NY GOP Has Chance of a Lifetime, But Still in Quandary

New York State is facing a $9 billion-plus deficit and public school teachers are getting raises at the same time that school districts are laying off teachers.

Coupling this economic turbulence with the scandals surrounding lame-duck Democratic Gov. David Paterson and his Democratic predecessor Eliot Spitzer, clearly the New York GOP could well have the opportunity of a lifetime in 2010, possibly seizing the governorship as well as other major offices in the Empire State.

But so far, at least, Republicans have problems of their own in what is shaping up as a three-candidate race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.  Two weeks ago, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, with the encouragement of State Republican Chairman Ed Cox, announced he was switching from Democrat to Republican and would seek the GOP nod for governor.

With $4 million in his campaign kitty and a record as a fiscal conservative, the 50-year-old Levy is a formidable candidate.  He also packs a political wallop, running on the ballot lines of five parties (Republican, Democratic, Independence, Conservative and Working Families ), Levy rolled up 96% of the vote to win re-election as the top governing official in New York’s fourth-most populous county (and the most populous outside New York City).

But Levy also has his problems.  Given his record as a liberal Democratic state assemblyman before he became county executive, the newly minted Republican is viewed with distrust by many on the right.  Meeting at their headquarters in Brooklyn on Saturday, March 20, the executive committee of the New York State Conservative Party recommended that the party’s ballot line be given to former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, who last sought office when he was the Republican-Conservative nominee for the Senate against Hillary Clinton ten years ago.  (  New York is one of only five states in which candidates can appear on multiple ballot lines and have all votes cast for them combined.  )  In recent years, appearing on the Conservative Party ballot line has been critical to the elections of such Republicans as former Sen. Al D’Amato, former Gov. George Pataki, and former State Atty. Gen. Dennis Vacco).

Long on Levy

“Steve Levy should have switched in January or February, when he would have had time to come out and explain why he had changed parties,” Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long told me before his party’s meeting.  “He could then have explained his past support for candidates such as [disgraced former Gov.]Elliot Spitzer, Barack Obama, David Paterson and [Sen. Charles] Schumer.”

“Right now, you have to wonder whether he is switching parties in the way of [former Texas Sen.] Phil Gramm or Ronald Reagan, who became Republicans over strong issue differences with the Democratic Party, or whether he is like [New York Mayor] Mike Bloomberg, who became a Republican when he first ran for mayor and never changed his liberal views.”

Long recalled how he met with Levy several times, most recently at “my home in Brooklyn [March 14].”  While realizing that Levy “was more conservative as a county executive than as a state legislator,” Long also cited Levy’s past support of liberal Democratic candidates such as Obama and Spitzer and said that “Steve is not a conservative on social issues, not at all.”  (The Suffolk County official is not pro-life and supports civil unions for gay couples but has not addressed the issue of marriage.  ).

For Lazio to appear on the Conservative ballot line in November, the Conservative Party’s Executive Committee recommendation of Lazio as a candidate must be approved by the party’s 300-plus member state committee at their meeting in late May.  Lazio and Levy will also compete for the Republican gubernatorial standard at the GOP state convention in June.  Should any candidate get 25% of the vote, he is automatically entitled to compete in the Republican primary this September without resorting to circulating petitions.  (As a recent convert from the Democratic Party, Levy will need a majority of the weighted vote of the GOP state committee in order to compete in the primary).

Even those who like Lazio privately concede that the 51-year-old former congressman would have wrapped up the Republican and Conservative nominations by now if he had run a hard-charging campaign.  As it stands, he has raised only about $637,000 and not come up with any fresh ideas except a call for replacing the state Assembly and Senate with a unicameral legislature—a concept many conservatives balk at.

Complicating the gubernatorial picture is the recent entry into the GOP race of Buffalo area developer Carl Paladino, who became involved in politics through the “Tea Party movement” and has spoken of spending $10 million of his own money on the campaign.  Although Paladino’s anti-tax, anti-government message certainly resonates, it is unclear at this time where he stands on most state issues.

Why ’06 GOP Nominee is for Levy

On the morning after the Conservative Party Executive Committee, I had a call from John Faso, former Assembly GOP Leader, the ’06 Republican-Conservative nominee for governor, and a “small-c” conservative who strongly supports Levy.

Faso recalled how he served in the Assembly with Levy and freely admitted that the Suffolk County man generally followed the lead of liberal Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

“But he did defy [Silver] by opposing him on mandatory arbitration for local government employees, and that took guts,” Faso added.

In conceding Levy’s history of voting the liberal line in the Assembly, backing left-wing Democratic candidates, and not being pro-life (as Faso himself is), Faso pointed out that “that is all secondary with voters.  Right now, look at the problems we have:  the deficit and big fall-off in revenues, the growth in Medicaid, the promises made on K-12 grades in public schools that the state could not afford to keep and the $2 to 2.5 billion in public employee raises that are coming as school districts lay off teachers.

“People’s real concern is ‘how do you fix the state?’  Steve was a very strong fiscal conservative as county executive and offers a specific program, not generalities.”

Faso cited Levy’s call for a “Declaration of Fiscal Emergency” empowering the state, localities, and school districts to suspend raises for public sector employees until the legislature determines the economic emergency has passed.

Recalling his own big defeat at the hands of Spitzer four years ago, Faso said “We just can’t afford another coronation. Business leaders who were normally friendly to Republicans wrote out checks to [Spitzer] because they became convinced he was a sure winner.  Now [State Attorney General and likely Democratic candidate] Andrew Cuomo has $16 million in the bank without taking a stand on anything.”

Faso also noted “the Conservative Party recommendation is not the final word on their endorsement, and the Republican convention is more than two months away.  There is still time.”

Others on the right feel Levy might be more marketable to the Republican Party if he tapped a lieutenant governor running mate with solid conservative credentials.  Names that come to mind are State Sen. Cathy Young and Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks (both of whom recently ruled out bids for the seat of former Democratic Rep. Eric Massa).

Given the economic chaos that now holds New York in a chokehold, Democrats are in turbulent times and could easily be turned out.  But in order to do this, Republicans have to overcome some difficulties  of their own.