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By Tessa Stuart
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Just a few minutes into his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Rick Lazio broke into his very first sprint to greet voters along a Memorial Day parade route on his home turf. He fell flat on his face. People smirked at the time. But the guy still hasn't gotten up.
Considering his background as a Long Island Republican Party favorite son who's had his political career practically handed to him and hasn't had to do much brawling to keep it, it's not surprising that he's done little more than attack his controversial opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and portray himself as a nice young man. This light-on-substance approach, coupled with ardent public relations work on behalf of the powerful people to whom he's beholden, defines Lazio's career.
Being handed a political career isn't serving Lazio well right now. He's like a trust-funder suddenly called upon to do some heavy lifting. He ain't used to the hard work. Maybe it's the way the machine raised him.
Lazio's father, Tony, was a key fundraiser and top campaign aide to Suffolk County GOP chairman Buzz Schwenk in the early '70s, during a time when Schwenk was playing fast and loose with the party's money. (Schwenk was later convicted of tax evasion.) Rick was the fresh-faced youngster who wrote the numbers on the GOP's blackboard on election night.
While Hillary was getting her start as a young lawyer working for the congressional committees investigating Watergate, Rick Lazio was earnestly defending Richard Nixon, whom his father idolized, to college classmates.
Lazio's own baptism as a lawyer was in the mid 1980s, when a job as "executive assistant" was created especially for him by Suffolk County district attorney Patrick Henry, whom he helped try to stonewall an investigation into corruption in the D.A.'s office and the police department.
But Lazio wasn't an inner-circle operative; he was just a new face to put before the public.
Being handed a political career isn't serving him well right now. He's like a trust-funder suddenly called upon to do some heavy lifting. He ain't used to the hard work. Maybe it's the way the machine raised him.
"Long Island is a Republican welfare system," says Robert Gottlieb, a veteran Democratic lawyer who almost upset Henry in 1985 but was ultimately steamrolled by the GOP machine. "By controlling the bureaucracy, they can line their pockets and hire their familiesand they don't have to work for it."
Born into that machine, Lazio has been almost as good a fundraiser as fellow Long Island Republican Al D'Amato. But unlike D'Amato, Lazio didn't have any past experience in dealing with a tumble in public. When D'Amato, a veteran inner-circle deal maker, was attacked, he fought back. And he loved that kind of fight. Rick Lazio's a bantamweight in comparison.
Lazio has credited his father with being a major influence, but understates his dad's role in the party. Tony Lazio, formerly in the auto-parts business, made a living from the Republican welfare state. Steadfastly loyal to his party and his party's leaders, Tony Lazio was the detail guy, the one who put together the county committee's fundraisers, cocktail parties, and galas at Colonie Hill, a catering hall owned by the notoriously corrupt Local 138 of the operating engineers' union, and at the GOP's clubhouse on 38 acres in Blue Point.
"He was always for a class show," recalls Schwenk. "Black-tie or a two-tiered dais? If that's what it called for. Or just a cocktail party? He'd do that.
"He always felt it was important to make it a class showmake it look like a good act."
Schwenk fondly recalls the late Tony Lazio as a politically savvy guy. "He knew what was going on, not only in fundraising," says Schwenk. "There wasn't much going on in Republican politics that he didn't know about."
While Tony Lazio was energetically setting up events to burnish the GOP's image, his boss was doing such things as furtively taking envelopes of cash from state Court of Claims Judge William Drohan of the Bronx, who was making payoffs on behalf of a company that got county business on the scandal-ridden Southwest Sewer District project. And Schwenk was hanging out with Teamster racketeer John Cody, the most powerful labor boss in New York City-area construction. Cody's Local 282 pension fund owned the Hampton Hills Country Club at the time.
In 1978, Tony Lazio had a stroke, and Buzz Schwenk nearly had one. Schwenk wound up accidentally putting his friend Cody in the middle of a jackpot by insisting that he meet with a shady figure named Vic Puglisi who was being used by an undercover IRS agent. It was the same investigation that nailed Mafia boss Carmine Persico. Schwenk was acquitted of bribery at the same trial in which he was found guilty of tax evasion. But his meetings with Puglisi and Cody were undisputed.
Schwenk denies that Tony Lazio walked on the dark side of Suffolk politics with him when it came to dealing with Cody, the corrupt judge, and other racketeers.