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Levy's patronage practice eyed since party switch

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy shows his deficit

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy shows his deficit reduction plan for 2010-2011 at a press conference at the H. Lee Dennison building in Hauppauge. (March 25, 2010) Photo Credit: Mario Gonzalez

When Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy switched parties in Albany nine days ago, workers in Hauppauge who had been part of his Democratic administration for the past six years shuddered.

For nearly 500 county workers in jobs exempt from civil service rules - political appointees whose jobs can vanish without notice - Levy's change to a Republican is a matter of angst.

"People are waiting to see how it plays out," said one nervous Democratic assistant county lawyer who did not wish to be identified. "There's a lot of uncertainty."

Levy says the concerns are groundless, maintaining that no one's job is in jeopardy and that he will continue to hire both Democrats and Republicans without regard to party as he has always done.

"I have never been very partisan," said Levy. "My announcement will have absolutely no effect. . . . No one will lose their job."

He said he takes recommendations from party leaders but added, "I make the final decision . . . and it's based on expertise, not political affiliation."

While that may be an approach popular with voters, it's not clear how it will play with GOP activists whom Levy is now trying to woo in order to secure the Republican nomination.

"I don't see Republican leaders being able to motivate the party faithful to knock on doors and raise money unless they can grab a piece of the political pie," said Republican Paul Sabatino, a former top Levy aide, now a foe.

John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chair and Levy champion, said the county executive had already showed a willingness to appoint Republicans as a Democrat. Now LaValle hopes Levy will "give more consideration to qualified Republicans who share his philosophy" as vacancies occur. Levy's real appeal, LaValle added, is not patronage but his "ability to fix the fiscal mess."

Yet, veteran Albany lobbyist Desmond Ryan warned that Republicans should not expect Levy to open the patronage spigot should he win governor. "If the elephants think he's going to make them appointments secretary," he said, alluding to the governor's key patronage dispenser, "they are sadly mistaken."

While there are 500 county political jobs, experts say Levy controls only about half. There are about 120 patronage jobs at the Board of Elections, split evenly between Democrat and Republican party leaders, 100 jobs in the district attorney's office, and another 65 in the county legislature.

Bradford O'Hearn, once spokesman for former Democratic County Executive Patrick Halpin, said many administration Democrats are "very conflicted" about the change. "They feel 'Levy appointed me, but he was a Democrat and I've been a Democrat all my life' . . . these are people who helped get Steve Levy first elected," he said.

Their most immediate worry is whether to attend the April 13 Suffolk Democratic dinner headlined by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who could be Levy's gubernatorial opponent this fall. Levy said last week appointees are "free agents" on their own time.

Levy said he has never discussed patronage issues with LaValle or other GOP officials. He also denied a rumor circulating last week that he will name a deputy county executive from the Brookhaven GOP. And Levy scotched any suggestion he would allow local Republican leaders to name his chief deputy, should he be elected governor - a move that would enable the GOP to have an incumbent county executive as their candidate for the ensuing special election. "It will never happen," he said.

For some, however, the switch will end up hurting Levy more than anyone else. "He's man without a country," said frequent Levy critic Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. "And as desperate as the Republicans are in the race for governor, with Steve Levy as the candidate, the cure may be worse than the disease."

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