Long Island Mad Man

Illustration by Dan Goldman

Ed Cox is no radical. He’s a corporate lawyer at a big white-shoe Manhattan firm; a son-in-law of Richard Nixon; and a descendant of four of the country’s oldest Wasp families. Cox is also among the last of a New York political breed: the Rockefeller Republican. Yet he may be the man who finally drags the state party into line with the increasingly right-wing national GOP.

Last week, Cox, who took over as state party chairman in September, succeeded in recruiting Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive and ex-Democrat, to run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Levy, a fiscal hawk, has done a competent job of managing Suffolk’s budget; he’s loathsome, however, on issues like immigration, employing crude Latino-bashing jokes and displaying an enthusiasm for raids on day laborers, all of which plays to the angry white crowd. He’s contributed to an ugly atmosphere: Last year, seven high-school students who’d allegedly been “hunting” for Hispanics were arrested for the stabbing murder of an Ecuadoran man. Levy decried the crime—after complaining that it was getting too much media attention. “The politics of resentment are very potent right now, and Levy is an expert at playing them,” says Bob Master, the political director of the communications-workers union and a leader of the Working Families Party.

The combination of tax-cutting zeal and law-and-order bluster has made Levy popular with mad-as-hell suburban voters. He is, moreover, a fiery campaigner with $4 million in the bank, making him highly appealing to Cox, who was desperate to inject some energy into the Republican ticket after big names like Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki chose to stay retired. Cox found himself stuck with the recycled, underwhelming Rick Lazio as his only candidate for governor; things got even drearier for this fall’s Republican ticket when Joe DioGuardi, a 69-year-old former congressman, declared that he was running against the vulnerable Kirsten Gillibrand. “So people are saying, ‘Cox can’t come up with anything better than that?’ ” Republican political consultant Tom Doherty says. To establish himself as a bold leader, Cox pursued Levy.

Even if Levy is able to win the Republican nomination, he’d remain a long shot to beat Andrew Cuomo. But Cox’s move could still turn out to be a crafty play: Levy would be a powerful draw in key districts where Republicans have a good chance of picking up seats in Congress and the State Legislature. Two prime targets represent Suffolk: Congressman Tim Bishop and State Senator Brian Foley. “Levy is the most dangerous candidate for state Democrats, because he’s a demagogue and he’s willing to say or do anything,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “But also because of geography—ground zero for the State Senate is Long Island. In Massachusetts, Scott Brown won in the suburbs, and with Catholics, and in parts of the cities with no blacks or Hispanics. Levy would give Andrew and the Democrats problems with the same groups.”

The party that controls New York’s State Legislature controls congressional redistricting in 2012. By gambling on the pugnacious Levy, Ed Cox could save the state Republican party—while destroying what’s left of what it once was.

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Long Island Mad Man