With TV camera lights glaring in his face, Steve Levy seemed speechless at arguably the lowest moment of his political life.
After a hard-fought battle at last June's Republican convention, his long-shot bid to gain the party's gubernatorial nod as a party-switching Democrat had failed. Quickly, though, the 54-year-old Suffolk County executive recovered his composure.
"Listen, I'm a big boy - I knew what I was getting into," Levy told reporters as his wife, Colleen West, stood nearby. "Had we started earlier, I think we would have had more possibilities of success."
But as it turned out, Levy's political troubles were only beginning.
As he eyes the likelihood of running for a third and, under county law, final term as county executive, Levy faces a contentious and deeply personal clash with some members of the Suffolk County Legislature that could redefine his political future. Some members of the party he left behind, including the county's Democratic chairman, Richard Schaffer, are now his political enemies.
Panel's inquiry begins
Starting Wednesday, a special legislative committee will begin its examination of the actions of the county Ethics Commission. As Newsday has reported, the commission's executive director, Alfred Lama, said that Levy could file the state financial disclosure form in satisfaction of the local disclosure law. In June, the Suffolk County district attorney's office subpoenaed records from the Ethics Commission. More than 600 county employees each year file the local disclosure form. Levy was required to file the state form as a member of the Pine Barrens Commission.
Legislative presiding officer William Lindsay, a Democrat and a Levy critic, formed the committee following the Newsday story. Newsday has also reported that court reporting firms owned by Levy's wife had extensive business dealings with law firms that have been awarded county business. Lindsay declined to comment for this story.
Levy called Newsday's reports "disparaging, inaccurate and false," and characterized the legislative inquiry as a witch hunt stirred up by legislative Democrats angry about his political defection and looking to undermine his future.
Levy said everything he and his wife did was legal and proper. He initially said the Ethics Commission ruled that he could satisfy the local requirement by filling out the state form. Later he said it was Lama who gave him that permission.
"Since the switch, it's been pure politics of personal destruction," said Levy in a recent interview. He said Newsday's reporting about his disclosure forms and his wife's businesses "made it seem like something was wrong and partisan legislators picked up on it to keep that false story going for several more months."
The prospect of a legislative inquiry comes at a time when the two-term county executive, who has a $4-million political war chest, might have expected to cruise to re-election victory next year.
"There's been a subtle change in the public perception," said Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches), a longtime Levy opponent. Romaine says he's not convinced Levy did anything wrong, but added, "if these hearings reveal more, it will have more impact."
Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle predicted the county legislature's inquiry won't have any impact on Levy's political future.
"I know the Democrats are mad at him, but Steve is still Steve," said LaValle, who said Levy remains popular with voters for holding down county spending and taxes. "Now the liberal Democrats have to stand on their own and not hide behind Steve Levy and his fiscal conservatism."
A whirlwind year
It has been a whirlwind political year for Levy. At first, he considered running against incumbent Gov. David A. Paterson and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in a three-way Democratic primary. But when Paterson decided not to seek re-election, Levy changed plans, leaving a clear path for Cuomo, who is now the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. But the lifelong Democrat's switch to the GOP left some Democratic friends and supporters in Suffolk angry. His newfound alliance with top Republican state leaders, they said, smacked of opportunism.
"It was 150-percent ambition - he's always been a party of one," said Schaffer, once a staunch ally. "That's the way he's been his whole life."
When Levy first switched, Schaffer held out the possibility that Suffolk Democrats might still cross-endorse him if he ran in next year's county executive race. Now, Schaffer says he's unalterably opposed to him. "His language is what closed the door on him," he said, calling Levy's labeling of Democrats as extremists personally offensive. "I'm offended and there's no way we could cross-endorse him - not while I'm county leader."
But LaValle, a strong Levy backer, said the outspoken county executive would have been well-suited to take on Cuomo and has no regrets about the interparty challenge to Lazio, whom he considered a weak candidate.
Levy says he's "more likely than not" to run for re-election next year - although he said that his 25 years in politics as a county legislator, state assemblyman and as county executive "is not all there is to life." Beyond re-election as county executive, both Levy and LaValle believe Levy would have a good chance to gain the 2014 Republican gubernatorial nod, especially if Paladino fails to beat Cuomo this year. In the meantime, Levy says he will fight the legislature's inquiry.
"When they go after your family, without legitimacy, it hits a nerve," said Levy.
"My wife built up her business on her own over 20 years, not through my connections, long before I became county executive . . . I'm not going to sit by carefully and let that [the personal attacks] happen."