Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy addresses the Student Congress for...

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy addresses the Student Congress for Justice, in Holbrook. (Nov. 6, 2009) Credit: John Dunn

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy will announce Friday he is leaving the Democratic Party to run for governor of New York as a Republican, a Levy campaign spokeswoman said late Wednesday night.

Levy will declare his candidacy in Albany with the endorsement of "a large majority of Republican vice chairs as well as many Republican county chairs," spokeswoman Rene Babich said.

Levy's entry into the race upends a campaign whose only declared candidate had been former Rep. Rick Lazio, of Brightwaters, who has trailed the expected Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, in both polls and fundraising.

The expected announcement follows several days of intensive negotiations between Levy and the Republicans, who have been openly and sharply divided over the wisdom of placing a Democrat at the top of their state ticket.

But Levy, a maverick tax-fighting executive who has been far to the right of his party on immigration and union issues, has steadily maintained he is the most fiscally conservative of all those seeking the governor's office this year. In a year of record deficits and taxpayer unrest, he has convinced many New York Republicans that he has the message that most voters want to hear in November.

"I'm speaking to that 80 percent in the middle," Levy said during a visit to Albany March 8.

Lazio campaign spokesman Barney Keller early Thursday morning responded to the news with sarcasm. "Now we can add turncoat and opportunist to the words liberal and disingenuous," Keller said. "All this means is that Andrew Cuomo is in deep trouble this year and we are confident that Rick Lazio will be New York's next governor."

Nassau Republican Chairman Joseph Mondello has been solidly behind Lazio, but Republican elected officials lately have taken pains to praise what state Senate GOP leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre called Levy's "great record."

Levy, 50, has limited experience in Albany, having served only three years in the Assembly. During that time, the conservative Democrat clashed at times with his more liberal colleagues. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is not a Levy fan, sources said.

Levy went to the Capitol after 15 years in the Suffolk County Legislature. He and Lazio served together in the legislature. Levy was first elected Suffolk executive in 2003, defeating Republican Edward Romaine of Center Moriches. In November 2007, he was re-elected overwhelmingly with the cross-endorsement of the Republicans.

In his years in Hauppauge, he has earned a reputation for fiscal conservatism, preservation of open space and combativeness with the legislature. His tough stance against illegal immigration has garnered national attention from former CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs and others.

Levy lives in Bayport with his wife, Colleen, and his two stepdaughters.

The state GOP is particularly concerned about Lazio's anemic fundraising. As of mid-January he had less than $700,000 on hand, while Levy had $4 million and presumed Democratic candidate Cuomo, $16 million.

Vincent Reda of Rockland County, first vice chairman of the state Republican committee, declared Wednesday that Lazio's campaign is "falling apart." He said he would withdraw his earlier endorsement of Lazio.

"Our concern has been, 'Hey, what's going on with your campaign? Why can't you raise money? Why has it been radio silence and TV silence with all that is going on with the Democratic Party?' " said Reda, the party's No. 2 official.

Reda complained about Lazio campaign events that drew sparse crowds. "They had an event here in Rockland County and only 18 people showed up," he continued. "It was just disorganized and not run properly." Only "three or four" people were on hand when former Gov. George Pataki endorsed Lazio at Grand Central Terminal, Reda noted.

Wednesday afternoon, Keller shot back: "Even liberal Democrats like Steve Levy want to be Republicans these days. It's laughable, of course, that Steve Levy would find support in the Republican Party."

Reda said he considered it a "personal affront" when Lazio refused state Republican leaders' call to Albany last week, on the eve of their interview with Levy. The regional vice chairmen were seeking to "get him on the right track," Reda said. But Lazio's aides said he couldn't fit the meeting at the Fort Orange Club into his schedule - even though he was at a Conservative Party reception just around the corner.

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