Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy calls on the state legislature...

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy calls on the state legislature to act on the property tax cap, during a press conference in Hauppauge Wednesday afternoon. (March 31, 2010) Credit: James Carbone

ALBANY - Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy almost sounded like an on-message New York Republican this week when he called on the state's Democratic attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, to challenge the federal health care overhaul just passed by a Democratic Congress.

After all, State Republican chairman Ed Cox had voiced that demand a week ago, and Levy's GOP rival for governor, Rick Lazio, chimed in 48 hours later.

But Levy's comments came only in response to a question from a reporter. And where Cox portrays the issue as a fight for freedom from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "radical agenda," Levy's main worry is keeping New York from getting "clobbered" with new Medicaid costs.

Taste of classic Levy

Two weeks into Cox's bold gamble on this former Democrat, Suffolk County political veterans say his party is experiencing classic Levy:

He may wind up at the top of your ticket, they say, but don't expect him to be the captain of your team.

In interviews and speeches over the past few weeks, Levy hasn't pitched himself as a loyal new Republican intent on helping retake the state Senate and battling for Congress. Instead, he says he is a "post-partisan individual" who will pull New York back from a financial cliff.

"To me it's not so much about the party that's important," Levy said in a recent interview. "It's about the principles and the plan . . . and whoever wants to join with me, I'd be happy to join with."

Statewide, Levy contends, the clarity of his message is resonating with voters. But Suffolk County is well-stocked with officials of every party who have been driven a little crazy by Steve Levy. They cite his obsession with media, his keen populist instincts, and a single-mindedness that wins results, but often at the expense of relationships.

"Steve Levy has always been a party of one," is how former Republican chairman Howard DeMartini summed it up.

Joining the GOP is no great leap for Levy, who has sculpted a career-long reputation as a workaholic tax fighter. In his first race for county executive, his primary opponent, William Cunningham, dubbed him "Republican light," a man most comfortable "as far to the right as he can get."

Having started in politics at 26 in a legislative district where Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2 to 1, Levy won eight elections through relentless door-to-door campaigning and constituent service, milking popular resentments against the arrogance of those in power. But he annoyed his peers by refusing to vote for tax increases or deficit borrowing even when there was consensus agreement they were needed.

In the State Assembly, he often voted with Republicans, noted Assemb. Andrew Raia (R-Huntington).

Levy "was often a lone wolf - but a lone wolf on issues that reflected where the public really was or where you could argue the public needed to go," said Lawrence Levy, director of Hofstra's National Center for Suburban Studies, noting he bucked his party on laws governing police and municipal labor contracts.

As a Democratic county executive, Steve Levy from time to time gave quiet campaign aid to Republicans if the incumbent displeased him, party officials say. And he has had volcanic relations with officials of any party who embarrass or obstruct him; some call him vindictive.

His way, or else

"It's his way or the highway . . . , " said one official.

Legis. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) praised some of Levy's nonpartisan good-government initiatives, but his welcome to the party was tepid. "I know Steve Levy works very hard as county executive, and I only wish he would work more collaboratively - I think he would get further," Romaine said.

Some Democrats have a more cynical explanation for Levy's party switch.

"Levy is basically doing what [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg did," said Democratic consultant Christopher Hahn. "He's got a goal to be elected governor, and he wants to take the path of least resistance to get there."

But Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle insists he is the one who has been seeking to recruit Levy to his party for half a dozen years, because of his budgetary rigor.

"He says no on all spending," said Suffolk Conservative chairman Ed Walsh. "That's never resonated as much as it does today in this state."

But even the state GOP may be hoping for a little more party spirit from Levy. While spokesman Alex Carey called Levy's comments last week on health care reform encouraging, he added, "It'll take more of that for the Republican Party to rally around him."

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