As the episode at the convention in Boston demonstrates, Suozzi has so far proved deft at turning apparent problems into weapons, and at parlaying a fairly short résumé into significant buzz. But until now he’s been playing minor-league ball. As tough as running Nassau County is, and as difficult as challenging Shelly Silver may be, Suozzi is about to find out if he can hit big-league pitching.
Suozzi is 43, a father of three, and, “Fix Albany” aside, he’s hardly an outsider: His father was mayor of Glen Cove in the late fifties before becoming a state judge, and Joe Suozzi now heads a politically wired law firm. Tom Suozzi has held elected office since he was 31, beginning with four terms as mayor of Glen Cove. In 2000, when Suozzi decided to run for Nassau County executive, the local Democratic organization had already coalesced around a better-known, better-financed candidate, State Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli. So Suozzi positioned himself as the fresh-faced, unencumbered alternative to the Establishment. He scored a primary upset and rode the momentum past a rookie Republican in the general election.
Suozzi’s boosters, of course, see history repeating itself: an open seat, a presumptive Democratic nominee, a weak Republican field. “This is a perfect political moment for the voters to decide which of the fresh choices would be best,” says Jacobs, who has been “vigorously” encouraging Suozzi to run for governor. “Right now there’s one Democratic candidate, who is almost anointed by the Democratic Establishment, from the speaker on down—the same people who have run the state all these years,” Jacobs says. “If you’re looking for real, fundamental change, you’re not going to get it. A candidate who runs with the Establishment’s support can’t turn around once elected and knife them in the back. Unfortunately, there may have to be a knife taken, and not in the back, to get anything done in state government.”
For his part, Suozzi says he’s concentrating on his January 1 Nassau County inaugural address, and on his ongoing reorganization of Long Island’s largest health-and-human services bureaucracy. He issues a disclaimer at the beginning of a conversation: “Chris—I’m not making any news with you.” He will, however, charge directly into what’s wrong with New York’s Democrats in general. “New York Democrats—the organization, not the people—are trying to rely on clubhouse politics and clubhouse rules,” Suozzi says. “Voters aren’t willing to just buy the old box anymore.”
Democrats, he says, need to concentrate on finding candidates who are skilled managers with compassion for the little guy, people like . . . him. “Government is not just about kissing babies and making TV commercials,” Suozzi says. “It’s about how do we help care for those people most in need, but not break the bank? It’s about managing these enormous enterprises. When I was going from mayor to county executive, my slogan was ‘I can do it because I’ve done it.’ ” At the moment, Suozzi is a prohibitive long shot. But he’s already getting a boost from the political media, which is desperate to cover a horse race, and he plays to two of Spitzer’s vulnerabilities, including one that concerns even Spitzer’s advisers: that voters aren’t sure the skills Spitzer has displayed in his spectacular run as attorney general are easily transferrable to the executive mansion.
Another weakness is that Spitzer can be a stiff campaigner. Suozzi, though a lawyer and a CPA, comes across as a knock-around guy. He’s quick-witted, a bit of a hustler, but not quite oleaginous; when he gets worked up, Suozzi sounds like a less-adenoidal Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo. It’s an accent that’s authentic and endearing, though you wonder how it’ll play in Plattsburgh. He also occasionally interrupts his spiel to ask his interviewer a question, and he at least appears interested in listening to the answer. “Where’d you grow up?” Suozzi asks. “Ithaca? That’s in Tompkins County. Right next to Tioga County. Right next to Broome. And Steuben.” Not quite, but close. “I can’t draw a map of the state by county, like Senator Schumer can,” Suozzi continues, “but I’m almost there. I can name them alphabetically: Albany, Allegany, Broome, Bronx, Cattaraugus, Cayuga, Chenango, Chautauqua, Columbia, Cortland . . . ”
Umm—his alphabetizing still needs work, and he may have just offended the good citizens of Chemung and Clinton counties. But at least Suozzi is able to laugh at himself. “Why would anybody know this?” he says. “Unless they’re some sort of weirdo.”
Or unless they’re preparing to run for governor. Though maybe those people are one and the same.