For much of the past decade, when Steve Levywas Suffolk County executive, any mention of immigrant activist Luis Valenzuela usually elicited a combative response.
But last month without a word of debate, Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, an immigrant rights group in Amityville, was confirmed unanimously by the county legislature as a member of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, one of two new appointments made by Levy's successor, Steve Bellone.
Levy critics say he used the issue to attack foes as soft on illegal immigration and to gain a national platform, through television appearances with conservative pundits, including Lou Dobbs. They credit Bellone with largely defusing the issue locally. The tenor has so changed that Bellone next weekend will be grand marshal ofBrentwood's Puerto Rican Day Parade, which draws tens of thousands of people.
"He's made it a nonissue," said Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches). "Levy made immigration an issue at the local level -- knowing there was little that you can do -- to stir up passions for political advantage and make a name for himself for higher office."
Romaine said there was no opposition to Valenzuela's appointment because he "has gained the respect of a lot of legislators . . . Whether you agree with him or not, you listen to him."
Levy, a Republican, calls Valenzuela "an articulate gentleman. But he is as far left as they come in the illegal immigration lobby. Steve [Bellone] said my opposition to illegal immigration was divisive, but in his quest to be liked by everyone he is capitulating to those who want to surrender on the issue."
Valenzuela, 60, declined to respond to Levy: "What's significant is that we're moving forward, and there's no need to dwell on the past."
He said he hopes his contribution will be "to bring a sense that everyone who's a resident of the county should count."
Rabbi Steven Moss, the commission's chairman for 21 years, said he expects Valenzuela to be a "very powerful advocate for his community . . . and the rights of everyone." Bellone in his first months in office has "demonstrated his respect for the commission and its independence."
Moss, whose temple is in Oakdale, also noted that Bellone has shifted control of the county's anti-bias task force, previously an arm of Levy's office, to the commission. Moss said that while there was "never any interference" from Levy, his administration "wanted to be more aware and on top of what we were doing."
The Rev. Alan Ramirez, an outspoken Latino advocate who is preparing to retire as pastor of Brookville Reformed Church, said he is disappointed Bellone, a Democrat, has not "cleaned house" and replaced the entire commission since many in the immigrant community saw it as "the former executive's puppet." While Bellone named Valenzuela and Luis Rodriguez, a Salvadoran-born attorney from St. James, as new members, he also reappointed three other current commissioners, who serve pro bono.
Luis Montes, a Bellone minority affairs aide, said the county executive will file appointments of another five members by the next legislative meeting on Aug. 7. That would give the 15-member body a full complement for the first time in years. Montes said he could not say how many will be new to the commission.
Ramirez said many in the minority community are willing to give Bellone "the benefit of the doubt" in the short term because of the contrast to Levy and the county's fiscal woes.
"We haven't seen great strikes from Bellone, but sometimes being quiet is a step forward," Ramirez said. But ultimately, Bellone will "need to be more . . . vocal on what it means to integrate the immigrant community into the fabric of Suffolk County," Ramirez said. "You just can't remain quiet."