News & Opinion » Featured story

An interview with an underdog

Facing a Spitzer landslide, Tom Suozzi insists he's running to win.


For the first time in more than a decade, the highest office in the state is going to turn over. Three men are vying to replace George Pataki and no matter who wins, there will be big changes in store for New Yorkers. So why isn't this race bigger news? Why aren't the conversations in coffee shops and at bus stops dominated by the governor's race?

The truth is, it could be a lot of things. Maybe the public has already bought the polls, which predict that Democratic frontrunner Eliot Spitzer will win by a landslide. Maybe we're just too far away from Election Day for anybody besides political junkies (and political reporters) to care. Maybe this state's residents have given up on the political process here and are planning their move to the Sun Belt. Maybe the issues, at least as they've been raised so far, just haven't captured the public's imagination.

But for the candidates, especially the two in the Democratic primary, the time to overcome those obstacles is rapidly winding to a close. Fewer than two weeks are left until Dems around the state head to the voting booth.

Spitzer's challenger in that primary, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, discussed the issues in a phone interview with City Newspaper. (Spitzer's campaign staff said they couldn't arrange a lengthy interview in person or by telephone, and we declined their offer to respond to questions by e-mail.)


Try as you might, it's all but impossible to get Tom Suozzi to talk about education without talking about property taxes.

"Well, they're tied together," he says, "because the problem is that New YorkState funds too little of our education costs right now." The state, says Suozzi, pays only about 37 percent of total school funding. That's the lowest percentage the state has funded in 50 years, according to Suozzi, and well below the national average of 48 percent. Suozzi wants the state to chip in more.

That seems surprising, coming from the candidate who's been defined, in part by himself, as a more conservative rival to Spitzer. But Suozzi is more accurately understood as a local elected official. His pledge to spend more state money (on some things, at least) is less an anomaly to a conservative agenda than the logical result of a backlash against top-down governing; "unfunded mandates" is the favorite slur.

"As governor of the state, I'd come from the experience of being a local official," he says at one point. It underscores his conviction that the balance of spending in New York is skewed, with too much power in state legislators' hands and too much burden on local municipalities to pay for the cost of government.

"I'm a very strong proponent of local control, and the state should be funding the local governments more than they currently do," says Suozzi. "Right now, it's completely the opposite way. The state passes a bunch of laws and they try and take control, and they make us fund their priorities locally. It should be the other way around. We should have our own local priorities, with more funding from the state. Right now, it's turned on its head. That's why local taxes are 72 percent above the national average."

Significantly raising the amount of the state's aid to schools, of course, means that significant sums of money have to come from somewhere.

"I've laid out a specific plan where the money should come from," says Suozzi. It's a familiar formula if you've followed his campaign, and Suozzi rattles off its talking points with the practiced, if tired, ease of someone who's been on message just a little too long. Long enough to come close to sounding glib.

"Reduce the state workforce by 10 percent, same as I did as county executive of NassauCounty and mayor of the City of Glen Cove. Cut 7 1/2 percent out of Medicaid by going after Medicaid fraud. Cut 7 1/2 percent additional out of Medicaid by going after Medicaid waste, by changing some of the laws that exist currently and some of the regulations and some of the ways that the system's administered."

The pitch goes on at some length. It includes cutting borrowing, boosting the amount state employees pay toward their own pensions, collecting sales tax from wholesalers, not retailers, "so it'll be easier to combat fraud --- because there's less wholesalers," he explains.

For Suozzi, all rhetorical roads lead back to his contrasts with Eliot Spitzer. This one is no different.

"The difference between me and Spitzer is, I'm telling you exactly where I'm going to cut," he says. "And my cuts add up to the things that I want to change. He's promised billions and billions and billions of dollars of new spending without telling us where the money's coming from. So he's either not going to do it or he's going to raise everyone's income taxes."


Of all the issues, those concerning the state's economy have yielded perhaps the clearest distinction between the two Democratic candidates.

Spitzer advocates investing huge amounts of capital in targeted industries (biotech and photonics in Rochester) to build the infrastructure of the next economy. He often likens his plans to building the 21st century's Erie Canal. Suozzi, on the other hand, favors a more typically conservative agenda of lightening government's burden on business.

"I've endorsed Unshackle Upstate in its entirety," he says.

Unshackle Upstate is the plan outlined by a coalition of Upstate business interests, chief among them the Rochester Business Alliance. It calls for a handful of major changes, none of them particularly new ideas. First, there's workers compensation. Right now, New York is one of only two states with a system that pays permanent partial disability benefits.

"We should cap it at 12 years," says Suozzi. "We could still provide health insurance for lifetime; I don't have a problem with that. But benefits should stop after 12 years."

He agrees with Unshackle Upstate's take on the Wicks Law (which requires four separate contractors on public projects over $50,000): "Raise the cap. Raise the cap dramatically." The Unshackle agenda calls for the cap to go to $2 million. Anything less than that wouldn't be subject to the law. Suozzi prefers a slightly different change: "I think there should be a regional cost differential," he says.

He also backs the business community's proposed changes to the scaffold law. The law places a high degree of responsibility on employers for injuries from workplace falls. Businesses --- and Suozzi --- want a "comparative negligence" standard, a fancy way of saying they'd shift some responsibility onto workers whose drug or alcohol use or other recklessness causes the injury.

On brownfields (polluted former industrial sites), Suozzi says of the state's regulations: "It's not that they're too tough, it's that they're nonsensical. And they're ineffective."

"The most important thing is, you need to have some certainty," he says. "If someone comes in and does a state-approved cleanup, the developer shouldn't be liable for future expenses if the state changes its standards later on. That's what causes their insurance costs to be so high."

Suozzi says he'd hold the original polluter responsible instead (although often by the time the state becomes involved in a brownfield project, the polluter is bankrupt or out of business).

Yet another concern: the arbitration system that governs public employees. Suozzi contends that the existing system tends to result in contracts that are more generous than municipalities can afford.

"I would make it that the arbitrators have to give primary consideration to the ability of a locality to pay without new taxes or increased tax rates," Suozzi says. "And I'd go to the last-best-offer system, where the arbitrator has to choose one side's offer, which will force both side to be more reasonable."

There are other planks to his platform, including cutting taxes on energy and reforming Medicaid (a favorite topic of Suozzi's), but from Suozzi's perspective, this is just one part of a larger plan.

Another part (which he admits to stealing from Paychex's Tom Golisano) is fostering entrepreneurship and small businesses.

"Well, right now we train our students to become employees, and we actually need to have more programs in our schools to train our students to be small-business owners and entrepreneurs," he says. Suozzi wants to start this in high school, even grade school, "to try and create a cultural change that encourages small-business owners and entrepreneurs," he says. "The biggest job providers are small businesses. They create the most new jobs, and they also generate the most new income. And no small business is going to, say, locate from Pennsylvania to Rochester."

Like Spitzer, Suozzi also believes that government can aid economic development by helping create an economic master plan for a region. When he unveiled his economic platform in Rochester, he said that as governor he'd hold planning meetings in every major metro region around the state in his first hundred days in office.

But perhaps the most classically conservative of Suozzi's positions is that government is limited in what it can do to help businesses thrive, and that it helps business best by getting off its back, primarily by reducing the cost of government.

The property-tax reduction measures he talks about when it comes to school aid (shifting more of the school tax burden to the state) would help, of course. But Suozzi suggests other cost cutting. There's the 10 percent cut in the state workforce he mentioned earlier. Suozzi quotes a figure of 191,000 employees, so that'd be no small amount of bloodletting. He declines to say where those cuts would come from.

"That'll be based on what I see as the chief executive when I'm in the position," he says. "I did the same thing as county executive: I didn't lay out where the cuts are going to come from ahead of time. And I did it through normal attrition, early retirement packages, performance evaluations. I increased some departments while I decreased others. But you set the goal ahead of time as to what it takes to balance your budget."

Suozzi's also taking a top-down, goal-oriented approach to slashing borrowing.

"Right now, we borrow more per person in New YorkState than any state in the country with the exception of Alaska," he says. He hasn't outlined specific borrowing to cut, but a goal to cut down to.

"I'm just going to cut so that we reduce our debt service by $500 million a year," he says.

Won't that have a dramatic impact on the state's capital programs?

"Yes, it will," he says. "I had to cut my capital borrowing in NassauCounty by half. But it forces you to make priorities as to what has to be done. We just can't afford to keep borrowing so much money."

As with state workforce cuts, Suozzi is unwilling to even hazard a guess about which infrastructure upgrades might get hit.

"Nope," he says. "It's a very complex process. It has to go through a capital planning process."


Suozzi's ideas for cost-cutting pale next to the prospect of Medicaid reform. With the exception of government reform, there appears to be nothing Suozzi wants to address more. Spiraling Medicaid costs were the provocation that first got him deeply interested in state politics. That happened when, as a county executive, his progress in turning NassauCounty's finances around was hindered by the rapid growth in Medicaid costs.

Suozzi has talked a lot (including in our interview) about ending waste, fraud, and abuse in the Medicaid system. In the past, he's estimated that up to 40 percent of the system's costs are attributable to those problems (though he's backed away from the number more recently). He even takes credit for forcing Spitzer to address the subject.

But waste, fraud, and abuse aren't the only reasons the program's costs have risen. One is the rise in cost of long-term care for middle-income families. Some of those families could arguably afford to pay all or part of that cost.

"People do spousal refusal right now, when literally they have millions of dollars of assets," says Suozzi. Yet he also speaks of watching his mother struggle with the care of three ailing grandparents.

"The whole system needs to be reformed, whereby families can play a role in helping take care of their parents and grandparents," he says, "but the government should be helping them to not be overwhelmed and not go broke in the process. And I think there's a happy medium."

Curiously, despite his fights as county executive against state-mandated increases, Suozzi won't commit to having the state pay more of Medicaid's burden.

"I would love to see that happen," he says. "I just am not promising that yet, because I don't know that we can do it with these other priorities yet."


This is the holy grail of the Suozzi campaign.

The havoc wrought by Medicaid on NassauCounty's budgets may have rankled Suozzi. But the struggle with state government that ensued when he tried to get it to deal with Medicaid costs quickly convinced him that state government reforms were necessary.

The man's enthusiasm on the subject is apparent as soon as he starts speaking about it. His sentences, already long, tend to run longer. His voice rises in pitch. He's passionate about this topic, and he wants you to be, too. During the course of this interview, after one particularly impassioned speech, I cleared my throat to ask the next question. Suozzi seemed crestfallen.

"You don't seem interested, Krestia," he said, in a tone that sounded more like that of a hurt or disappointed parent than anything else. It was as though he'd expected his fervor would be strong enough or infectious enough to reach through the phone lines and win over a reporter.

Whatever his success at imparting his passion to the public, Suozzi has clearly given reform plenty of thought. The thoroughness of his reform agenda is unsurpassed in this race. As with just about everyone else's reform proposal, it begins in the legislature.

"The key to the whole problem in state government is there is no competition," he says. "We have all these problems that are very real problems, yet in 60 to 70 percent of the races, there's no opponent or the opponent spends less than $1,000 in the race. So the incumbent wins by like 60 or 70 percentage points. And there've been more people indicted in the past three years in the state legislature than have lost their jobs in the polling booth."

In particular, Suozzi wants to change redistricting practices to make legislative races more competitive, so that legislators are more concerned about what voters want. If he's governor, he says, he will not sign any redistricting plan until legislators present him with one that does that.

But wouldn't those legislators just override his veto? For that matter, what if the legislature simply refused to cooperate with any of his policy goals, hoping to render him a four-year lame duck and replace him after a single term?

"Nope, because in two years they're up for reelection, and I will have the governor's office to hold them accountable," he says. "We need the public officials to fear the people a little more. Right now, they don't. Right now, elections are all based on money and celebrity."

For all his zeal about reform, and despite his presumption that the public wants the changes he's pushing for, Suozzi has managed to make almost no headway in the polls. The two most recent, from last week, showed Spitzer beating him 70 percent to 17 (Marist-WNBC) and 78 to 15 (Quinnipiac) among likely Democratic primary voters.

At this point in the race, those numbers spell almost certain doom. Furthermore, Suozzi has vowed not to pull a Lieberman and run as an independent if he loses. Why stay in such a race?

"Nobody says that Tom Suozzi's ideas are bad. Nobody says my proposals are bad. Nobody says I don't have the record of accomplishment and experience to do this job," he retorts. "They say that Tom Suozzi can't beat Eliot Spitzer because he has all the endorsements and all the money. Well, that's the whole point of my race. That's what's wrong with New YorkState. It's not about the money and the endorsements --- or it shouldn't be about the money and the endorsements, I should say. It should be about who's got the better proposals and the better experience to actually solve the problems people face. And so I believe I have to fight that fight."

He bristles at the suggestion that he's out to prove a point or highlight a particular issue, as other long-shot candidates are (Hillary Clinton's opponent, Jonathan Tasini, for example).

Yet that's the only consolation prize that this hard-fought race seems to hold for him: the chance to take credit for influencing public policy. And that proves too difficult for Suozzi to leave alone.

"Already I've been successful, in that I've gotten people to pay attention to Medicaid fraud," he says. "Eliot Spitzer's been in office for seven and a half years. He's never paid attention to Medicaid fraud. It never was a priority of his. Now he's relying on Medicaid fraud to fund some of his ideas," he says.

"I'm not running to just make a point or get my message out," he says. "I'm running to win. But in the course of this, I am making a point and getting my message out."