By Spencer Rumsey
The manslaughter verdict is in and the Jeff Conroy case is closed, but no one knows when the court of public opinion will adjourn because the immigration issue remains very much alive in this divisive election year.
What Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy once called “a one-day story” if it had happened anywhere else but on Long Island lasted for almost a year and a half, drawing national attention. This week, The New York Times gave the hate-crime trial result the front-page treatment. In a country populated by countless immigrants—both legal and illegal—thanks to this well-publicized death, one’s become a household name.
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Now that Levy is running for governor—as a Republican—it can’t help his campaign to recall he once was reported in Newsday as telling a group of business people that his having to deal with the Lucero case was like getting a colonoscopy. He wants to put that all behind him now. And fast. In his official statement after the verdict came in, Levy said, “A heinous, reprehensible act was committed on the night of Nov. 8, 2008. It is my hope that the sentence will properly reflect the brutal and blind hatred that was displayed on the night of the murder.”
To an outspoken critic like the Rev. Allan Ramirez of the Brookville Reformed Church, who has made a cause of championing the rights of Long Island’s undocumented workers, the potential eight-to-25-year prison sentence isn’t heavy enough, and Levy’s contrition didn’t go far enough.
“The cancer of racial hatred is embedded in the community, the police department and in particular the rhetoric and policies of County Executive Steve Levy,” Ramirez tells the Press. “He built a political career out of demonizing the immigrant community and it’s time that he be held accountable along with those being indicted.”
This sentiment is actually rather mild compared to Ramirez’s public comments right after the murder that “Steve Levy… also has blood on his hands.”
Calling the county executive an accomplice drives even neutral observers nuts, let alone Levy’s supporters, who insist he had nothing to do with the crime.
“Reverend Ramirez is a good man who is entitled to his opinion, but anybody who accuses someone of having blood on their hands is not interested in finding any kind of middle ground,” says Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a former Newsday columnist. “He would be interested in making headlines and not making headway. Suburbanites are moderate politically, and most are turned off by fiery rhetoric on anything from either side.”
The Lucero verdict, observes Lawrence Levy, no relation to the county executive, “is not only good news for anyone interested in seeing justice done, but it’s also good news for the political campaign of Steve Levy. If the verdict had gone for the defendant, the outrage, not just in the Latino community but all over the state, would have been enormous, and it would have kept the spotlight burning ever brighter on him.”
The Primary Problem
Both Levy and his chief gubernatorial opponent, Rick Lazio, the former Brightwaters Congressman, say they’re “for legal immigration and against illegal immigration.” Everybody seems to say that because it’s a position that resonates across the political landscape. But some feel a lot stronger about it than others. Nationally, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 82 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters said illegal immigration was a “very serious” problem. Locally, the immigration issue seems to be a dividing point between Levy and Lazio, but not so much as a policy difference, more as a perception. As a county executive, Levy has a record of dealing with undocumented workers; Lazio doesn’t.
“Steve Levy has a plan, Rick Lazio has no plan,” says John Jay LaValle, Suffolk County Republican chairman and avowed Levy supporter. “The bottom line is we’re still waiting to hear it.”