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By Darwin BondGraham
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By Tessa Stuart
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You'd have thought Tom Suozzi was running for higher office when he called reporters to a press conference two days before New Year's Eve. The recently re-elected mayor of Glen Cove trekked down from the North Shore to the Supreme Court building in Mineola, where he announced he was giving free storage space for boats and traps to his city's struggling lobstermenall eight of them.
Suozzi parlayed that modest turn of events into a photo and a few hundred words in the local press. Looking like an intelligent guy able to muster support across town lines, Suozzi shared the mic with grateful working-class constituents and hailed the willingness of Huntington and Oyster Bay to pitch in. "[The lobstermen] are desperate, and they're a big part of what makes Long Island an island," he said in a later interview. "As far as being the right thing to do, it was so clear-cut."
It was also a savvy political move, the latest in a string of strategic maneuvers as Suozzi quietly begins his campaign to be Nassau's next county executive. Incumbent Republican Tom Gulotta's term doesn't expire until 2001, but Suozzi is already taking his show on the road by issuing press releases, holding conferences outside his small city and courting party faithful on the South Shore.
In September, Suozzi spoke at the Seaford-Wantagh Democratic Club's barbecue, telling the group he planned to run for the executive seat. "He's making the rounds," says club official Peter Ruffner, who supports Suozzi. "He's got his own way of learning about the county."
Hailed by backers as smart and innovative and cursed by opponents as arrogant and ambitious, Suozzi has become the frontrunner in a pack of Democratic hopefuls that also includes LIPA chairman Richard Kessel. Three years ago, Suozzi considered competing against Sen. Al D'Amato, but found himself out of his league. Mentioned for state posts as lofty as lieutenant governor, Suozzi promised in 1998 not to run again for mayor of Glen Cove. "I have decided...that after serving six years, it will be time for me to move on," he said, in his third inaugural address. "This will be the last time I stand before you as a newly elected mayor."
Suozzi did in fact stand as a newly elected mayor again, giving yet another inaugural speech this month. Now in his fourth term, Suozzi says he's concentrating on improving Glen Cove, but that hasn't stopped others from noticing his appetite to move up.
With allies throughout the county, a lengthy family pedigree in politics and the backing of his father's law firm, Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, the Glen Cove leader may have a solid shot at raising the necessary votesand cashto capture the top post in Mineola. "He has certainly done an outstanding job in Glen Cove," says Nassau Democratic chairman Tom DiNapoli, an assemblyman from Great Neck. "Tom Suozzi's name would be on the short list to run for higher office."
Having tossed his hat into the ring so soon, Suozzi must now avoid turning off voters and party loyalists by appearing to campaign ceaselessly. That hasn't stopped him from making the most of the bully pulpit afforded by his current job.
When Latino residents accused city police of racist behavior late last year, Suozzi could have ducked TV reporters. Instead, he told them the cops were out of line and pledged to provide sensitivity training. When public money came through a few months ago to continue his mammoth waterfront revitalization, there was Suozzi in Newsday, trumpeting the project, just as he touted a recent deal to provide ferry service across the Sound.
When Swezey's decided to build a department store in downtown Glen Cove, Suozzi's public relations machine issued a glowing press release, complete with praise from Swezey's president, William Knapp. "If it weren't for Tom Suozzi, there wouldn't be a Swezey's in Glen Cove," Knapp said. "It is our belief that the investment we are making in Glen Cove is justified by the positive, business-friendly atmosphere created by Suozzi's leadership."
Little by little, Suozzi is raising his profile. He'll need all the name recognition he can get. Even if the increasingly unpopular Gulotta decides not to run and negotiates his way into a judgeship, his seven-figure war chest could bankroll another GOP candidate.
Democratic veteran Lew Yevoli of Plainview estimates that Suozzi will have to raise about $1 million to have a fighting chance. Yevoli speaks from experience. In 1997, he stepped down as Oyster Bay supervisor to mount his own campaign against Gulotta, but with only $220,000 to spend he was beaten decisively. Given two years to build a countywide reputation, says Yevoli, the Glen Cove mayor may be able to compensate for a lack of cash with a surfeit of voter goodwill. "Two years is a long time, and in politics it's a lifetime," Yevoli says. "But Suozzi's doing it correctlygetting his name out, getting around, telling people that's what he wants to do."