February 25, 2006
Tom Suozzi, Suburban Revolutionary

By John Avlon

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 University.

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 the budget.

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 in November.

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.

John Avlon is a columnist for the New York Sun and the author
of Independent Nation.

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