The New York Democrat who is quitting Congress for a longshot governor bid

·10 min read
Alex Brandon, File/AP Photo

ALBANY, N.Y. — Just 6 percent of New York Democrats would back New York Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi for governor, according to the most recent polling, which tied him for last place in the primary race this year.

The chair of the state party is publicly encouraging him to drop his primary challenge against Gov. Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat who both the right and left called a political force even before she announced a $21 million war chest and a budget fullof spending for all.

But Suozzi has a plan.

It requires roughly $15 million, a very specific coalition of support and for New York voters to hold a level of mistrust toward Hochul’s fledgling administration, according to an internal memo shared with POLITICO that lays out the campaign’s next steps.

The three-term congressman from Long Island, who also ran a long-shot gubernatorial primary against then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in 2006, said he won’t be daunted by the perceived long odds.

And he brushes aside concerns that leaving his House seat could make it vulnerable for a GOP takeover in November.

“I have almost an obligation to try and stand up for the country, for the state, for the party," he said in an interview. “I just see this very clearly, what needs to be done. I feel like this is what I should be doing. And it may be a very tough battle.”

Why Suozzi sees a lane for governor

Internal polling done by Suozzi shows that slight majorities of Democratic voters prefer “a candidate with executive experience over someone aligned with the left,” and “the party’s tilt to the left undermines the ability to win races” and “govern effectively.”

His goal now, he said, is talking to enough voters to introduce himself outside of Long Island and reframe the conversation that way.

Suozzi, 59, a fast-talking former Nassau County executive, knows that Hochul has now shored up most of the establishment Democratic support, big-dollar donors and many top unions.

He recognized as much during five regional tele-town halls that his campaign says have garnered more than 5,000 callers each. One on Jan. 24 for the Hudson Valley and Capital Region hit more than 8,200 registered Democrats, who had been invited through robocalls and texts the previous day.

He views the town hall events and barnstorming across the state as an effective way to reach voters ahead of the June primary, which traditionally has low turnout.

In the last two gubernatorial primaries easily won by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, 24 percent of enrolled Democrats voted in 2018, while 10 percent did in 2014. So Suozzi sees a small margin at the polls that could help his chances.

“You can’t look at the polling in the beginning,” he said, when a caller asked about his actual chances against Hochul, who assumed the governor's office in August after Cuomo resigned amid scandal.

“Hillary Clinton was supposed to be president two times; I supported her. She didn’t win.”

Suozzi has been doing this kind of local politicking a long time, and it shows.

On a recent town hall call, Suozzi took extra time comforting a woman who broke down in tears describing the difficulty her children have had getting mental health treatment.

He launched into phrases he’d learned in both Spanish and Mandarin after two separate callers highlighted their respective backgrounds. And he has a quick answer and personal anecdote for every concern, question and complaint about New York's high taxes — a cornerstone of his campaign.

“I'm not going to get the other elected officials. I’ll get some, but not many,” he said on the call. “I'm not going to get all the big organizations. I get some; I'm not going to get that many. I need the people, and I believe that my message is resonating … and you’ve got to prove me right.”

Running against Hochul

Suozzi is running to Hochul’s right, with a focus on combating crime and lowering taxes to prevent further diaspora from the Empire State.

While they are both moderate Democrats, Hochul, who lives in Buffalo, has sought to shore up support in more liberal New York City and build relationships with the state Legislature, which is largely driven by progressive Democrats.

So for Suozzi, his platform nearly mirrors his previous campaign for governor, when he pushed for a property tax cap that ultimately became law under Cuomo in 2011 and resembles some of the rhetoric the state’s Republicans have been using for years.

But the emphasis on “balance” and “common sense” seems a more winning one for Democrats recently too, Suozzi said. He points to the write-in reelection last November of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (who has endorsed Hochul) and New York City Mayor Eric Adams (who hasn’t weighed in on the race but offered Suozzi a job in his administration).

And Suozzi, who unveiled a 15-point plan to fight crime on Tuesday in New York City, said he doesn’t believe Hochul has laid out such detailed salutations and that she is “pandering to” rather than pushing back on extremes from both the far left and right.

Hochul is facing pressure from Adams, moderate Democrats and Republicans to revisit the state's controversial bail laws, but in recent days she has resisted, sticking with legislative leaders who say the laws have helped keep people, particularly those from minority communities, out of jail on low-level offenses.

Suozzi supports the idea of revisiting the state’s bail reform laws to allow judges more discretion in creating exceptions to the state’s law banning cash bail.

The crime issue, which plays well in New York City and its suburbs, is one where Suozzi has focused more on developing prevention and rehabilitation measures for those unfairly caught up in the legal system. But he also believes in punitive measures when needed, he said.

“It’s these extremes of harsh enforcement to ’let's understand the criminals’ and really you have to do both — we have to both enforce the law and we have to try and prevent crime from happening in the first place,” he said.

Suozzi’s first campaign ad was a promise to use the power of the governor to remove local district attorneys if they do not prosecute crimes, a counter to Manhattan’s new progressive district attorney, Alvin Bragg, suggesting that his office would reduce some criminal charges as a way of alleviating the city's jail population.

It’s certainly the topic of the moment. Despite Hochul’s dominance and the 6 percent tie for Democratic support he shares with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Suozzi’s background and rhetoric do have a potential path, said Larry Levy of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

It’s a “narrow, ever narrowing lane, but not no lane,” Levy said.

Winning support statewide

Suozzi has a natural base in the suburbs, which aren’t dominant factors in a New York Democratic primary but could increase in importance with more candidates in the race, Levy said.

He might be able to pick up “tight moderates” in New York City who voted for Adams and Western New Yorkers who haven’t quite adopted upstate’s favorite daughter, Levy suggested.

Suozzi said he learned from the 2006 quixotic run. With Spitzer already a national figure, Suozzi had to made it on the primary ballot through the petitioning process, an exercise he said he’s planning to undertake again.

In order to avoid having to petition his way on the ballot, Suozzi would need 25 percent of the vote at the party convention next month in Manhattan.

Suozzi said he had both good ideas and gumption during his 2006 bid, but lacked a knowledge of what it would take to win a statewide race, including building a solid team, campaign infrastructure and relationships with state media.

In that race, he was not afraid to mix it up with Spitzer, then known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” for his crusades against financial corruption as attorney general. Most memorably, Suozzi confronted Spitzer at a Long Island train station with reporters in tow, leading to a nose-to-nose debateover property taxes.

The race was a drubbing: Spitzer won 82 percent to 18 percent.

But therein lies the rub for Suozzi's strategy now 16 years later from his last run.

The way long-shot statewide races are often won is with money and manpower, both of which Suozzi lacks relative to Hochul. Suozzi reported about $5 million in the bank in his campaign filings earlier this month — not nothing, but probabbly not enough.

There’s no question he needs to increase that amount, he said, but his plans to do so are vague.

Some of his historic relationships have come through, though not all publicly, he said. And he gains more volunteers and backers after each town hall event, he contended.

What is Suozzi's game plan?

Even long-time peers and allies are skeptical.

And they’re not sure challenging the state’s first woman governor, who has so far not made any major missteps, is the right idea for the moment.

Suozzi’s criticisms of Hochul’s experience, combined with a consistent moniker of “interim governor” have been called sexist and inaccurate.

Jay Jacobs, chair of the state Democratic Committee and the Nassau County party, chaired Suozzi’s 2006 bid. Yet now Jacobs is publicly encouraging Suozzi to drop his 2022 campaign and what will inevitably be a “tough ordeal” of petitioning, he said.

Suozzi is unlikely to get volunteers from party infrastructure, now that so many officials have backed Hochul, and hiring foot soldiers for the effort could prove difficult with minimum wage being as much as $15 an hour in New York and because “the weather isn’t best Upstate at this point in time,” Jacobs said.

“It’s the longest of long shots that’s dependent more on someone else failing than anything he does on its own,” said Jacobs, who has endorsed Hochul.

“It’s a Hail Mary pass. At some point, you just hope that ball lands in the right hands. It’s not something I’d want to risk a great congressional career on, and that’s what he’s doing.”

Suozzi said he doesn’t believe Jacobs really thinks Suozzi will end his campaign. Due to the timing, Suozzi couldn't lose the primary and then run for his current House seat again.

“You know, I think Jay Jacobs knows me pretty well,” Suozzi said. “He knows very clearly I'm not dropping out.”

In 2006, New York Magazine called Suozzi “the perfect candidate for governor of New York in any other year than this one.

In 2022, Suozzi, as a white man, wouldn’t be making history like Hochul would as the first woman elected to the role or Williams as the first Black person elected to governor. But Suozzi says he does think 2022 is the year his skill set and resume line up with what New Yorkers want.

"And I’m risking a lot — I’m a United States congressman — and it’s a great honor," he said.

But he quickly added: “I feel like this is something I’m supposed to be doing. And I can't not do it just because it's tough.”