The most controversial figure in New York Republican politics comes to Buffalo today, and he's not even a Republican.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a conservative Democrat exploring a Republican run for governor, is scheduled to take Western New York's political temperature today in meetings with party officials and Republican County Executive Chris Collins. But he arrives just as a firestorm erupts around him, ignited by Republican stalwarts who want no part of a Democrat carrying the GOP standard for governor.
"Steve Levy is a liberal Democrat who not only supported Shelly Silver, Eliot Spitzer and John Kerry, but in January said that Obama's stimulus package was 'manna from heaven' that would 'save lives,' " former Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis said in a letter this week to state Republicans. "How can we possibly nominate a guy who is closer to Andrew Cuomo than he is to us?"
He also suggested that state Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox, who is widely viewed as Levy's champion in the party, is encouraging Levy in order to help his son -- Christopher -- a Republican congressional candidate on Long Island.
"If he wants to be his son's campaign manager he should resign as chairman and run his son's campaign," Davis said.
But in a telephone interview late Wednesday, Levy said he offers a real alternative to Republicans who are blase about the candidacy of front-runner Rick Lazio, the former Long Island congressman. Levy said he can appeal to all parties for the fiscally conservative approach he has adopted in Suffolk County, where he was re-elected with 96 percent of the vote in 2007.
"I respect that," he said of the negative reaction to his potential candidacy. "But I'm running because of my record, which includes six straight years without a general fund property tax increase. That's the kind of fiscal acumen that cuts across all demographic and party labels."
While Lazio's forces claim to have more than two-thirds of the committee vote going into the State Republican Convention in May, Levy says he can eventually come up with the 51 percent of GOP committee members needed for the authorization to run as a Republican. He pointed out that former Massachusetts Gov. William W. Weld was poised to be the GOP candidate in 2006 until the party eventually united behind former Assembly Minority Leader John J. Faso.
"Things are very fluid," Levy said. "The more people who see my very specific plans to change the state, the more they will like them."
Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski, who Levy plans to meet today, has not endorsed anyone in the race -- including Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino, who is threatening to run in a GOP primary. But he has made it clear throughout the process that he has no interest in supporting a Democrat or even a former Democrat.
Davis, who supported former Democrat Joel A. Giambra for county executive in 1999, said that situation was different because Giambra enthusiastically became a Republican and supported Republicans for office around the state. He said Wednesday the party should unite behind Lazio at this stage of the election year.
"To have this distraction in mid-March is unconscionable," Davis said.
The Lazio campaign also jumped on the potential Levy candidacy late Wednesday.
"Even liberal Democrats like Steve Levy want to be Republicans these days," said Lazio spokesman Barney Keller. "After all, Steve Levy . . . voted for the largest tax increase in New York history. All this means is that Andrew Cuomo is in deep trouble this year and we are confident Rick Lazio will be New York's next governor."
Levy would not directly answer questions about whether he will become a Republican except to say the idea is under discussion. "Some want me to switch, some say it would be a voting advantage if I'm a Democrat on the Republican line," he said, adding that participating in a Democratic primary still looms as a possibility.
Cox did not return a call seeking comment.
Meanwhile, The Buffalo News learned that Paladino plans to officially announce his candidacy on April 5 in Buffalo and then visit Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and New York over the next several days. He has also signed on Buffalo native Michael Caputo, a veteran political consultant, to manage his campaign.