The good news for new Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle is that both leading contenders for the GOP nomination for governor come from his home county.
The bad news is that many are scratching their heads over whom LaValle is actually backing.
LaValle touted Lazio as the man who gained national renown with an upset win over powerful Democratic Rep. Tom Downey, said Lazio waged a valiant $40-million Senate race against former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and was now ready for governor after a decade in business.
Yet LaValle, who is also the state GOP's Long Island vice chairman, was among party leaders who met with Suffolk's Democratic County Executive Steve Levy last Tuesday at the stately Georgian brick Fort Orange Club down the block from the state Capitol.
Some party insiders say behind the scenes LaValle favors Levy, a fiery fiscal conservative, for the $4 million in his campaign coffers and his ability to tap into taxpayer anger. They also say LaValle has found Lazio increasingly whiny and worries Lazio's failed to catch fire or raise money. Also of concern, insiders say, is that Lazio will take heat for his $1.3-million Wall Street bonus.
"LaValle is in it up to his eyeballs for Levy," said one high-level GOP official who declined to be identified, maintaining LaValle's moves have undercut Lazio's ability to raise money. Some also believe LaValle's efforts for Levy are tied to his behind-the-scenes support for state GOP leader Edward Cox's son Christopher in his bid for Congress against Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop.
LaValle denies such claims. "We're still with Lazio," he said, but added he sees no contradiction in talking to Levy about his potential candidacy. "In a normal year, leaders might try to dissuade people from screening and try to cut everyone else out of the process," said LaValle, "but from day one, I've encouraged everyone to come forward and screen so we can evaluate their record . . . so we can make a decision."
Despite the noble talk, LaValle continues to oppose the younger Cox's most likely foe, multimillionaire Randy Altschuler, because Altschuler's former firm exported jobs to Asia. Altschuler denies that claim.
While a Levy gubernatorial candidacy may be a risky prospect statewide, some say LaValle sees it as a win-win situation locally. Should Levy change parties and become governor as a Republican, LaValle would be there at the ground floor as an early supporter. Should Levy lose, LaValle would have a popular GOP county executive to head his local ticket.
"I don't think LaValle has a legitimate interest in finding the best candidate," said John Zaher, a Republican political consultant who once worked for Lazio. "It's more of a power grab."
Lazio himself declines to be drawn in when asked about LaValle. "It's politics," he said, adding it's a "long process with ebbs and flows."
But Lazio has reacted heatedly over Levy's possible candidacy and last week enlisted several top Republicans like former Gov. George Pataki and Rep. Peter King to his side. At a $75-a-head birthday party fundraiser in Bay Shore last week, Lazio told the crowd of 250 that Pataki had said he was "far ahead" of where Pataki himself had been in his 1994 run. Lazio said Pataki recounted how at the Republican state convention, he "didn't have enough money to pay my hotel bill."
However, at the time, Pataki had the backing of then-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, the state's most powerful GOP fundraiser.
Lazio said he knows the race will not be a cakewalk, and acknowledges politics can include "a little bit of double-crossing, a little bit of betrayal." Asked to whom he was referring, Lazio quickly added he was not taking aim at anyone. "I'm talking about . . . the political system, not any particular person."