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The Suozzi-Spitzer Showdown

Finally, the Democratic Party has two good-government titans. Get ready for them to tear each other apart.


Illustration by Darrow.  

Tom Suozzi should have entered the 2004 Democratic National Convention to cheers. He’d recently broken a three-decade Republican stranglehold on the office of Nassau County executive. And since winning the job, Suozzi had made strides toward cleaning up corruption and showing that a Democrat could balance a budget without completely dismantling the county’s social programs.

But as Suozzi strode onto the floor at the FleetCenter in Boston that July night, he was met with puzzled looks from members of the New York delegation. That’s because Suozzi had spent much of the summer waging war on Albany and was in the middle of leading a loud and partly successful campaign to unseat incumbents in the State Legislature—one of them a fellow Democrat. Suozzi claimed he was frustrated by the Legislature’s unwillingness to ease the burden Medicaid was forcing on local budgets, and that he’d realized the only way to get the attention of the leadership in Albany was to challenge it in the voting booth. He’d come up with a beautifully simple slogan—“Fix Albany”—and he was eagerly tapping into public anger at the dysfunctional, three-men-in-a-room state-government power structure.

When you make war on Albany, however, one of the generals you threaten is Sheldon Silver, speaker of the Democrat-dominated State Assembly. Suozzi had been part of New York’s convention delegation in Los Angeles in 2000. Not this time, Silver decreed. The seat Suozzi wanted would be better filled by a delegate who would further the cause of “diversity,” Silver said—and he didn’t mean diversity of opinion.

No matter. Suozzi had decent contacts. He’d raised $100,000 for the John Kerry campaign. So when Silver didn’t succumb to the pleas of Terry McAuliffe, then-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, McAuliffe arranged for Suozzi to get convention passes that gave him more access than a mere delegate. And Suozzi made sure the media knew about it. During the week in Boston, Suozzi probably logged more face time with the New York press than any other state elected official. Well, except for maybe one—Eliot Spitzer.

Last month, Suozzi cruised to a 21-point reelection victory in Nassau County. Ever since, he’s barely denied speculation that he’ll challenge Spitzer for the Democratic nomination for governor in the 2006 primary. That Suozzi is even considering such a race seems foolish in many ways. Spitzer, the state attorney general, enjoys a celebrity that extends far beyond New York and politics, he’s raking in campaign cash, and if for some reason the donors ever dried up, Spitzer has the security of knowing he could tap into his family’s real-estate fortune; he’s smart and willing to play rough; and has the support of Democratic officials and power brokers across the state.

Suozzi? Voters outside the 516 area code regularly mispronounce his name (it’s swah-zee), if they know it at all. Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll had Spitzer crushing Suozzi, 69-11.

“A candidate who runs with the Establishment’s support can’t turn around once elected and knife them in the back.”

It is, of course, early. People with real lives aren’t thinking about the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Yet Suozzi will make his decision soon, and one large factor will be whether he believes he can raise enough money to run a credible campaign. Blowout poll numbers don’t help bring in checks. One solution, however, comes entangled with the risk of something worse than low name-recognition. When Suozzi becomes better known, it could be as a tool of Ken Langone.

The billionaire co-founder of the Home Depot was boss of the New York Stock Exchange compensation committee that approved a $139.5 million pay package for his friend Dick Grasso, a windfall that led to an investigation and a lawsuit by Spitzer. Two weeks ago, Langone gave a speech in which he lambasted Spitzer, and followed it by telling reporters that his new favorite candidate for governor is Tom Suozzi (see “Target: Spitzer,” by Charles Gasparino, in the December 19 issue). Langone also said he’d be happy to round up Wall Street enemies of Spitzer to funnel cash to a Suozzi 2006 campaign. Suozzi can use the money, but Langone would not appear to be the kind of ally a reformist Democrat needs.

“If Tom runs,” says Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County Democratic chairman and Suozzi advisor, “and if the other side chooses to run a same-old, same-old, attack-the-other-guy, define-him-early kind of campaign—all the straight political things—then voters can assume that’s the government they’ll run if they win: same-old, same-old. And let’s look at Eliot Spitzer’s most recent fund-raiser. Who was there? All the lobbyists, all the current elected officials. I’d rather have Ken Langone behind Tom than all those people. Langone doesn’t want anything from government. You can’t say the same thing about the lobbyists who control Albany. Tom Suozzi is nobody’s candidate. He’d be a reform governor.”

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