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Eye on the Island: January 14, 2010

Levy for New York Governor?

Having learned little from polls showing Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano trailing badly weeks before Election Day 2009, too many are examining the state’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign through the prism of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s current high standing in public opinion polls.

Today’s conventional wisdom, as expressed through high-profile pundits and political analysts, holds that AG Cuomo, a Democrat, is wildly popular with New York voters, crushing all foes daring to stand in soon-to-be Governor Cuomo’s way. This questionable story line—interpreting the 2010 election cycle by ‘what it all means’ for AG Cuomo—isn’t being bought by Suffolk County executive Steve Levy, a Democrat who established this month a gubernatorial exploratory committee.

For starters, there is already a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, and David Paterson has aired two excellent TV advertisements to lay the groundwork for a potential 2010 bid for a full, four-year term. The dual Paterson campaign messages: I made some tough choices since taking office, and have a history of overcoming long odds. Governor Paterson can build on these themes during the current state Legislative session by positioning himself as the only Democrat in Democrat-controlled Albany who understands the state’s coffers are almost empty.

Moreover, the governor’s hand was strengthened by the results of Election Day 2009.

The same White House which suggested to Paterson last summer that he leave Albany quietly when his term expires on Dec. 31, 2010 had its political handicapping talents questioned when they placed President Obama front and center alongside the losing Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey. Indeed, running statewide without the support of the Obama administration in 2010 might be advantageous, even in New York. That assessment wasn’t reached by reading AG Cuomo’s poll numbers but by reviewing the election returns last November in counties like Nassau and Westchester.

Suffolk County’s executive is a credible candidate. A former county legislator and state assemblyman, Levy was first elected county executive after winning a Democratic primary in 2003. Four years later, in 2007, Levy was easily re-elected, having been cross-endorsed by the Republicans.

The big question: Can a self-proclaimed fiscally conservative Democrat like county executive Levy, who has been very outspoken on the issue of illegal immigration, win over enough registered Democrats upstate and in the suburbs to offset the chillier electoral reception Levy would receive in New York City?

Drilling it down even further, is it possible that AG Cuomo, a Queens native, and Governor Paterson, a Manhattan resident, could square off in a September 2010 Democratic primary, letting them split up the city vote, which is where most of the state’s registered Democrats reside. I think the three-way race (Cuomo, Paterson, and Levy) is the preferred set-up for Suffolk’s county executive, although Levy might be able to win a Democratic primary as an Albany outsider in one-on-one encounters with either AG Cuomo or the governor, too.

Since January 2009, Albany has been completely controlled by city-based Democrats, even though more New Yorkers live outside the city (11 million) than in the five boroughs (8-plus million). 2010 is the year when upstate and suburban voters can change that balance of power.

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