Tales of Rick

A Son of the Suburbs' Trail to the Senate

Lazio's Races Were Magnets for Dirty Money
Who Paid for the Cole Calls?

Unnoticed in the attempt to define Rick Lazio as a moderate is his history with the Conservative Party. Should Lazio go to the U.S. Senate, he will be indebted to a party that played as pivotal a role in this campaign as it did in launching his political career a decade ago.

Take it from none other than Mike Long, the leader of the state party, who says the Conservatives should be "given credit for keeping Lazio alive" through 1999 and the first half of 2000, when Rudy Giuliani was the ostensible Republican candidate.

Long recalls that Lazio called him as early as December 1998, shortly after Pat Moynihan announced he would not run for reelection, and arranged an immediate meeting to discuss the race. Long says he made no commitment to back Lazio, but promised "to do nothing to hinder" his candidacy.

Long believes Lazio was "playing a D'Amato strategy," modeled after the successful 1980 attempt by an unknown Alfonse D'Amato, then the presiding supervisor of Hempstead in Long Island, to win the GOP Senate nomination by first cornering the support of the Conservatives. "Rick and I had lots of discussions. I told him not to close the door on making the race," Long recalls. "When the governor urged Rick to get out, I told the governor I don't agree. Rick never closed the door."

After their first meeting, Long says Lazio "started moving around the party," even coming to a party conference in February and meeting the county leaders across the state. In late 1998 or early 1999, Pat Curcio, the longtime chair of the Suffolk party, told Long he was supporting Lazio.

When Giuliani first contacted Long about six months later, the party boss says he told Rudy that Lazio had "already spoken to the leaders" and that if the party were making an endorsement then, that "Lazio would have our endorsement." But since the party would not make its endorsement until the spring of 2000, he did not rule out Giuliani eventually earning it.

Instead, Long set up insurmountable public roadblocks for Giuliani, requiring that the mayor abandon the Liberal Party and his support for partial-birth abortion. A few days after Giuliani's April announcement that he had prostate cancer, Long declared that his party would support Joe Dioguardi, a former Westchester congressman and close Long ally, for the Senate. With Giuliani still very much in the race, Long and Dioguardi toured the state, indicating that the Conservatives might well be able to put together a coalition with the Right to Life and Independence parties. The threat of the Dioguardi candidacy—which could have cost Giuliani thousands of votes—may have been a factor in the mayor's decision to withdraw three weeks later.

"I think the prostate was a factor. I think the girlfriend was a factor," says Long, referring to the revelations about Giuliani's companion, Judi Nathan. "But the fact of the Conservative Party was a reality. Look at the closeness and intensity of it." Though Giuliani cited cancer as the sole reason for his pullout, he has maintained an energetic calendar throughout the Senate campaign. As soon as Giuliani withdrew, Dioguardi also disappeared from the race and Long embraced Lazio. The party has been so supportive it aired its own anti-Hillary TV ads in September.

Lazio's roots with the Conservatives are so strong that when he was first elected to the Suffolk County legislature in 1989, he backed a Conservative, Michael O'Donohue, for majority leader. Lazio was one of the few candidates for the legislature that year to run on both the Republican and Conservative lines. O'Donohue, who was stoutly pro-life and one of two Conservatives in the 10-member Republican-Conservative caucus, was defeated by a Republican.

Pat Halpin, the then Democratic county executive, says O'Donohue was "a rabid right-winger, as extreme as you could get," attributing Lazio's support for him to a long-standing family relationship between Lazio's father, Tony, and Suffolk Conservative leader Pat Curcio. Halpin recalls the GOP-Conservative efforts—including Lazio's—to defund the Office for Women and the Department of Consumer Affairs. Lazio even voted for a resolution pushing the U.S. Senate to approve the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

As far back as 1976—when Lazio was a freshman at Vassar—he organized a support group for the reelection of Jim Buckley, the only registered Conservative ever to hold statewide office. Lazio's closest friend and brother-in-law, Mike Moriarity, is a partner at the Manhattan law firm headed by Paul Windels, who chaired Buckley's powerful judicial screening panel.

Long says Lazio began coming to the state party's annual dinner in 1996, when he was a two-term congressman from Suffolk. Long took Lazio's early appearance at state functions as an indication of interest in an eventual statewide candidacy. Having run on the Conservative line in all seven of his races for public office, Lazio set up a soft-money PAC for statewide purposes in 1999, and transferred $17,400 to Conservative Party committees before Giuliani dropped out, several times any donations he made to the GOP.

He gave $10,000 in 1999 to the Torch Tribune, an ad journal of the Suffolk party that is now a focus of a State Commission on Judicial Conduct probe. Newsday reported earlier this year that candidates for judicial office in Suffolk had made more than $75,000 in payments to the journal, which is controlled by Curcio. Newsday also reported that the FBI is investigating Curcio's "political and financial dealings."

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