Rick Lazio has already been pummeled as “Newt’s boy,” but don’t be surprised if he slips that punch. He’s more like a D’Amato than he is a Gingrich. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s minions contend that Lazio is an “extremist,” but they’re accurate only if they mean his extremely good fundraising ability.
A classic Long Island GOP politician, Lazio is no ideologue. Though he’s not blustery, his career has paralleled Alfonse D’Amato’s—except, as far as anybody has determined, for the overtly sleazy part. And Senator Pothole, from the Nassau GOP machine, has often helped smooth the road for Lazio, a product of the only slightly less powerful Suffolk GOP machine.
Lazio first won a congressional seat in 1992. Luckily for him, Democratic incumbent Tom Downey had 151 overdrafts in the House checking scandal earlier that year. Lazio’s campaign won a Pollie campaign-ad award from the American Association of Political Consultants for a shelling of Downey called “Greed.”
But, speaking of greed, when the GOP took over Congress in ’94, D’Amato became chair of the Senate Banking Committee. The fast-rising Lazio, bonded to D’Amato in part by their side-by-side fight against anti-Italian American slurs, was picked to head the key housing subcommittee on the House Banking panel.
Lazio was too shrewd to be a Newt clone. The Clinton campaign will try to pin that label on him, but the facts don’t back it up. In October ’94, the League of Conservation Voters gave D’Amato, a true pal of developers, a zero, but Lazio got an acceptable (for a Republican) rating of 42. He even got a $2500 campaign donation from the league in ’98.
Lazio also has drawn only minimal fire from the pro-choice lobby. He has said he refuses to “criminalize” abortion but opposes “partial-birth abortion” and doesn’t want to “subsidize” abortions for poor people through Medicaid. Even the anti-abortion forces give him only a “mixed record” on the issue, although the New York Conservative Party likes him.
But who cares what the Conservatives’ Mike Long thinks? Lazio, who needs big money in a big hurry to try to counter his celebrity opponent, can count on D’Amato (whose brother Armand gave Lazio $200 last year), Pataki, and their pal Charlie Gargano.
Remember the ill-fated deal in which the giant Long Island development firm Reckson Associates Realty Corp. won the right to develop the huge Pilgrim State Hospital complex on Long Island? The multimillion-dollar deal was blasted last year after rival bidders complained that Reckson had an unfair advantage because of its political ties to Gargano, chair of the state’s Empire State Development Corp., which made the original award. Reckson sued the state, which recently gave the deal the go-ahead.
Any friend of Al and George’s is a friend of the Rechler family, which owns Reckson. Among several family members who poured money into Lazio’s coffers last year, Gregg and Roger Rechler each gave him $2000, and Mitchell Rechler and Scott Rechler each chipped in $1000.
Hillary probably couldn’t care less. The nagging bad news for her, and what her aides will worry about from now until November, is Lazio’s skillful fence-straddling. He can mount a strong argument that he’s a moderate in a party led by rabid dogs like Dick Armey, Jesse Helms, and Tom DeLay. The American Conservative Union gave him only 52 out of a 100 rating in 1998 and a 64 in 1999. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action rates him as a “moderate”. He long ago vowed not to take money from the National Rifle Association or the tobacco companies, although in the case of the latter, he has fudged. Kraft, a subsidiary of the cheesy Phillip Morris conglomerate, gave him $500 in 1997 and $1500 in 1999.
Hillary claims to be a regular Norma Rae, and she even got $5000 last year from the United Food and Commercial Workers despite her having served for six years on the board of that union’s bitter enemy, Wal-Mart. But in 1999, both Hillary and Rick got $5000 from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees’ PEOPLE fund.
The pundits can talk about how “unknown” Lazio is, but mortgage bankers, regular bankers, landlords, developers, CPAs, insurance agents, Italian American activists, senior citizens who thanks to his bill will take out a “reverse mortgage” on their houses, and, of course, lawyers know him—and love him. Lazio already was the best fundraiser among all New York members of the U.S. House—despite the fact that he hasn’t had a strong opponent since his first race.
He’s a favorite son even in academia. New York Tech, in Old Westbury, gave an honorary degree to Lazio during the first official day of his Senate campaign. Hardly a shocker, considering that the school’s president, Matthew Schure, gave $500 to Lazio’s campaign in ’99.
Even by national standards, Lazio has been a skilled fundraiser. He out-gathers most of his fellow representatives on the huge House Banking panel. Richard Baker of Louisiana, who’s ahead of Lazio in the pecking order on Banking, got $5000 last year from the American Bankers Association, as did New Yorker John LaFalce, the ranking Democrat on the panel. Lazio got $10,000. (Perhaps to soften the blow, Lazio sent Baker some of his own campaign funds.)
Lazio must be doing something right by these big-business types. The nation’s most generous lobby, the Realtors PAC, gave him only $1000 in ’97 but $9000 in ’98 and $5000 in ’99.
Now he needs really big bucks. Judging by his past record, he’ll get it. And under the media’s radar, Lazio is likely to use his money to pepper voters with direct mail, shrewdly targeted, as past accounts have shown he’s done. His aides will spin the media skillfully and merrily: At least one key member of his new crew, Mike Murphy, came over from the McCain campaign, so look for “openness”—and maybe even a campaign bus full of reporters—to compete with the secretive service that Hillary gives those who clamor after her.