At the time, Nassau County Chief Executive Suozzi was locked in dispute with the police unions over pay. They ran TV ads – one depicted a burglar stealing from an elderly woman’s bedroom – with the tagline “Tom Suozzi — good for the bad guys, bad for the good guys.” He did succeed, however, in freezing police pay and regards the episode as one of the signature battles of his political career to date.
That career, which has led him to the 2006 New York gubernatorial race, hasn’t taken the course he’d once thought likely. “When I was young, I was enamored by my father’s political life. I read his newspaper clippings and things like that,” he told the Echo, referring to retired Judge Joseph A. Suozzi, who is 85. “I always felt I would run for congress, but I ended up running for mayor of my home town instead, at 29. And I lost.
“It was really a fluke,” he recalled. “I was working as a CPA and a lawyer in Manhattan at the time, making a lot of money. The person who was supposed to run [on the Democratic ticket] dropped out at the last minute. So I had to run.”
Next time out, he prevailed and became both the Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt of Glen Cove mayors – that is, the youngest ever and the only one to be elected four times.
And yet, if there is a New York governor he models his campaigning style on, it’s Al Smith, rather than either of those distant cousins who became president. “A happy warrior, fighting on behalf of the common man,” he said.
“All of the things I wanted to go into government for as an idealist were right there in my home town,” he added.
There were major environmental problems, he said, a crumbling downtown, scandals in the government, big financial problems, as well as issues of race and of poverty.
It was Suozzi’s next and current job, however, that made his reputation — as much initially for his acquiring it as for his success in balancing Nassau’s budget. He overcame the Democratic establishment’s candidate to win the primary in 2001, and then, in the general election, won by a 2:1 majority in a county that has more registered Republicans than any other in the state.
With Nassau on the verge of bankruptcy, the voters had opted for Suozzi, the first Democratic chief executive for 30 years – and he was also the youngest to hold that post.
He set about cutting back what he saw as waste in county spending. He felt, for instance, that police officers, with average annual salaries of $105,000, and retirement lump sums of $225,000, could play their part in bringing Nassau back into the black.
The fact that Suozzi has successfully taken on organized civil servants, and has had other achievements at county level, has won him much admiration from certain categories of politician. He got a standing ovation speaking to a conference of New York State mayors in June, while his fellow gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Eliot Spitzer, and the GOP’s John Faso, did not.
But the political class is generally wary of a maverick who rails against those in power in Albany.
“[S]tate government is totally unaccountable to the people; it’s all about taking care of the insiders instead of addressing the people’s problems,” he said.
“The problem in our state is that there is no competition. In 70 percent of the races, there’s either no opponent or the opponent spends less than $1,000 and the incumbent wins by 60 percentage points. The whole system is rigged right now in favor of the incumbents and the party bosses,” he said.
“And that’s why you don’t see any change. We have these very real problems and yet everybody keeps on getting reelected,” he added.
Suozzi’s critique of both parties, his supporters argue, doesn’t mean that he’s not a committed Democrat, and they can point to unsuccessful Republican efforts to recruit him as their candidate in November.
When interviewed, he outlined traditional Democratic values. “There are certain inequities that take place in society that can’t be solved by competition in the market place,” he said. “Some people don’t compete well because they’re children or they’re frail or they’re elderly or they’re handicapped in some way.
“The market place will not protect the environment, or it will not protect workers’ safety or workers wages,” the chief executive said.
“On the flip side, government has gone out of control in some places in New York State and has created a hostile business environment,” he added.
Some liberals thought one speech he made stressing adoption and other alternatives to abortion was opportunistic, with an eye to the general election.
But Suozzi believes that some of these issues are distracting – particularly those that are of favorites of Republicans like abortion, gay marriage and flag-burning.
“They [politicians] end up yelling and screaming at each other in the halls of Congress.
“Everbody wants ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers on these hot-button issues, important issues no question about it, but to the exclusion of the very complex issues that need to be solved and don’t have easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers — taxes, jobs and education,” he said.
Suozzi has taken a clear-cut stance on the immigration question, strongly supporting the Kennedy McCain bill. Indeed, Joseph Suozzi was born in Italy and taken as a small child to the United States by his mother and father, who worked as a groundskeeper at the estates of the wealthy for 40 years.
The chief executive’s Italian roots are well known, but in fact his mother Majorie Suozzi (nee Holmes) is half Irish, with roots in Mallow, Co. Cork, and half English.
Suozzi, who is the youngest of five siblings, said he associates the Irish in New York’s melting pot with a “great sense of humor through the ups and downs, a quiet strength and a joy for life.”
The chief executive had an entirely Catholic education, finishing up at two Jesuits schools, Boston College and Fordham Law.
He and his wife Helene, who is of Polish extraction, married shortly after he embarked on his political career. The couple have a daughter, aged 11, and 10- and 3-year-old sons. Like all public representatives with young children, he said the “hard part is not being around enough.”
He added: “The sacrifice is not just on my part but on my family’s part. They go through all my difficult times, reading things in the newspapers that are not always flattering, but don’t get to see the fruits of what I achieve.”
Nonetheless he tries to maintain certain routines.
“My wife and I always go on a date on Saturday night,” he said. He will only go to a political event on that night if she agrees to go, too. The family attends church together every Sunday. “And I try to get home once a week for a meal.”
Eight years is enough for one job, and he won’t pursue a third term in Nassau in 2009. “It’s all-consuming if you do it right; you need that freshness,” he said.
Lagging behind Spitzer with just 15 percent in the polls (Faso is doing little better in general election match-ups), Suozzi is not likely to be going to Albany any time soon, either. But his campaign can only help his profile and his career.
And he’s made it clear that he’s ambitious. Asked in their TV debate on New York 1 if they wanted to be president, Spitzer said “no,” while Suozzi said “yes.”
Suozzi told the Echo: “But there’s a long way from here to there. I’m having enough trouble running for governor.
Then he added, with a laugh: “Someone who runs for dogcatcher wants to be president someday. They’re whistling ‘Hail to the Chief.'”
This is the first of a series of articles on the gubernatorial campaign in New York State