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Steve Levy drove his old Ford Taurus last week from out east on Long Island up to Albany. The two-term executive of Suffolk County was there to change his registration from lifelong Democrat to nouveau Republican. As soon as this was done, he declared that he would run for governor as the candidate of his new party.
Instantly, GOP leaders proclaimed that a bright new star had risen in the east. They had seen the light, and it shined upon a short man with wide shoulders, a brush mustache, and a sharp beak. He began with a strong stump speech that rose to a high angry whine. He was running, Levy said, to save the state from financial ruin, and to stop late-night comics from using the state as a punch line for jokes. New Yorkers are looking "for a leader," he cried. He spaced out his own punch line: "I—am—that—leader!"
He said this twice on Friday, first in front of the capitol in Albany and again, a few hours later, 150 miles south in Manhattan. He stood on a raised platform at the far end of Battery Park with the Statue of Liberty over his shoulder. His wife, Colleen, stood beside him wearing heels, a black dress, and a suspicious squint. A dozen Republican functionaries clustered around them. Levy, 50, told the gathering that the most important person present was his wife. "She had veto power over this," he said as he briefly took her hand.
We are all going to find out a lot more about Steve Levy in the next few weeks. His chief claims to fame on which he now bases his run for governor are that he has kept his county's $2.6 billion budget ("Larger than 11 states!") under control, and has been willing to speak what he says are tough truths about immigration that others fear to voice. He has a 60-plus percent approval rating to back it up, and was such a shoo-in for re-election that Republican chieftains on the other side (now his side) happily gave him their ballot line.
But while Levy was out declaring his ability to lead the state last week, back home in Suffolk, subversive sniping was under way at his record.
One of the toughest critiques comes from Paul Sabatino, once a close Levy aide who served as deputy county executive until he and his boss had a nasty split a couple of years back. "When he started out, he looked at issues purely on the merits," said Sabatino from his law office in Huntington Station. "I thought he was the perfect model. You ask questions, you don't rubber-stamp the party line. But over time, as county exec, there was a change. He became obsessed with controlling the media. He surrounded himself with sycophants. I became the only voice that would differ. Which he didn't like. I wasn't being Team Levy."
Sabatino said he broke with Levy over county business: "He said, 'Don't put things in writing.' I said, 'What you are talking about is the way to run Enron.' He just became a different person."
Already, Levy's campaign theme is his fiscal conservatism. But here, too, some Suffolk residents were asking last week if his goal is the public good, or just a nice sales pitch for a candidate. The night before Levy's kick-off speeches, some 400 people attended a forum on gang violence in Central Islip, where a crime wave has claimed five lives this year, most recently a 16-year-old shot in the back as he was leaving his high school in Brentwood. In a county that saw just 33 homicides last year, it's an alarming spike. Levy declined to attend an initial community speak-out in early March, saying he hadn't been invited. He missed the follow-up meeting Thursday night because he was in Albany honing his campaign speech.
His absence was noted. "I'd like to know where Steve Levy is tonight," a local leader, quoted in Newsday, asked. A sore point at the forum was Levy's refusal to add 200 new police officers, despite a special 3 percent property tax passed last year to pay for them. The tax is being collected, speakers noted, but Levy has refused to hire more than 70, saying he needs to keep a balanced budget.
"It's very obvious we don't have enough cops on the street," says Jon Cooper, Democratic majority leader of the county legislature. "But Steve is running for governor on the mantra of holding the line on the budget. The concern is that he's putting his political aspirations ahead of the lives of kids and citizens."
Levy's campaign timing was off as well for his other big issue, immigration. The day before he announced his run for governor, a 19-year-old Medford resident named Jeffrey Conroy went on trial in Riverhead for second-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of an Ecuadoran day laborer.
Prosecutors said that Conroy, who boasts a swastika tattoo on his thigh, had been roaming the streets with a gang of teens in search of a Hispanic to attack when they spotted Marcello Lucero near the Patchogue train station. When Lucero swung his belt in self-defense, Conroy stabbed him in the chest.
The incident—the worst in a series of attacks on day laborers—rocked the county. But after the stabbing, Levy told a reporter that if it had happened elsewhere, it would have been "a one-day story." At his Battery Park announcement on Friday, Levy said he's gotten a bum rap on this quote. "I said if the Lucero case had happened elsewhere, it might have been treated as a one-day story," the candidate said. "I in no way insinuated it should have been a one-day story."
But many in Suffolk say Levy has fueled local anti-immigrant fires. At Battery Park, he denied it. "I share the point of view of 90 percent of the population," he said. "I am for legal immigration, and against illegal immigration."
Levy grew up in Holbrook, a hamlet adjacent to Farmingville, which, in recent years, has been ground zero for violence and protests against immigrants—both legal and illegal—who provide much of the grunt labor these days in the suburbs. He had what he calls a Leave It to Beaver childhood, playing hockey in winter, biking in the summer, and watching heroes like the great wrestler Bruno Sammartino on TV. His goal, he says, is for everyone to be able to enjoy those same innocent pleasures.
In 2004, a few months after his election as county executive, Levy attended a meeting in Farmingville convened by a rabid anti-immigrant group. He told them what they wanted to hear: He would deputize county police officers as immigration agents. He also authorized raids on houses where day laborers resided, evicting some 200 workers and their families. Those who condemned his tactics, he said, were "a lunatic fringe" and "anarchists."
Collectively, these tasty bones tossed to the anti-immigrant right earned Levy the title of "The Enabler" when the Southern Poverty Law Center, which researches hate groups, issued a report last year on the county called "Climate of Fear."
"He has made headlines over and over again by really catering to the most primal fears of Suffolk residents," says Patrick Young, a local immigration lawyer. Young, who teaches at Hofstra, first met Levy in the mid-'90s when the men were on a TV show to talk about immigration. "I assumed he was a Republican. He said, 'Pat, I'm a Democrat.' I could've fallen off my stool. I had never heard a Democrat talk that way about immigrants before."