When Donald Trump came to Suffolk County for the rally where he told police officers to not worry so much if they rough up suspects when putting them in the paddy wagon, he told the crowd that he was back home, among the neighborhoods where he grew up.
It was taken as another piece of Trumpian ludicrousness, since he grew up two counties over, in a wealthy enclave of Queens a world away from the white flight, middle-class, middle-American neighborhoods of Suffolk County.
But if Trump didn’t come of age in Suffolk, Trumpism surely did: it was on these tidy tree-lined streets that illegal immigration first exploded as something not exclusively the province of the borderlands but as a 21st century suburban issue. A booming economy, especially in home building, and chaos south of the border brought a wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, changing communities that had stubbornly resisted change for generations.
And long before Donald Trump called for a border wall or accused Mexico of sending its rapists and drug dealers into the United States, the county executive of Suffolk, Steve Levy, emerged on the national scene as a virulent anti-illegal immigrant hardliner, giving voice to a strain of political rhetoric that had previously been the sole province of talk radio, and that would later reach full flower in the Trump campaign.
Under Levy, the Suffolk police raided rooming houses and stopped drivers who looked like they may be in the country illegally. He pushed through a law that denied government contracts to businesses that couldn’t prove that their workforce was entirely legal and tried to deputize local police as federal immigration agents.
“We’re going to stand up for the people of this county who have been exploited in their neighborhoods,” Levy said after a raid in the blue-collar town of Brookhaven found 64 immigrants living in a one family home. The residents of the home were tossed out into the street and left homeless, and Levy refused to meet with advocacy groups afterwards.
“It’s absurd to even discuss the notion we would keep such a facility open. I’m not one who’s going to be intimidated by their antics or marches. Bring it on.”
A decade later, Levy stands his ground: “You had a lot of people saying, I didn’t sign up for this. All I wanted was a house with a white picket fence in a safe neighborhood near a good school, and then every other house on my block is inundated with thirty single men, my kid’s kindergarten class has doubled in size and the emergency room at my local hospital is being overwhelmed. And it’s all being done illegally and no one wants to address it. There are seven billion people in the world and half of them want to come here. If we don’t control our own borders what kind of country are we going to have?”
Levy is sitting in the law firm where he now works, in a nondescript office building next to the airport in Ronkonkoma. He left politics in 2011, after a failed run for governor and fundraising scandal forced him to give up his bid for a third term as Suffolk County executive, an office he’d won four years before—either despite or because of his anti-immigrant rhetoric—with 96 percent of the vote, running on the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independent lines. Wearing a pink dress shirt fashionably unbuttoned at the chest, Levy is an ex-politician gratified, one who has seen the issue he railed about for years become central to the national conversation.
“A lot of Republican voters were cheering when they finally heard a Republican candidate getting real about the immigration issue. That was music to the ears of many voters who see all these guys scared, playing the P.C. game,” Levy says of Trump. He liked Scott Walker in the primaries, since he, like Levy, took on the public sector unions, and admitted to mixed feelings on Trump’s rise, since he was “totally inexperienced and unpredictable.”
But yet, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Even those who didn’t like him had a sense of relief that the Hollywood academia left-leaning media cabal took it on the chin. The lefties needed to be knocked down a peg.”
Levy insists that he is not a racist, that he has nothing against Hispanics, and that he would even favor increasing the levels of legal immigration. It’s immigration of the illegal stripe that is the problem. It was, he insists, a lonely stance, one that opened him up to what he calls unfair accusations of racism and xenophobia.
The dark underside of Levy’s brand of politics came to the light in 2008, when a group of white teenagers drank a few beers and then went riding around the Suffolk hamlet of Patchogue, looking, they said, for a “Mexican” to rough up. They ended up finding a 37-year-old immigrant from Ecuador who had worked for 16 years at a local dry cleaner. They taunted and punched him and finally plunged a knife into his chest. Levy was dismissive at first, calling it a “one-day story” and even comparing the difficulty the story brought him to getting a colonoscopy.
The Southern Poverty Law Center blamed Levy and other elected officials. “Latino immigrants in Suffolk County live in fear,” the group said in a report. “Political leaders in the county have done little to discourage the hatred, and some have actively fanned the flames.”
“It’s craziness to suggest that if you are against open borders and there is a violent act that you are responsible,” Levy says now. “It’s ridiculous. There have been racist acts going on in Suffolk County since the beginning of it. To suggest these seven kids, who probably didn’t know my name and were out looking to attack this poor defenseless immigrant because of something I said is ludicrous. It’s something for the left to latch on to, to say if you are against illegal immigration it is going to lead to the murder of innocent people.”
The list of what are at least intemperate remarks made by Levy is long. He called a respected immigrants rights organization a group of “communists” and “anarchists.” At one event he joked about deporting the kitchen staff. Most famously, he decried “anchor babies” and said falsely that a local hospital was on the verge of shutting its maternity ward due to the influx of undocumented mothers.
“I never attacked immigrants as individuals. I attacked the policy. I don’t think my rhetoric has been inflammatory at all,” he said. “There is nothing pejorative about the term ‘Anchor Baby.’ That is a creation of the far left to demonize those who bring up the issue. The connotation is clear. Many people who are here illegally have children here to anchor their presence here. That is a reality. All I am being is descriptive of what is going on.”
In fact, Levy says, not only is Trump not responsible for the racist attacks that have spiked since his inauguration, but the tough-on-immigrant rhetoric has been his biggest accomplishment.
If illegal border crossings are down 64 percent under Trump, it’s because would-be undocumented immigrants “no longer feel like the red carpet is going to be rolled out for them,” never mind that by his own admission his own rhetoric never dissuaded undocumented immigrants from making a home in Suffolk County.
“The issue of illegal immigration is all about messages. Send a message that says ‘Come on over, you can stay,’ people will come over and stay. If you send a message that says we are not going to incorporate you into our society, you are not going to get a driver’s license, you are not going to get a professional license, you are not going to get subsidies, we are going to check your status so you can’t get a job, they will say it’s not worth the risk and the hassle to do this.”
Although in the public’s imagination, Suffolk County is synonymous with The Hamptons, in truth it shares a lot more in common with those outer ring suburbs that voted twice for Obama and then flipped to Trump in 2016. It is poorer and less educated than its western neighbor Nassau County, where many residents commute to Manhattan each morning.
“There was a middle class that felt besieged by newly arrived immigrants, and ignored and dismissed. Steve Levy tapped into the grievances of a lot of white, middle class folks there before anyone else did,” said Lawrence Levy, no relation to the county executive and the director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
The benefits of Levy’s stance turned out to be mixed. Levy was a lifelong Democrat who, the immigration issue aside, received high marks for his leadership of Suffolk. The New York Times called him “a brilliant Suffolk County executive, a leader with tenacity, integrity and a lot of good ideas” someone who “bestrides this narrow island like a Colossus, while his political opponents—what few remain—walk under him and peep about.”
He had hoped to run for governor as a conservative Democrat in 2010, but by that point his views on immigration made him anathema to the party. So at the encouragement of state party leaders, he switched to the Republican Party, hiring longtime John McCain aide John Weaver and current Trump aide Kellyanne Conway to lead his campaign. The effort was ultimately doomed however when delegates at the state party convention recoiled against allowing someone who had voted for Barack Obama a mere eighteen months before to run on their ballot line.
In a way, his rise and fall reveals how far the Democratic Party has moved on the immigration issue. Back in 2006, the day after she was re-elected senator from New York and gearing up to run for president, Hillary Clinton met with Levy in Suffolk County at a diner for a photo-op. He liked her, he said, and he noted that Clinton would never have been supportive of undocumented immigrants getting driver’s licenses or tuition assistance or subsidies for health care. He was flabbergasted in 2016 when Clinton said she was in favor of undocumented immigrants being allowed to sign up for Obamacare.
“She reversed every single position she held on immigration,” he said.
Levy now doesn’t sound like someone who will rejoin the Democratic Party anytime soon. Instead, he sounds exactly like those middle- and working-class white voters who voted for Obama and then for Trump, much as the county he once led did, voting for the Democrat in 2008 and 2012 before flipping red in 2016.
“The Democrats have morphed into ‘The Resistance.’ They are pro illegal immigration, pro Sanctuary City, pro open border, pro Occupy Wall street, anti-law enforcement, anti-economic growth.”
“Democrats reach out to gays by saying, ‘You are oppressed, we are the ones who are going to save you. They reach out to minorities by saying, ‘You are oppressed, we are the ones who are going to save you.’ They reach out to single women by saying, ‘You are oppressed, we are the ones who are going to save you.’ The average voter feels like they work their asses off and tries to protect their family. They don’t want to be told that they are the oppressor”
Democrats of course have no reason to listen to any of this. Levy left the party, and despite all the good he did in Suffolk—passing several good government reforms, building affordable housing, implementing a progressive approach to health care for the county’s neediest—his harsh rhetoric no longer has a place in the party, and probably should never have. But for all of the soul-searching the party has done over the past nine months, Levy remains an articulate voice of a piece of the electorate left behind, certainly by the Democrats, and probably by the Republicans too. He can be ignored, and the people he speaks for can be too, but they are out there in the body politic. They are looking for someone who hears them.
“I have friends of mine who came from nothing, built their own business and now they have some leftist white liberal from the Upper West Side saying you got there because of white privilege,” he says. “And they say, ‘What privilege! I shared a ten-by-ten bedroom in Queens with my three brothers!’ They feel talked down to.”
“It was easy for the media and the upper crust Upper West Side folks to say, ‘Oh you are all a bunch of bigots and racists.’ That was their quick retort. But it brought on a backlash. And that backlash is why despite all of his flaws all of these people voted for Donald Trump. He stood up for them. He punched the elites on the chin.”