Sunday, February 26, 2006

L.I. Democrat Takes On Spitzer in Governor Race

The New York Times
L.I. Democrat Takes On Spitzer in Governor Race

GLEN COVE, N.Y., Feb. 25 — Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau county executive and a self-styled renegade Democrat, announced Saturday that he was challenging Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for his party's nomination for governor, running as an underdog who will rely to an unusual degree on businesses leaders who have been sued by Mr. Spitzer and New Yorkers who dislike his tactics.

Mr. Suozzi's bid, declared at a boisterous rally in his Long Island hometown here, stands as a direct affront to the New York Democratic Party, which is behind Mr. Spitzer with rare unanimity in the hope of electing the first Democrat as governor since Mario M. Cuomo was defeated in 1994.

"This will be a tough fight: My opponent will have the vote of almost every single Democratic Party boss," Mr. Suozzi told a crowd of more than 1,000 supporters, after taking the stage to the music of U2's "Beautiful Day."

"He'll have the support of almost every single Albany legislator, Albany lobbyist and Albany lawyer," he said of Mr. Spitzer, then quipping to much laughter, "So far, I've been endorsed by my mother and my father — and I'm working on Helene," his wife.

Mr. Suozzi pledged to "fix the culture of Albany" by working to reduce property taxes, overhauling Medicaid to save billions, settling a state education funding lawsuit, and giving more money to schools in New York City and districts statewide.

Mr. Spitzer, the two-term attorney general, earned a national reputation and the moniker "the Sheriff of Wall Street" for his successful prosecutions of white-collar crime on Wall Street. He has high favorability ratings in polls statewide and has raised a formidable $19 million. But Suozzi aides — and some Democratic officials — say that Mr. Spitzer has a prickly side and can come across as haughty, and that these traits will come out in the heat of a contest.

Supporters of Mr. Suozzi, 43, say he has the raw political talent and the track record to win an upset victory akin to Hugh L. Carey's in 1974 and Mr. Cuomo's in 1982, not to mention Mr. Suozzi's own toppling of the Democratic front-runner and the Republicans' decades-long hold on the executive's office in 2001.

He faces a long climb, with few powerful allies and far less money than Mr. Spitzer, but Mr. Suozzi is showing brio by pursuing a two-pronged strategy that is unconventional by New York standards.

He is aggressively seeking support from centrist Democrats, independents, and Republicans, by straying from New York liberal doctrine on issues like abortion rights and gay marriage and by targeting his own party's leadership with an agenda he calls Fix Albany.

It is a risky bet, because liberals and party loyalists historically dominate Democratic primaries, but Suozzi advisers say even these voters may buck the party bosses.

"New York voters have a long history of not going along with the candidate that the establishment tells them to support," said Jay Jacobs, Mr. Suozzi's campaign chairman, citing the Carey and Cuomo victories in their Democratic primaries, among others. "They don't like being told what to do, and their ears will perk up when there's a contest."

Yet it is Mr. Suozzi's support from Mr. Spitzer's enemies that could make for an especially fractious and unpredictable season up to the Democratic primary in September.

Mr. Suozzi's aides say he has amassed more than $10 million in donations and pledges so far, twice the amount of cash on hand that he announced last month, though that fund-raising estimate could not be independently verified.

Of his $5 million on hand, more than $1 million has come with the help of business leaders like Kenneth G. Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot, who have been sued by the attorney general's office, according to several donors and campaign finance records. Mr. Langone is part of a suit alleging mishandling of New York Stock Exchange compensation.

Mr. Spitzer announced $19 million in cash on hand last month. Mr. Suozzi is aiming to raise $20 million to be competitive in advertising. His camp is assuming that Mr. Spitzer will ultimately have $30 million or more.

Allies of Mr. Suozzi predict that the anti-Spitzer faction will contribute millions more toward his $20 million goal. But they also said they expected to win votes from other New Yorkers who believe Mr. Spitzer has been overzealous in his prosecutions and heavy-handed in his tactics.

"The likability factor is a very important piece of this," Mr. Jacobs said. "Tom is very good at walking into a room and connecting with people. He likes people. Think of Kennedy vs. Nixon. Think of Clinton vs. Bush or Bush vs. Kerry."

Mr. Spitzer's advisers charged that Mr. Suozzi was trying to cut into the attorney general's lead in polls by tapping his legal enemies, and that he is making himself their pawn. On Saturday, a group supporting Mr. Spitzer, Citizen Action, called on Mr. Suozzi to "clean up your act" by rejecting donations from Mr. Langone and other Spitzer targets.

At his campaign rally, Mr. Suozzi said his "fight is not with the Democrats" and groups backing Mr. Spitzer, but with leaders of both parties who have not tackled taxes and other headaches for voters.

"New York needs a strong chief executive with a proven record of government reform and results," Mr. Suozzi said, citing his record helping Nassau recover from near-bankruptcy in 2001.

At a news conference after his speech, Mr. Suozzi said he was campaigning in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and on Staten Island this weekend because he was "sending a direct message to Eliot Spitzer that I'm leaving no stone unturned."

Asked about that statement, Mr. Spitzer, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, would not comment directly in a brief interview on Saturday.

Instead, he said: "I have been and will be running a campaign based on what I have done for seven years, which is to walk right into the buzz saw of the status quo to change New York for the better. I will visit every town and county and speak to every voter."

Democratic allies of Mr. Spitzer also say that Mr. Suozzi is a political unknown statewide whose chances are being intensified by news media eager for a political battle. They also question his opposition to gay marriage and his attacks on what opponents call partial-birth abortion, saying he is acting like a Republican.

When pressed, though, most of them acknowledge that Mr. Suozzi is the kind of politician who many voters statewide have historically related to: A handsome Italian-American Catholic from the suburbs whose grandparents were poor immigrants and who has proved appealing to some Nassau Republicans.

Still, Spitzer advisers say they do see Mr. Suozzi as a threat. They say they will work with party leaders to try to deny him an automatic spot on the September primary ballot; if he cannot win support at the party convention in May, he will have to gather tens of thousands of voters' signatures to be on the ballot.

This move is not one the Spitzer camp would use on a mere nuisance challenger, political analysts say.

"Our poll numbers say Suozzi's nowhere, but it's early, and there's this history of anti-establishment Democrats pulling upsets," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Will he get anti-Spitzer Wall Street money? It looks like he will get some. He's an attractive guy, he has a track record, and New Yorkers love outsiders."

The lore of the outsider holds strong appeal for Mr. Suozzi, who idolizes and sometimes quotes Theodore Roosevelt, Al Smith, and Robert F. Kennedy. His aides cite Mr. Kennedy's 1968 race for president; they also draw confidence from Mr. Carey's victory over another Democrat, Howard Samuels, in 1974, and Mr. Cuomo's win over New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch in the primary in 1982.

They also recall Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's modest poll numbers a year ago, when he was running for re-election, and Andrew Cuomo's lead in early polls for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002. Mr. Cuomo dropped out before the primary.

Still, Suozzi supporters are not counting on Mr. Spitzer to falter.

"It's a fallacy to say we just need Eliot to stumble," Mr. Jacobs said. "New Yorkers love outsiders, and they'll love Tom."