For Alfonse D’Amato, it has to be one of his most treasured possessions, right up there with his sheepskins from Syracuse University, his kids’ bronzed baby shoes, and his first subpoena. It might be tucked away in a hermetically sealed container in the Massachusetts home of the diabolical Dr. Finkelstein, the Fonz’s shadowy campaign guru. Or perhaps it is stored in the attic of the Republican’s former Nassau County home, though ex-wife Penny may restrict access to that precious Island Park airspace.
The document in question, of course, is the playbook from his improbable 1980 U.S. Senate campaign, a vile effort that saw D’Amato first unveil moves that he is reprising today against Representative Charles Schumer, his Democratic opponent. That dog-eared volume is the Holy Grail of grime, a blueprint on how to bum-rush an opponent–old-school style, of course.
In 1980, D’Amato made an issue of the frailty of 76-year-old GOP incumbent Jacob Javits, who was then suffering from a motor-neuron disease. At the same time he was complaining about negative press coverage of his own father, D’Amato was virtually broadcasting Javits’s obituary in his campaign commercials. Try and think of a more base moment in New York politics.
Last week, D’Amato unveiled commercials that dig up a Schumer assembly vote from 20 years ago that supposedly reveals the Brooklyn congressman opposed tougher ”penalties for child pornographers.” The spots, not surprisingly, are unfair. Actually, Schumer opposed a bill that would have criminalized the publishing of material that was admittedly not obscene and raised serious First Amendment questions. D’Amato and Finkelstein are now trying to warp Schumer’s defense of the Constitution–which at the time was quite courageous–into evidence that the pol is a captive of some type of NAMBLA lobby. Schumer has countered with a harsh commercial claiming that D’Amato’s opposition to the 1994 crime bill, which made it illegal to import child pornography, put him on the side of smut merchants.
Among other placements, the radio version of the D’Amato ”pornography” ad ran last Thursday morning on The Howard Stern Show, directly following a segment featuring an aspiring heavy metal singer and the man’s sister. In return for Stern playing her brother’s CD, the woman stripped naked, except for a pair of what Stern described as ”vibrating panties.” (It is unclear whether the D’Amato campaign has to pay a premium for such synergistic ad placement: the spot could have followed the bit with the prodigious farter.)
Now, 18 years after he savaged Javits, D’Amato has begun to sample some of his hits from 1980, perhaps the only time the Fonz has been caught stealing from himself. Two weeks into the race against Schumer, there are striking similarities between D’Amato’s 1980 and 1998 tactics, perhaps evidence of his desperation and/or recognition that a brutal slash-and-burn offensive against Schumer is needed to rough up the Brooklyn congressman. It certainly represents a rather pathetic paucity of ideas on the part of D’Amato and Finkelstein, who first used the ”too liberal” line on an opponent when Jimmy Carter was still in the White House.
In 1980, D’Amato claimed he was the champion of the supposed ”forgotten middle class” and proclaimed that he wanted to rein in welfare handouts. Today, the senator is again trotting out that same old saw and portraying Schumer as an opponent of welfare reform in his TV spots. But his rhetoric about such ”giveaways” has toned down since 1980, when D’Amato, described then as an ”ultraconservative” by the Washington Post, promised to remove the ”welfare monkey” off the backs of hardworking New Yorkers.
While Brooklyn now stars in D’Amato’s early advertising against Schumer, the borough was first targeted by the Fonz in 1980. One commercial attacked Elizabeth Holtzman, D’Amato’s Democratic rival, for the crime rate in portions of her Kings County congressional district. The spot, titled ”Terror in the Streets,” did not bother to explain how the congresswoman–as opposed to, say, the mayor or the police commissioner–was responsible for this so-called ”terror.”
D’Amato himself was born in Brooklyn, but his family moved to Newark when he was an infant–and before li’l Fonzie could fall under the borough’s mystical left-wing spell. Wherever he is roosting today, these Brooklyn swipes must not be sitting well with the late Alfonse Cioffari, D’Amato’s beloved ”grandpa, mentor, hero, and best friend,” and a longtime Williamsburg resident.
On the class-divisions front–always a favorite D’Amato touchstone–the incumbent is again facing a Harvard graduate. When he ran in 1980 against Ivy Leaguer Holtzman, D’Amato derided ”the Harvards” of the world as pompous know-it-alls. ”We’ll show them,” D’Amato used to say. Denouncing Schumer last week, D’Amato noted, ”This is the great Harvard intellect.” Somehow, though, D’Amato was able to hide his contempt long enough to appear in September 1995 at Harvard’s JFK School of Government to promote the release of his lousy autobiography, Power, Pasta and Politics.
Voters can expect to see D’Amato try to portray himself as a humble working stiff, the guy who cleaned toilets to pay his way through law school. Schumer, he will want you to believe, is an elitist egghead in an ivory tower. But this may be a heavy lift, since Schumer’s the shlubby one in the wrinkled suit with the kids in public school. Al, of course, is the one who looks–and smells!–like a million bucks. The Fonz is the one who vacations with his girlfriend in Southampton or Palm Beach and runs with an Upper East Side crowd that is still trying to recover from the shuttering of Mortimer’s.
But D’Amato can’t use everything in his 1980 bag of tricks. While he was death-baiting Javits, the Fonz made sure to point out that Holtzman, then 39, was still single and therefore, ”how would she know about the cost of raising a family?” A year after running this none-too-subtle game, D’Amato’s wife separated from him, calling into question the Republican’s own devotion to family matters.
While D’Amato has become more adept at the art of the subtle smear, he can still be guilty of excess. To some, D’Amato’s labeling of Schumer as a ”Brooklyn liberal” appears to be an attempt to slyly remind upstate voters that he is the only Catholic in the race, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Coupled with the state GOP’s commercial featuring a New York City shark treating upstate as chum, a viewer can’t help but sense that the GOP is slyly delivering another message. The shark represents Sheldon Silver and other predatory, money-grubbing downstate Democrats, though the assembly speaker is not on any November ballot. Perhaps Silver’s alliterative name just sounds better than that of statewide ticket-topper Peter Vallone. Or maybe not.
D’Amato cannot expect Schumer to hand him an issue like Bob Abrams did in 1992. The congressman will not be calling the senator a fascist or any other supposed anti-Italian slur (w-p, d-go, guin-a, etc.). Sure, Schumer has called D’Amato a liar, but where is the news in that? Geez, that barb is so 1986. While D’Amato has griped about this supposed Schumer ”character” assassination, a voter has to wonder: how can you kill something that doesn’t actually exist?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 1998