When Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Eliot L. Spitzer gathered his local supporters for breakfast back in December, 825 people showed up at the Buffalo Convention Center.
It was a different story Wednesday for his Democratic rival, Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi, who drew only about 40 to the Western New York kickoff of his exploratory campaign at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
But that doesn't mean the county executive widely credited with turning around a troubled Nassau County isn't being taken seriously. Though Spitzer has posted huge leads in every poll, has snared the support of almost all of the Democratic hierarchy, and has more than $19 million in the bank, Suozzi is generating plenty of interest as a major obstacle in the front-runner's path.
"I don't think the Republicans should give up hope yet, because Suozzi is going to cause Eliot Spitzer a lot of problems," said Syracuse University political science professor Jeffrey M. Stonecash. "This is exactly the perfect scenario of when Carl McCall was challenged by Andrew Cuomo in 2002. Spitzer is now going to have to spend lots of money."
Suozzi, 43, says he is not entering the race as a spoiler. He uses his Nassau County experience as the basis of his effort, pointing to cutting $100 million in waste and fraud from his $2.4 billion budget, obtaining historic concessions from municipal unions, cutting jobs and balancing the budget.
Running New York State, he says, is right up his alley.
"I can do it because I've done it," he says simply.
Indeed, Suozzi's message is being heard by a far different -- though smaller -- audience than Spitzer's. There were few financial types and even fewer party regulars at the Hyatt on Wednesday. His audience -- largely rounded up by his cousin, Buffalo attorney Paul J. Suozzi, and other acquaintances -- provided only polite applause to a politician most had never met before.
Only former Mayor James D. Griffin added a recognizable face. He called up Suozzi and invited himself to the breakfast.
"I like what he had to say, he's got a good record, and I like guys with some local government experience," Griffin said later.
Would Suozzi perform better than any other candidate?
"He'd do just as well, let's put it that way," Griffin said.
But Suozzi feels he'll pick up much more support once his message gets out. And while he talks about lots of things, he dwells on the state's high property taxes more than anything else.
"The thing we share in common is New York State government," he told his Buffalo audience. "It forces mandates down to the local level and won't give you the money for all the things they force you to do."
That, Suozzi said, results in property taxes across the state that are 72 percent above the national average. In turn, that drives out business and contributes to the eroding population of upstate New York.
Suozzi said the idea that upstate's cold weather deters new business is the "most absurd thing I've ever heard."
"There are plenty of cold-weather environments that have a better economy than we do," he said. "It's because we're not competitive with other states in the cost of doing business here."
Suozzi is in the midst of a statewide tour to sound out prospects for his candidacy, hitting Rochester on Wednesday following his Buffalo stop. He has not been a stranger to Western New York, working closely at times with his Erie County counterpart, Republican Joel A. Giambra, in railing against the Medicaid costs he says are 2 1/2 times the national average.
His FixAlbany.com Web site and organization has proven a major force in calling for reform, and he has built a reputation as a political maverick after working to replace fellow Democrats from Long Island in the State Legislature.
"Sometimes, Democrats are to blame, too," he said.
Suozzi does not reject every traditional political tool. He revels in pointing out that his father immigrated from Italy, his mother is Irish, and his Polish father-in-law hails from Niagara Falls. He proved adept at boiling his campaign into the appropriate sound bites for waiting television crews, and worked the crowd like the veteran he is at only 43.
But it doesn't take long for him to return to his central themes.
"Everybody thinks politics is about making speeches and shaking hands and kissing babies," he said. "But it's also about managing a huge, $2.4 billon entity."
Suozzi, who said he is more likely than not to enter the race, said he will make a final decision in the next three to six weeks.