It's5 o'clock on a Wednesday, so the crowd at Rochester's Hyatt Regency is smaller than it could be, but Tom Suozzi, a natural-born politician if ever there was one, is working it.
"Hi, I'm Tom Suozzi," he says, over and over with an almost calculated efficiency, pausing just long enough to make eye contact, to grasp someone's hand in a firm handshake and hear their name and their concerns before moving on to the next potential voter. Suozzi (rhymes with Ozzie) moves through a room with the authority of someone who belongs at the center of attention and knows it.
Officially, the Nassau County Executive hasn't made up his mind about whether to challenge Attorney General Eliot Spitzer --- the presumptive Democratic nominee --- for a shot at the governor's mansion. Officially, he's on a listening tour of the state --- he was in Buffalo that morning --- to hear from the people before deciding whether to run. But watch him in action for a few minutes, and a theme emerges --- from his speech (rapid and energetic, earnest yet slick) to the mantras he repeats ("I can do it because I've done it," he's fond of saying). This isn't a man who's listening; this is a man who's campaigning.
Suozzi, who said Wednesday he'd decide by St. Patrick's Day, described that process this way to the Rochester crowd: "I'm going to make the decision to run based on two factors --- if I'm the best man for the job, and if I think I can win."
"I'm the best man for the job," he said.
That leaves the second criterion, one there's considerable doubt about. A mid-January Quinnipiac University poll found Suozzi losing to Spitzer, 72 percent to 8 percent. So what's billed as a listening tour is really functioning more like a stealth pre-campaign campaign, a chance for Suozzi to get some coverage, build name recognition, and attract local supporters who could drive a campaign, if he launches one. Building momentum now might be his only hope of running a competitive race.
Suozzi probably knows that. He certainly knows how to repackage the situation to his listening-tour audiences.
"I can't possibly win by going to the Democratic establishment," he told the crowd Wednesday. It would take a grassroots effort by ordinary people for him to win, he said. "Don't underestimate how powerful you are."
And despite some high-profile donations from enemies Spitzer's made policing Wall Street, the substance of Suozzi's message, at least so far, backs up the populist portrait he's trying to paint of himself. He first gained statewide prominence with the website fixalbany.com, a reform movement springboarding off the Brennan Center report that called the state legislature "dysfunctional."
Brandishing those reform credentials last week, Suozzi spoke in favor sensible redistricting, called high property taxes the state's number one problem, and claimed that the state could save at least $5 billion by wringing waste, fraud, and abuse from Medicaid. If those centrist positions weren't enough, he even spent considerable time laying out his nuanced views on abortion (a Roman Catholic, he wants to reduce their number, but keep them legal).
Such ideas seemed to please attendees, including Greece's Fred Amato, a conservative Democrat and former county legislator.
"I think he's very impressive," said Amato. "Tom Suozzi is a person who shows some independence from any party. I wish we had more people in the Democratic Party like him." Still, Amato admitted that party machinery won't embrace Suozzi's independence as enthusiastically.
"It's going to be tough when you're running against a statewide regime," he said.
Neil Jaschik, an advocate of the same good-government reforms Suozzi's been pushing, also went away impressed, if still a bit skeptical.
"Well, he talks the talk," said Jaschik. "The question is, can he deliver on what he says?"
Not everyone was as moved.
Jon Greenbaum, an organizer with the local activist group Metro Justice, challenged Suozzi during the question-and-answer session to embrace a state fund for clean campaigns, something Suozzi wasn't prepared to do on the spot. Metro Justice has made such a fund a priority for this election cycle, and his response left Greenbaum disappointed.
"Of the two candidates, Spitzer is the one who came out for clean money and clean campaigns," he says.
Greenbaum was also troubled by other parts of the conversation, including Suozzi's statement that he'd consider weakening the Wicks and Taylor Laws.
"I was concerned that the only special interests he mentioned were unions," he says. "He didn't mention corporate tax loopholes as a source of lost revenue." That signals to Greenbaum that Suozzi may be concerned about business but "has a tin ear for the rest of us."