if Lazio is serious, he is welcome to screen as a prospective candidate.
"As far as I'm concerned, what's in the past is past. I'll make the decision that puts the party in the best position to win," said LaValle.
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, does not take Flanagan's or Lazio's names lightly.
"He's a proven vote-getter," Schaffer said of Lazio. "I think he'd be a tough candidate because of his name recognition and the goodwill he had as a congressman."
Flanagan, meanwhile, said he is "very interested" in the race. While he has not yet committed to run, he is ready to screen.
Flanagan wanted to run statewide last year, but GOP Senate leaders blocked him for fear of losing his Senate seat. Some expect that to happen again, although Flanagan need not sacrifice his seat to run. Backers note that if Flanagan wins the county executive's race, Republicans have strong potential replacements: Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) or Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset). But Democrats say Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko also lives in the district and could be a contender.