At the lectern of East New York’s St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church, an overly caffeinated man in a dark suit and white shirt and with a shock of jet-black hair is unhappy with the hello he just received from the thousand-plus congregation. He speaks with a level of fearlessness—or cluelessness—most white guys outnumbered 1,000 to 1 wouldn’t be able to muster. “I said, ‘Good morning,’ ” repeats Tom Suozzi, mega-long-shot gubernatorial candidate. A more spirited greeting comes back his way. Suozzi beams and shouts, “Where I come from we have a saying: ‘Guarda le mane, non ascoltare la boca.’ It means ‘Watch the hands, don’t listen to the mouth.’ ”
Even the minister looks confused. Over the next ten minutes, Suozzi launches into his standard “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” speech. His pitch has been ever-so-slightly modulated in deference to Jesus and the little kiddies chasing balloons through the aisles. Still, some parishioners blink hard at his scared-straight talk: Their schools are failing, property taxes are soaring, Medicaid is out of control, and most important, their government in Albany sucks hard. Only one man can fix it, and, no, his name is not Eliot Spitzer. “Don’t listen to what I say; check out what I’ve done,” says Suozzi. He ticks off the fiscal crises averted and budgets balanced during his tenure as Nassau County executive.
By now he has their attention. “Look, usually 700,000 people vote in a Democratic primary. If that happens, I can’t win. If we get a million to the polls, I have a shot; 1.2 million, I’m looking good. So if you like what you heard today, tell ten friends.” Suozzi pauses for a beat. “If you don’t like what I said, please keep it to yourself.” Everyone laughs, and someone shouts, “You tell it, brother.”
That’s when most of these shows end. The pol waves and ducks out a back exit. But Suozzi sticks around for the entire two-hour-plus service, which may have less to do with sincerity or politeness than the fact that his campaign has no other Sunday-morning invites.
A half-hour later, eyes go wide as Suozzi belts out lines from the closing processional that could be his campaign theme song: “I’m looking for a miracle, I expect the impossible, I feel the intangible, I see the invisible.” Suozzi sings along like he means it. And quite possibly, he does.
Meet Tom Suozzi, the perfect candidate for governor of New York in any other year than this one. On paper, Suozzi seems like a consultant’s wish come true. He’s a reform-minded Democrat in a largely Democratic state ripe for reform. He’s young (43), suburban (born and raised in Glen Cove, Long Island), and a practicing Catholic (check that: pro-choice Catholic). He’s got early-Pacino good looks, and a hey-let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm that makes him the guy you want to talk to, whether it be at a Staten Island potluck or a policy conference in Albany.
And he’s got sparkling political credentials. At 30, Suozzi, a lawyer and CPA, returned home to Glen Cove, ran for mayor, and went on to save his beloved town from fiscal disaster. In 2001, he pulled off a colossal upset and was elected Nassau County executive, the first Democrat in three decades to hold that position in the 55 percent Republican county. Once in office, Suozzi eliminated a $45 million deficit that had threatened to balloon to $400 million by 2005 and send the county into bankruptcy. The county’s bond rating skyrocketed, and Suozzi was named a Governing magazine “Public Official of the Year.” Fed up with the cesspool that is Albany, Suozzi publicly criticized longtime Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and in 2004 formed Fix Albany, a grassroots movement that aims to throw the bums out of the statehouse. The New York Times editorial board liked the move so much they called it “Thomas Suozzi’s Excellent Idea.” Then he helped topple a state senator and an assemblyman in a legislative system that boasts a 98 percent reelection rate.
All of that should have positioned Suozzi perfectly for a successful run for the governor’s mansion. Only Eliot Spitzer stands in his way. Oops! That’s like saying that the only thing standing between the moon and New York City is outer space.
Democrats agree on nothing, but they’ve agreed since 2002 that Spitzer is going to be New York’s next governor. “Eliot has created an impregnable reputation as being ‘the guy,’ ” says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant not working for either campaign. “He’s seen as this larger-than-life reformer whose record has been cemented with voters through millions of gross rating points from his years as attorney general.”