In 1985, Steve Levy was a rising young Democrat, after winning a seat in the Suffolk Legislature at age 26. Now, at 50, Levy is a newborn Republican, seeking to become governor of New York, where Democratic voters outnumber the GOP by nearly a 2-1 margin.
In challenging former Rep. Rick Lazio for the Republican nomination, Levy is pitching himself as a fiscal conservative who's unafraid to take on public employee unions and other powerful interests - and many state GOP leaders appear to be listening.
But Levy's bid for governor also is filled with peril - and some experts said that if he fails, it could mean the end of his 25-year political career.
Here are three possible keys to success for Levy - and three pitfalls experts said he'll need to avoid:
HOW TO WIN
Raise big money
It's the key factor that persuaded GOP leaders, including state chairman Edward Cox and Suffolk chairman John Jay LaValle, to back away from Lazio. Many influential Republican county leaders believed Lazio, of Brightwaters, wasn't capable of attracting the support needed for a campaign against likely Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo.
Experts said it will take $20 million to $25 million to run for governor this fall. At last count, Levy had more than $4 million on hand.
Tap independent/anti-incumbent anger
As chief executive of one of America's largest suburban counties, Levy is casting himself as an independent-minded moderate who might upset both parties but who's looking out for the average homeowner. "We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't feel he was in the right and that his message was resonating with people in the middle," said Levy campaign strategist Mike Dawidziak.
There are 5.7 million registered Democrats statewide, some of whom Levy hopes to steal.
As a Republican, Levy probably will have to make Cuomo's record as a liberal Democrat into an issue, reviving criticisms of Cuomo's tenure as HUD secretary under President Bill Clinton and linking him to the scandal-plagued administrations of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and incumbent Gov. David A. Paterson. Cuomo has stayed mostly out of the campaign limelight. But Levy's in-your-face style could get under the skin of the state attorney general, GOP insiders suggested.
Levy has never run a statewide race; Lazio has. In 2000, Lazio lost a contest for U.S. Senate to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. But that race, along with his six-month campaign for governor, boosted his profile. A Siena Research Institute poll just before Levy announced his candidacy found that 68 percent had no opinion or didn't know about Levy. That number for Lazio is 45 percent.
Levy's political career has included battles over spending cuts, immigration, and police hiring and assignments. He's no favorite of unions, especially those representing police. "Levy is combative and voters like that, as long as it isn't all the time," said Stanley B. Klein, a politics professor at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. Assembly GOP leader Brian Kolb of upstate Canandaigua agreed. "Just complaining Albany is broken isn't enough. How are you going to work with the legislature to change state government?"
If his run for governor flops, Levy could have trouble holding onto the county executive's office after next year. Suffolk Democratic chief Richard Schaffer is looking at several town supervisors as possible successor. Republicans have only a small enrollment edge - 12,790 - over Democrats in Suffolk. "And some Republicans are mad because we cross-endorsed him in 2007 and didn't get much for it," Klein said.