Keeler: The rise and fall of Steve Levy
Originally published: November 7, 2011 4:20 PM
Updated: November 7, 2011 11:47 PM
By BOB KEELER
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (Sept. 14, 2011)
Steve Levy is not on today's ballot. That evokes mixed emotions, from relief -- a long sigh and a feeling that it's time for the years of constant combat to end -- to sadness.
In 2007, Levy was not only on the ballot, but on five party lines, including both the Democrats and the Republicans. So he won re-election as Suffolk County executive with 96.09 percent of the vote. The joke was that he was anxious to learn the identity of the wayward 4 percent.
But it wasn't just a joke. Levy loved his soaring approval ratings, the product of his image as the skinflint-in-chief, ever vigilant over the public purse, and the valiant leader, ready to fight fearlessly against the scourge of higher taxation.
The operative word is fight.
Levy felt that his scrappy style was necessary, and that voters appreciated it. But that eagerness for combat -- the Police Benevolent Association was a favorite target, but the enemies list is long -- exhausted nearly everyone around him: his adversaries across the street in the legislature, his staff, and his former staff.
Now, he's off the ballot and on his way out the door. That is the culmination of a breathtaking cascade of events. Last year, he switched from Democrat to Republican, to run for governor, but didn't win the nomination. This year, with his fundraising practices under investigation, he reached an agreement with Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota not only not to run for re-election, but also to give to Spota his $4-million-plus campaign fund -- to give back to contributors.
Now, at 52, after more than a quarter-century in public office in Hauppauge and Albany, he'll be out of a job. From now until Jan. 1, attention will shift from him to his successor. And Levy, a lawyer with zero zest for practicing law, will find it tough to get another public sector job from either major party.
Leaving the Democratic Party burned a big bridge there. Faced with the rumors of Levy's plan to switch parties, the county chairman, Rich Schaffer, recalls saying to him: "Make sure you're the guy who tells me you're doing it. I don't want to hear it from a reporter." But Schaffer did find out about the switch from a reporter, Newsday's Rick Brand -- in the middle of the night.
As for Republicans, many had disliked Levy so much as a Democrat that it was tough to break the habit. The county chairman, John Jay LaValle, backed him. But then LaValle decided he had to turn over to Spota $100,000 in campaign funds that Levy had given the GOP. In announcing it, LaValle said that " . . . it was unfair of Mr. Levy to give such a contribution, knowing it would necessarily taint the party."
So what does Levy do now? One option he has discussed is a think tank. But he has created so many bipartisan animosities that he might generate more revenue by becoming the main attraction at a dunk tank.
His former political leader believes Levy's addiction to political combat has seriously damaged his prospects. "I don't see him having a bright future; I don't," Schaffer said. "And I do feel bad, because he's good on a bunch of different levels. But this personality defect is what has been his downfall."
The other great stain on Levy's tenure was his over-the-top immigration rhetoric. He said it was directed only at illegal immigrants, but its impact went beyond them. His language and his legislative efforts did zilch to address a complex problem of national scope, but his ill-considered words added heat to an inflamed situation.
Still, the mix of emotions, beyond schadenfreude, does include sadness. Levy flew high in politics, overreached and fell painfully. Now he has to find a future in the only arena he really knows, but he's a man without a party. It is, by any reasonable definition of the word, sad.
Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.