The state Conservative Party executive committee Saturday voted overwhelmingly to back former GOP Congressman Rick Lazio for governor, dealing a setback to the 1-day-old campaign of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy.
Levy's chief ally on the committee, Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh, pushed hard for the committee to delay its nonbinding recommendation during the two-hour meeting at Conservative headquarters in Brooklyn. But the committee voted 14-5 to back Lazio.
Four of the votes against Lazio came from Levy supporters from Suffolk and the Bronx and one came from Erie County Conservative chairman Ralph Lorigo, who backs Buffalo developer Carl Paladino's bid.
"Rick, I think, has been a friend of the party," state Conservative chairman Mike Long said after the vote. "He's a bona fide Republican, he's a real Republican. He's a guy who has supported Republican candidates his entire life. He's supported many Conservative candidates."
Levy's camp immediately shot back, casting doubt on the relevance of the vote. Though Levy lobbied Long Friday night, Levy campaign spokeswoman Rene Babich said the vote "has little meaning until a designee is officially chosen at the convention. . . . We anticipate major defections."
To do that, Levy, who said he changed his lifetime Democratic registration to Republican on Friday, will need to siphon support from the very same executive committee that backed Lazio . The committee authorizes the eligible candidates for nomination at the party convention in June.
Long said "there is no reversing" the party's support for Lazio. "We're not revisiting it," he said.
But Walsh said he will work to buy time for Levy to gain support from the committee. The Suffolk Conservative Party, he said, "does not believe in the candidacy of Rick Lazio right now, period. There's no ifs, ands or buts."
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is expected to be the Democratic nominee for governor.
No Republican has been elected to statewide office without Conservative support since Sen. Jacob Javits and Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz won re-election in 1974.
Lazio, who emerged from a waiting SUV after Long announced the vote, said he's "not worried about" Levy's candidacy, though he dodged a question about whether he would promise to support the GOP candidate in November.
"I am on this ballot and I will be working on behalf of this Conservative Party from now until Nov. 2," he said. "I'm in until the end. I expect to be the Republican nominee as well as the Conservative nominee."
Conservatives who backed Lazio cited his GOP credentials, while Levy's supporters said Lazio hasn't raised enough money during his months of campaigning and doesn't generate strong enough emotions among supporters.
But Bronx Conservative chairman Bill Newmark said Lazio "has no chance of beating Cuomo . . . Republicans only win when they polarize on the issues."