Deep In Suozziland, Drums Beat Loud, Spitzer Runs Free

In many ways, Tom Suozzi is a good candidate.

He has a strong record of governmental reform. He is handsome and kind to children. And, above all, he is dogged, as demonstrated most recently by his decision to stick around for an extra hour on Friday night with voters at a Queens political dinner, long after Eliot Spitzer had left the building.

So for all his persistence, including daily attacks on Mr. Spitzer in the Democratic primary for Governor, why won’t anyone take him seriously?

Asked about Mr. Suozzi at the candidate event last week—a gathering of the South Asian-American Political Action Committee—Mr. Spitzer evinced more amusement than concern. “What other people are saying about my campaign and all these things surrounding it, it is for others to focus on, but not I,” he told The Observer.

Mr. Suozzi, it seems, lacks one quality crucial to any successful office seeker: timing.

After barely more than one term as Nassau County Executive, the almost impossibly confident Mr. Suozzi has leapt into the path of a political juggernaut. That would be Mr. Spitzer, whose high-profile anti-corruption crusades as State Attorney General have given him a popular appeal to go along with his hefty campaign war chest and the overwhelming support within the party in his bid for Governor. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday shows that Mr. Suozzi trails Mr. Spitzer by 63 points.

But to the bafflement of Mr. Spitzer’s supporters, and to the increasing discomfort of even some of his own backers, Mr. Suozzi is showing no signs of bowing out of the race.

“I’m not in public service just to hold the job, I’m in public service to do the job,” Mr. Suozzi explained in a recent interview. “And part of my job is to run in this race and to win it.”

One gets the impression, talking to him, that he really believes it. Far from backing off from what looks to the rest of the political universe like a suicide mission, Mr. Suozzi seems to grow more determined by the day to do damage to the Democratic establishment’s golden boy, punching holes in Mr. Spitzer’s property-tax plan, alleging conflicts of interest in the Attorney General’s relationship with a powerful lobbyist, and generally doing his best to portray a man lauded on 60 Minutes as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” as just another cog in Albany’s broken machine.

So far, it has had very little effect.

“The Suozzi campaign had a rationale when it began, but now, given the true inevitability of Eliot Spitzer, it looks more and more quixotic, almost irrational,” said Doug Muzzio, a political-science professor at Baruch College. “Now he is just out there railing against the fates, and that ain’t going to work.”

Some of Mr. Suozzi’s supporters in Nassau County are already putting the best face on the likely scenario that he runs hard but winds up right back where he started.

“Selfishly, I would like him to come back to Nassau County,” said county legislator Judy Jacobs, a Suozzi supporter. “Anything that makes people talk about issues is not the worst thing in the world. Anything that makes people put their views on the table is not the worst thing in the world.”

In some ways, Mr. Suozzi’s resistance to the will of the party brings to mind Andrew Cuomo’s disastrous run for Governor in 2002.

Back then, most political leaders lined up behind H. Carl McCall, then the State Comptroller. But Mr. Cuomo, running a brash insurgent campaign based on the idea of reforming Albany—and with the support of one Tom Suozzi—refused to budge until a week before the September primary, when polls showed him trailing by 20 percentage points.

But Mr. Suozzi is now considerably further behind than Mr. Cuomo ever was.

And unlike Andrew Cuomo, whose argument about Mr. McCall being a weak general-election candidate was ultimately validated, Mr. Suozzi now finds himself trying to convince the party to dump a candidate who would enter the general election as a prohibitive front-runner against Republican John Faso.

“His problem is, he is running against a reformer of national stature; it’s just a matter of Tom’s message being very ill-timed for him personally,” said Judith Hope, former chair of the New York State Democratic Party.

The best thing she had to say about Mr. Suozzi’s campaign was that it might not ruin his career permanently. “History proves repeatedly that damaged candidates make miraculous recoveries,” she said. “Witness Andrew Cuomo.”

Mr. Suozzi has indicated in interviews that his narrative arc will hew closer to that of another Cuomo—Mario—who came from nowhere to beat Ed Koch in the 1982 Democratic primary on the way to becoming Governor.

But few Democrats outside the Suozzi camp are buying that comparison.

“They’re trying to say that this is Mario Cuomo versus Ed Koch—that’s not going to happen,” said Daniel W. McCandless, the Democratic chair of Cattaraugus County and a Spitzer supporter. “He has absolutely no chance of beating Spitzer in a primary; he is only being an aggravation to the whole party.”

Mr. Suozzi is also absorbing a considerable amount of criticism from the home front in Nassau County, where he has enjoyed strong support from voters for fixing the budget but has made few friends among other office holders.

“In the long run, it is going to hurt Nassau County taxpayers,” said Lisanne G. Altmann, a Democratic county legislator who supports Mr. Spitzer. “He will be a lame-duck County Executive with no relationships whatsoever in Albany.”

Meanwhile, Nassau Republicans—who had openly hoped that Mr. Suozzi would bruise Mr. Spitzer on the way to a general election—seem to have given up hope. Peter Schmitt, a Republican legislator who is supporting John Faso, said he found Mr. Suozzi’s determination to stay in the race “inappropriate.”

Ultimately, the problems for Mr. Suozzi, a deft and enthusiastic campaigner, may have as much to do with the message as the messenger. Mr. Suozzi has framed his three core policy initiatives—of cutting property taxes, increasing job opportunities and investing in schools—all within the catch phrase of “Fix Albany.”

Despite the fact that voters are aware in the abstract of Albany’s dysfunction, good government has rarely been a top priority in elections.

“Cleaning up Albany is not the top of the list,” said Mickey Blum, an independent pollster whose surveys suggest that Mr. Suozzi is virtually unknown to voters. “That’s not the issue that is going to get you the recognition. It’s just not important enough to people’s lives. It’s just not reading the voters very well.”

Mr. Suozzi even acknowledged the practical limitations of his message.

“I don’t think that voters care about the issue of reform by itself,” said Mr. Suozzi. “We need to draw a road map for voters to make them understand that it is Albany’s dysfunction that causes these three problems.”

Mr. Suozzi said that he will use television ads and direct mailings and try and force Mr. Spitzer into more debates to help boost his name recognition.

“Most Democrats don’t know about me yet,” he said.

In that last respect, the contrast between Mr. Suozzi and Mr. Spitzer couldn’t be clearer.

At the South Asian-American event at the mirror-paneled Astoria World Manor on Friday night, Mr. Spitzer was introduced by master of ceremonies Sal Alladeen as the “next Governor of New York” after scores of men in turbans and women in saris flocked to pose next to him and his American-flag-spotted tie.

Later, as Mr. Suozzi took the stage, Mr. Alladeen assured the audience: “Tom promises he’s going to make it short—right, Tom?”

Mr. Suozzi made the most of his moment, winning the attention, if not the actual support, of the initially distracted audience.

“A lot of people try and encourage me to get out of the running for Governor of New York,” he said. “And I’m not getting out, because I believe in what I’m doing.”

After his speech, as Pakistani rock music blared, Mr. Suozzi spent more than an hour shaking hands, kneeling to greet children and posing for pictures.

“You see the difference between me and Spitzer,” said Mr. Suozzi as he crossed the parquet dance floor. “It’s going to pay off in the end—you’ll see.”