The Suozzi-Spitzer Showdown

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.”

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.

The Suozzi-Spitzer Showdown