The coronation has
been called off. This Saturday, the Nassau County executive, Thomas
Suozzi will announce his candidacy for governor of New York, pitting
him against the former consensus candidate on the Democratic side,
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. It promises to be the rare high-stakes
primary fight between two qualified candidates.
Mr. Spitzer's activist
tenure as attorney general has revived the office, but his blunt
and some say bullying style - with its emphasis on achieving settlements
instead of courtroom convictions - has raised growing questions
as to whether he has the executive temperament best suited to
be a great governor. Those looking for a strong Democratic alternative
have found a hero in Mr. Suozzi's record of reform and results
in turning around a deeply dysfunctional local government.
When Mr. Suozzi replaced
decades of Republican Party rule in 2001, Nassau County was mired
in a multi-billion dollar debt and widespread allegations of corruption,
having earned the designation as "the worst-run county"
in the country by the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse
Unique among the ranks
of recent New York Democrats, but appropriate to the circumstances,
Mr. Suozzi dedicated himself to a focus on fiscal responsibility
and political reform. In the intervening years, Mr. Suozzi has
cut the county workforce to the smallest it has been in three
decades, saving more than $100 million through "smart government"
initiatives that streamlined bureaucracy while also balancing
But it was Mr. Suozzi's
leadership of Albany reform efforts in the last election that
earned him the hatred of the speaker of the New York State Assembly,
Sheldon Silver. Leading a statewide insurgency centered on the
Web site FixAlbany.com, Mr. Suozzi challenged New York voters
to vote against incumbent legislators to chip away at the arrogance
that comes from their 98.5% re-election rate - a strategic assault
on the status quo strenuously opposed by Speaker Silver. Mr. Suozzi
not only focused on the Brennan Center's now-infamous description
of Albany as being "the most dysfunctional state legislature
in the nation," but also on the unfair tax burden placed
on New York State residents, repeatedly sounding the rallying
cry that New Yorkers' local taxes are 72% above the national average,
among the highest in the nation.
The effort proved
largely successful, helping elect Chuck Lavine in the 13th Assembly
District in Nassau County and David Valesky from 49th Senate District
in Syracuse. Mr. Suozzi also helped secure a crucial defeat for
Proposition 1, a cynical effort lead by Speaker Silver and other
legislature leaders to gain more power in the budget process while
masquerading as advocates of reform. It was in this cycle that
Mr. Suozzi established himself as something of a suburban revolutionary,
earning a reputation as a statewide leader who was not afraid
to buck the power brokers in his own party.
This year, Mr. Suozzi
has been sounding a no less ambitious, but more conciliatory tone.
His 2006 inaugural address in Nassau focused on a call for "a
new era of bipartisan cooperation."
Mr. Suozzi announced
that he was working with Republicans in the State Senate to develop
a "realistic school property tax relief plan that will be
necessary to save our island from destruction by high local taxation."
At the same time, he promised to extend his effort to stop the
growth of unfunded state mandates and Medicaid fraud, focusing
on the fact that Medicaid in New York State costs more than twice
times the national average. In the course of the same address,
he found time to reference Ronald Reagan, Robert Kennedy and Pope
John Paul II.
The message is clear
- Mr. Suozzi is not your typical Democrat, but something close
to a fiscal conservative, with a proven ability to reach out and
win over Republicans on former Senator Al D'Amato's home turf.
While Mr. Spitzer
still possesses a commanding lead in the polls and in money raised,
Mr. Suozzi may prove to be the better overall candidate. He has
worked as an executive and has exhibited the necessary ability
to reach out and form constructive coalitions across the aisle.
The fact that he is the grandson of Italian immigrants will no
doubt help him in upstate New York. His candidacy also exposes
the usually papered-over divisions within the statewide Democratic
Party - Mr. Suozzi's campaign may get some help from Senator Schumer,
who is not Mr. Spitzer's biggest fan.
If New Yorkers are
lucky, this primary will be a reasoned and passionate debate about
the future of our state. It is more likely to be a vicious, all
or nothing, ambition-validating September classic in the blood-sport
of politics. This only increases the possibility that if Mr. Spitzer
is the ultimate victor, he will be sufficiently softened up to
create an opening for a credible centrist Republican challenger
Hopes aside, one thing
is clear - Mr. Suozzi's demonstrated success as a fiscally responsible
political reformer deserves bipartisan applause. His experience
in Nassau County closely parallels the skills our state will require
from our next governor. And New Yorkers who care about political
reform could do a lot worse than seeing Sheldon Silver's worst
nightmare elected governor.
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author