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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Levy’s Departure

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who only last year switched political parties to run for governor, announced last week he would not seek another four-year term in his current post. This stunning development has numerous repercussions, many of which won’t be known for months.

The incumbent county executive’s exit makes the 2011 general election for Suffolk County’s top job a toss-up as the Republicans scramble to find a successor to Levy, and prospective Democratic candidates for county executive, such as Babylon town supervisor Steve Bellone, instantly lose their long-shot status. Despite his ill-fated bid for governor in 2010, Steve Levy was heavily favored to win re-election to the office he’d first won in 2003 as a Democrat.

Since it is unclear as of this writing why the county executive handed over his $4 million in campaign funds to Suffolk County’s district attorney for disbursement to contributors who want their money back, with the balance going to charities, I need to hold off on offering a reason for Levy’s decision.

I can tell you this is a momentous setback for Suffolk’s GOP. John Jay LaValle, the Suffolk Republican Committee chairman, was instrumental in getting Levy to switch to the Republican Party in 2010 after Levy had spent a lifetime winning office as the Democrats’ standard bearer. If Levy had become the Republican nominee for governor, and won, LaValle would have had the governor’s ear. Still, Plan B was nice, too. The executive branch of Suffolk County’s government moved into the GOP column without the voters approving the switch. This meant that LaValle was in a position to place Republicans into Suffolk County governmental policy-making positions that they’d been unable to secure since Levy first took office in January 2004. It also meant that county executive Levy’s loyalists from his days as a Democrat, who also served in county government, were in an awkward position

Readers of this column know I’m against party-switching in the middle of an elective term, and it is hard to find an instance in which the mid-term party-switcher’s career has ended well (e.g., U.S. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat, finally ran out of primary voters to antagonize in 2010, losing to a Democratic challenger).

Levy’s departure from the political scene also got me thinking about the sheer craziness of state Republican chairman Edward Cox’s Albany press conference in March 2010, where Cox and LaValle stood alongside Levy, welcoming him to the GOP. Cox and LaValle completely miscalculated how the Republican delegates to the June 2010 state GOP convention would react to having a lifelong Democrat atop their statewide ticket. Not only was Levy denied a place on the September 2010 Republican primary ballot, he was also unable to launch a ballot petition drive to force a primary against the party’s official choice, former Rep. Rick Lazio, because Levy wasn’t officially considered a registered Republican at the time. Carl Paladino of Buffalo, who was also told to take a hike at the party’s convention, gathered thousands of signatures, got on the ballot, and then routed Lazio to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: