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Steve Levy is a scrappy, bantamweight kind of guy, which may help explain his boyhood passion for pro wrestling growing up in Suffolk County: "Oh, yeah!" boomed the man who would be governor when asked for his all-time picks after laying out another budget-crushing scheme at a press conference last week.
"Jimmy 'Superfly' Snuka! Remember him? And George 'The Animal' Steele! This was the guy used to eat the turnbuckles on the ring! Remember that?" asked the county executive. "He was hil-a-ri-ous!"
Levy, 50, was trying to wolf down a ham-and-cheese on croissant in the lunch room of a downtown law firm before heading over to see some Wall Street bigs to try to raise some campaign dough. He quickly shut the door on these happy memories. "But you know, the only way wrestling works is if you knew it was a goof," he added. He knew that as a kid? "Oh sure, no doubt in my mind." He risked another quick dart back to the memories. "But it was fun. You know, good-guys, bad-guys kind of thing."
Actually, Levy's newly launched campaign for governor is shaping up a lot like a smackdown-happy wrestling promo. The candidate himself has been revving up crowds the way George "The Animal" used to do, snarling and clawing at his foes. Until recently, he was a fiscally conservative, but otherwise straight-line, Democrat. He favored things like universal health care and candidates like Hillary Clinton. His wife was such a Clinton fan that she maxed out in campaign contributions to the then senator.
Now the newly enrolled Republican is spouting right-wing fire and brimstone, presenting himself as Long Island's gift to the GOP and the Tea Party. Speaking of which: "I was just at a Tea Party meeting last night in Melville, New York, and they were eating it up," he said. "They were clapping because they were hearing someone talk about the changes that need to be made."
Successful wrestlers require inspired promoters. In Levy's case, he has Ed Cox, the Richard Nixon son-in-law and state GOP chairman, who helped pull the county exec across party lines, a daring stunt for a political boss. Like most managers, Cox is playing his own angles as well. His son, Christopher, is running for Congress out in Suffolk, facing a pair of well-heeled Republican rivals. This is where Levy's other big booster comes in: John Jay LaValle, head of the Suffolk County Republican Committee, gets top credit for persuading Levy to turn Republican. "Yeah, he played a big role," Levy agreed last week. The move broke nicely for Cox's son, as well. LaValle had been supporting a wealthy local businessman named Randy Altschuler for the congressional seat. But just as Cox Senior was signing Levy to the GOP team, LaValle switched, declaring Cox Junior his preferred candidate.
LaValle is the former supervisor of Brookhaven, Suffolk's largest town. He left office in 2005 amid a continuing corruption scandal that gave the town its marvelous moniker: "Crookhaven." Last October, LaValle was elected Republican leader with the backing of his political godfather, John Powell, a local legend whose own nickname is "Mugsy." An ex-highway worker with a gift of gab and a good eye for talent, Powell rose to become the county's most powerful GOP boss in decades, helping to elect the state's last Republican governor, George Pataki. He was riding high until he was nailed on a federal rap in 1999 involving stolen trucks, a chop-shop, and shakedowns at a local landfill. He did two years in prison, came home to run his paving company, and kept a generally low profile. But he surfaced to help his protégé, LaValle, take over the party. As LaValle told Newsday's Rick Brand, who covers these things closely, Powell's backing was "critical."
At Levy's campaign launch in Battery Park last month, LaValle and his new candidate threw compliments at each other like newlyweds at a reception. LaValle was asked later if he'd talked over the Levy move with his ally, Powell. "I don't see John that much," he said. They last spoke "maybe a month ago."
Others involved in Suffolk politics say Powell has been crowing about helping make this match in GOP heaven. Not true, Powell told the Voice last week. "I haven't seen Steve in 15 years," he said. Yes, LaValle had asked him a few months back about running Levy for governor. "He ran this by me. You know, like he was pondering it. I said, 'I think it's a no-brainer.' If he wins, he wins, and if he loses, he wins."
Levy won his county post as a reformer vowing to oust the Crookhaven crew, and he sat straight up when asked about Powell's role. "Never spoke to him," he snapped. "Directly or indirectly. Not even the slightest smidge of a hint that he was involved in any way." Should his new county leader be discussing political strategy with an ex-con? "Listen," he said, "I have no control over people in either party who talk to other people. But I know who I've been talking to, and my goal is the same on a state level as it was on a county level. And that is to clean the place up both ethically and financially."
Levy has had hard luck in the past with political handlers. A few months after his election as county executive in 2003, his closest adviser was arrested in a bribery sting. Steve Baranello and another Levy ally, Wayne Prospect, were charged with trying to sell access to his administration. Baranello pled guilty and testified against Prospect. On the stand, Baranello gave Levy a glowing character reference: Had he known about the schemes, "Steve would have literally taken me into custody himself," Baranello testified. "He probably would have punched me in the face."
The trickier part, however, was that District Attorney Thomas Spota's office collected thousands of hours of wiretap recordings during the probe. Most have never been released. Levy admits he was alerted, as the law requires, that he was recorded. "Oh yeah, 3,000 people were on those tapes." Had he ever heard them? "It's not allowed. They're all sealed." Was he worried about them surfacing? "Well, we already saw some of it," he said. Last month, his GOP rival, Rick Lazio, released a transcript of a conversation where Levy calls someone (a woman), "a fucking prick."
That's as bad as it gets, Levy believes. "Salty language. One of my vices is using, you know, the 'F' word a little bit too much," he laughed. "Every year I make a New Year's resolution to stop. Usually I'm violating it by January 3rd. Like Joe Biden."
Still, Levy insisted the tapes shouldn't be released, as some media outlets are currently seeking under freedom of information requests. He has studied up on the issue. "Look, the law is quite clear that innocent third parties are protected from that kind of stuff," he said. "The case law is very, very clear on it."
The first move is up to the D.A., who is expected to deny access to the material. After that, it could go to the courts. If so, Levy isn't the only one to watch. There's also his chief sponsor, Ed Cox. It'll be interesting to see if the state GOP leader echoes his late father-in-law's most famously failed argument: that the public interest is best served by keeping potentially damaging tapes secret.