“Voters see Spitzer as a reformer, someone who has taken on the big boys,” says Sheinkopf. “It’s hard to make Suozzi’s distinction between Wall Street reform and Albany reform. At best, voters who know the both of them think they’re both reformers. There’s no way Suozzi can counter that unless he spends $20 million on negative ads.”
Which he doesn’t have. The $5 million war chest Suozzi once possessed was squandered on a puzzling introductory ad campaign. In April, rather than introduce Suozzi with his heartwarming family history and do-gooder political résumé, the campaign aired a dark jump-cutting mess about Albany with the unknown Suozzi in the role of marauding crusader. It might have worked later in the campaign once voters knew who Suozzi was, but as an introduction, it bombed.
Still, blaming Suozzi’s troubles on a bad ad is like blaming the Knicks’ awful season on Madison Square Garden’s flat soda. Suozzi’s biggest mistake, political pros agree, was picking an opponent he could not beat. From his good-cop image to his $18 million war chest, Eliot Spitzer, fairly or not, is currently an amalgam of Thomas Dewey and the new, possibly Jewish, Superman. From the day after his 2002 AG reelection, Spitzer has projected a strength and inevitability to his candidacy that was only momentarily thrown off by a two-day story in January about his temper. He can run a confident, quiet campaign now because he has been tending to the labor unions, minorities, enviromentalists, and other liberal mainstays for his entire second term. Suozzi may complain that Spitzer is running a stealth campaign, but that’s what smart pols do when they have $18 million in the bank and a 60-point lead. Even if Suozzi ran the perfect campaign, it’s hard to see him getting 40 percent of the vote, much less beating Spitzer.
The only thing that could possibly make this a race is a colossal Spitzer blunder or repeated forums where the hail-fellow-well-met Suozzi kicks the pinched, scolding Spitzer’s ass. The two times the candidates did share a stage, Suozzi got the best of it. After a union-sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in Harlem, Spitzer’s remarks were received respectfully, but the crowd went a bit nuts when Suozzi led them in a spirited round of the “Olé Olé” soccer song. In May, Spitzer was greeting commuters at the Mineola train station, less than a half-mile from Suozzi’s Nassau County offices. Suozzi strode over and put Spitzer on the defensive, badgering him about his then-nonexistent policy plan for reducing New York property taxes (magically, two weeks later, Spitzer announced his own property-tax-reduction plan). In the campaign’s first five months, however, the AG’s handlers have mostly kept him off the same podium with Suozzi. And the July 25 debate doesn’t figure to be Spitzer’s Waterloo. He is, after all, an experienced prosecutor.
“I’m looking for a miracle, I expect the impossible, I feel the intangible, I see the invisible,” Suozzi sings. And quite possibly he means it.
“The debate doesn’t matter. What matters is what the media writes about it,” says Sheinkopf. “And they will only write about it if Eliot makes a major gaffe. He’s been on too many big public stages to do that.”
It’s evening in Glen Cove, on a baseball field not far from where Tom Suozzi proposed to his wife, Helene. We arrive just in time to see Joey Suozzi hit a 10-year-old’s version of a home run; a line drive that nearly rolls all the way to the L.I.E. Joey circles the bases, then spots his daddy. His eyes go wide, and he throws himself into his arms. Then Joey cocks his head sideways and looks at his pop. “Dad, your teeth are yellow.” Suozzi blanches a bit and then shows a tight smile. “Even my kids are killing me.”
A few minutes later, we head up the road to the Landing School, where Suozzi’s daughter, Caroline, is singing in the school’s spring concert. Suozzi quietly slips into a seat next to Helene, a quiet blonde in a pink skirt and black sandals with flowers on them. As the fifth-graders work through “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “Rock Around the Clock,” Helene has to good-naturedly nudge her husband because his singing and foot-tapping threatens to drown out the 11-year-olds. After giving his daughter a hug, Suozzi climbs back into his car and we cruise around a neighborhood near St. Rocco’s Catholic Church.
“This is where my grandfather first lived. He had to live close to the church because he didn’t drive,” Suozzi says. He pauses for a moment, then takes a not-so-veiled swipe at his wealthier, Upper East Side trust-funder opponent. “See, my family knows what it’s like to struggle; we’re not far removed from that struggle. I understand that people are hurting.”