Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's plans to leave the Democratic Party Friday to run for governor have sparked a high-stakes game of political chicken between state Republican leaders who back him and the state Conservative chairman whose ballot line Levy hopes to secure.
State Conservative chairman Michael Long Thursday said he "took it as an affront" when, he said, state Republican chairman Ed Cox called Wednesday asking Long to postpone his planned endorsement of former Rep. Rick Lazio at a party executive committee meeting Saturday. Long Island Conservatives who back Levy also plan to seek a delay.
Cox could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Long said he'd been told that Levy only agreed to switch parties after Republicans "guaranteed he can be their candidate for county executive" if he loses the governor's race. "That's not a bad insurance policy."
But Levy's candidacy comes too late, Long said, adding, "I believe we'll still move forward" with a Lazio nod.
Last night, however, Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, the first GOP county leader in the state to support Lazio, said he hoped Friday's expected public display of GOP support for Levy would "give pause" to Long's plan to endorse Lazio.
"The reality is Steve Levy has never been a Democrat - he's more conservative than most of the elected sitting GOP officials," LaValle said, adding "If the people of New York State want to solve the financial mess, their only hope is Steve Levy."
The Suffolk GOP boss, who will stand alongside Levy Friday, hoped a primary could be avoided but noted, "Right now the tensions are high."
Saturday's decision is fraught for both Long and Levy. No Republican has won statewide in modern history without Conservative support - and the Conservatives could fail to draw enough votes in November to keep their ballot line if the GOP chooses a different candidate.
Lazio and his supporters made plain Thursday he is not about to be chased out of the race. He held a flurry of events in the New York area and insisted he was "very confident" of winning the nomination of both parties.
"People are looking for somebody that they can depend on, not somebody who's going to put their finger up to the wind," Lazio told reporters.
Lazio's campaign announced his finance committee, a formidable list of Wall Street heavy hitters and prominent Republicans such as William Weld, Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm, co-chaired by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Gov. George Pataki.
Most of those on the committee agreed to back him months ago, but Rockland County chairman Vincent Reda, another former Lazio backer who plans to endorse Levy Friday, was not impressed. "I wish these folks would come up with some financing by now - he's been a candidate since last June," Reda said, alluding to Lazio's scant $659,032 in cash, as of January.
The likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Thursday shrugged off Levy's move. "It is America, it is a democracy. You can run for whatever you want, as whatever you want," he said.
But in what was likely a foretaste of a Levy-Cuomo general election campaign, state Democratic leader Jay Jacobs said Levy had put "ambition before his conscience."
With Anthony M. DeStefano
and Dan Janison