Top Democrats Want Tom Suozzi Out of Governor’s Race. He’s Running Anyway.

In the New York Democratic primary, Representative Tom Suozzi is fighting Gov. Kathy Hochul for moderate voters, with a focus on fighting crime and cutting taxes.

Publication: The New York Times
By: Nicholas Fandos
Tom Suozzi, center, and his running mate, Diana Reyna, right, greet patrons at the Lindenwood Diner in Brooklyn.Credit...Andrew Seng for The New York Times
Tom Suozzi, center, and his running mate, Diana Reyna, right, greet patrons at the Lindenwood Diner in Brooklyn.Credit...Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Representative Thomas R. Suozzi is not the kind of person to be swayed by the advice of fellow Democrats. But as he runs for governor of New York this year, he sure has gotten his share.

There was Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a favorite to be the next Democratic House speaker, who counseled him not to give up his House seat on Long Island.

Eliot Spitzer, the former governor who trounced him in a 2006 primary, warned he had no clear lane to victory. Even Hillary Clinton weighed in, urging Mr. Suozzi to forgo a messy primary and help Democrats fight to keep the House majority.

It doesn’t take a political science degree to understand the argument. Gov. Kathy Hochul is enjoying a double-digit lead, a mountain of campaign cash rivaling the Adirondacks and the full muscle of a Democratic establishment eager to see New York’s first female governor win a full term.

None of it has deterred Mr. Suozzi, 59. As potential opponents like Letitia James and Bill de Blasio dropped out of the race, the three-term congressman and outspoken centrist from Nassau County has flouted the advice of allies, tossing aside a coveted House seat to embark on a frenetic attempt to spoil Ms. Hochul’s potential coronation.

The race undoubtedly remains Ms. Hochul’s to lose. But with less than two months until Primary Day, there are signs that weeks of public appeals may finally be finding an audience among New Yorkers who believe they have fresh reasons to doubt the governor or more progressive alternatives.

Ms. Hochul’s administration is still fighting off a cloud of scandal, after her handpicked second-in-command, Brian A. Benjamin, resigned in the face of public corruption charges last month. And recent public polling suggests that she is vulnerable to attacks on issues that Mr. Suozzi has put at the center of his campaign, like rising crime and her decision to spend $600 million in taxpayer money on a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.

“New Yorkers are not just going to forget about this poor judgment she’s exercised,” Mr. Suozzi said the other day, as Ms. Hochul cajoled lawmakers into changing state law to get Mr. Benjamin off the ballot.

“We shouldn’t let them forget,” he added.

Seeking to draw contrasts with his opponents — Ms. Hochul and Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate — Mr. Suozzi describes himself as a “common-sense Democrat” and a “proven executive.” His political ads portray him as a centrist in a time of extremes, someone better qualified to lead one of the nation’s largest states than Ms. Hochul, a former county clerk, congresswoman and lieutenant governor, who took office last August when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned in scandal.

Prominent Democrats fear that Mr. Suozzi’s hard-charging candidacy could endanger both the swing district he represents and Ms. Hochul’s chances against a Republican this fall.

“Tom is making it difficult for Kathy and the other Democrats down ballot,” said Representative Kathleen Rice, a fellow Nassau County Democrat who has known him for decades.

“He really does have a big heart and believes in traditional Democratic values of taking care of the poor and a big social safety net,” Ms. Rice added. “I just think that if he had been able to check his ego earlier in his career, he could have already run for president.”

Political analysts are skeptical he can close the gap.

Insurgents have successfully defeated Democratic incumbents in New York by running to their left, as Mr. Williams is trying to do this year. But there are few cases of a Democratic challenger winning a primary by running to the right, particularly against someone like Ms. Hochul, who shares Mr. Suozzi’s general political orientation as a Catholic, suburban moderate.

“He’s basically vying for the same voter that she is,” said Ester Fuchs, a political science professor at Columbia University. “People have to have a reason to say, ‘She’s doing a terrible job, she shouldn’t continue.’ I don’t see that happening.”

In 2001, Mr. Suozzi, a former mayor of Glen Cove, became the first Democrat to be elected Nassau County executive in more than 30 years.Credit...Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
In 2001, Mr. Suozzi, a former mayor of Glen Cove, became the first Democrat to be elected Nassau County executive in more than 30 years.Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

The position is a familiar one for Mr. Suozzi, who followed his Italian immigrant father into law and politics at a young age, became mayor of his affluent hometown, Glen Cove on the Long Island Sound, at 31 and proceeded to take a series of political moonshots.

It got Mr. Suozzi elected as the first Democratic county executive in a generation in Nassau, where he won plaudits for turning around the county’s troubled finances. Yet a long-shot campaign to upset Mr. Spitzer in the Democratic race for governor in 2006 ended badly, and a few years later, Mr. Suozzi unexpectedly lost re-election in Nassau with $2 million unspent.

In an interview, he insisted this year is not a repeat of 2006.

“I was running against Eliot Spitzer, the sheriff of Wall Street,” Mr. Suozzi said. “Now, I’m running against Kathy Hochul, who I don’t think has any kind of record of accomplishment that anybody could point to.”

Mr. Suozzi, right, was handily defeated by Eliot Spitzer, left, in the 2006 Democratic primary for governor.Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times
Mr. Suozzi, right, was handily defeated by Eliot Spitzer, left, in the 2006 Democratic primary for governor.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Ms. Hochul’s allies vigorously dispute that characterization. But while the governor has significantly consolidated party and union support behind her, she does lack the kind of voter enthusiasm that Mr. Spitzer enjoyed at the height of his popularity.

Much of Mr. Suozzi’s campaign is a continuation of centrist positions he staked out in Washington, where he joined the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and crusaded, unsuccessfully, to repeal a state and local tax deduction cap implemented by President Donald J. Trump that hurt well-off suburbanites. He also took liberal stances, starting a labor caucus and racking up an F rating from the National Rifle Association and top scores from Planned Parenthood.

On a recent campaign stretch that took him from suburban diners to a Black church in Queens, the congressman at times sounded like his Republican counterparts, promising to wage an all-out assault on crime (“This is a crime crisis!”), to cut income and property taxes (“People are leaving our state — it’s not the weather”) and to fight the “socialist” Democrats who are “killing our party” by attacking police. He also reminded voters that Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City, had offered him a deputy mayor post.

“People say, ‘That’s not a Democratic issue,’” Mr. Suozzi said. “Yes it is. Democrats are worried about crime and taxes. Democrats are afraid to take the subway.”

As Mr. Suozzi met with potential voters, he focused his message on fighting crime and cutting taxes.Credit...Andrew Seng for The New York Times
As Mr. Suozzi met with potential voters, he focused his message on fighting crime and cutting taxes.Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

The message resonated with suburban voters who showed up in Westchester and Rockland Counties to hear Mr. Suozzi over free plates of eggs. A warm retail campaigner, he greeted potential voters — as well as some patrons just trying to enjoy a private meal — in fragments of no fewer than five languages: English, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin and Greek.

“Nothing against Kathy Hochul, but right now I think it’s important to have someone in the role that has the credentials and the history of being able to boost the economy,” said Maria Abdullah, a businesswoman in Westchester who attended one of the gatherings.

The question is whether Mr. Suozzi can attract the broader spectrum of voters needed to defeat Ms. Hochul, particularly when she may outspend him four to one. Mr. Suozzi is clearly targeting Mr. Adams’s coalition of working-class Black and Latinos around New York City, betting that the party faithful are tired of progressive voices.

He chose Diana Reyna, a former city councilwoman who was the first Dominican woman elected in New York State, as his running mate; Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, is campaign chairman.

At times, though, Mr. Suozzi seems to be going out of his way to alienate another powerful block of primary voters. Progressives have expressed outrage at anti-crime policies they believe are retrograde and took offense at a radio appearance in which he seemingly approved of a Florida law opponents have branded “Don’t Say Gay.” (He later said he had been “inartful” and opposed the law.)

Lisa Tyson, the director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, said it’s not the time for bipartisanship. “There’s no middle ground between Republicans and Democrats anymore,” she said. “This is about fighting for justice and fighting for food.”

Other prominent party figures have winced at the tone Mr. Suozzi has used to attack the state’s first female leader, whom he often refers to as an unqualified “interim governor.”

“What he seems to be saying is, ‘I should be governor because I can do it better,’” said Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic Party chairman. “The underlying implication is that he is a male and she is a female. That’s not where this party should be going.”

Mr. Suozzi said Mr. Jacobs, who chaired his 2006 campaign, was “absolutely wrong.” He also defended his approach to Ms. Hochul: “Kathy Hochul has not been elected governor of New York State, and she is serving from now until the end of Andrew Cuomo’s term,” he said. “The definition of that is interim.”

A spokesman for the governor declined to comment.

Mr. Suozzi does inspire fierce loyalty among his supporters, who say he can be a creative and, at times, groundbreaking leader.

“Tom is a doer. Tom is an administrator. Tom knows what the city needs right now: safety and economic opportunity for all groups of people,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who said Mr. Suozzi’s father gave him a job as a young paralegal years before he briefly served as Mr. Trump’s White House communications director.

Mr. Scaramucci and his wife each contributed $22,600 to the campaign.

Mr. Suozzi readily acknowledges that the safe political road would keep him on a path to re-election for a House seat.

“I could stay in Congress the rest of my life if I wanted to and keep on getting re-elected, I believe,” he said. “But I’m giving it up because I feel so strongly that people are suffering in my state and something dramatic has to be done — and because I feel that my party has lost its way.”