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Levy built his career on hard work ethic

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy delivers his 2011

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy delivers his 2011 State of the County address. (Feb. 15, 2011) Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

A year ago this month, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy -- a fiscally conservative Democrat enjoying widespread voter support -- announced he was switching parties to seek the Republican nomination for governor.

That gamble kicked off a year of high hopes, disappointments and grueling battles with the legislature and police unions. Levy, 51, steered Suffolk through the economic downturn and came out of his failed gubernatorial bid with a healthy $3 million war chest. Then came Thursday's stunning announcement: the hard-charging politician who built his career on a fearsome work ethic and a willingness to take on just about any opponent would not be seeking a third term this fall.

Soon, Levy may find himself in a position he hasn't faced since age 25 -- that of an ordinary citizen, outside the political world that had consumed him for half his life.

What happens during his remaining time in office is anyone's guess.

"I don't think Steve Levy is going to change his personality," said Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco. "I don't think he will change the way he governs."

Raised in Glendale, Queens, Levy moved out to Holbrook in 1969 when his parents joined the waves of urban migrants headed east for suburbia.

He was a middle-class kid who lifted weights and mowed lawns and shoveled driveways for extra cash. During his 26 years as an elected official, his polestar remained the concerns of Long Island's middle class: taxes, crime, jobs, quality of life.

Levy graduated from Sachem High School and earned a political science degree at Stony Brook University, then went to law school at St. John's University.

He was practicing law in Smithtown when Suffolk Legis. Jim Morgo, whose Democratic campaign Levy had worked on, decided not to seek a second term in 1985. Levy, 25, threw his hat into the ring in a contest that eventually pitted the political neophyte against a GOP front-runner in a Republican district. He knocked on nearly every door in the eighth legislative district, located mostly in Islip town, and he won.

"He really in those days was kind of a Mr. Smith goes to Hauppauge," said Morgo, a former Levy deputy. "He was totally idealistic and incredibly hardworking. What really mattered to him was the whole middle class, homeowner, Long Island story."

In the legislature, he was known as a policy wonk and copious note-taker. Levy immersed himself in the issues and spent hours poring over budget documents, an obsession that has remained his hallmark. And then there was news conference after news conference -- a media blitz that over the decades only spun faster as technology allowed.

Levy also gained a reputation in the legislature as a maverick -- or an opportunist, depending on whom you talked to. Sometimes he cast the sole opposing vote to resolutions. Other times he allied himself with Republicans.

"The problem with government is that there are too many officials who go along just to get along," he told Newsday in 2003.

Levy beat out a Republican for a state Assembly seat in 2000. During his three years in Albany he introduced dozens of bills, few of which passed, and often spoke out on the Assembly floor.

But Long Island beckoned, and in 2003 Levy ran yet another uphill campaign, this time for Suffolk County executive. Outspent 2-to-1, he won the Democratic primary despite the opposition of police and public employee unions. Levy positioned himself as a moderate with his eye on the public purse and defeated Republican contender Ed Romaine.

In his two terms, Levy cemented his reputation as an anti-tax moderate. He supported open space acquisition and environmental restoration, putting county money toward restoring shell fish populations.

But he also drew fierce criticism for his aggressive stance against illegal immigration, at a time when Suffolk found itself grappling with demographic change, attacks against Latinos and eventually, the killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant, Marcelo Lucero.

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