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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.”
Young Rick Lazio’s early career, however, was also tied to the tawdry Suffolk Republican organization, which his father served as a gofer and fundraiser for decades.
Tony Lazio’s connections helped land Rick a job in the Suffolk District Attorney’s office right out of law school. When Rick left for private practice in 1988, he joined the law firm of Gerard Glass, a Republican who’d just lost his seat on the county legislature. After Lazio won a seat the next year, John Cochrane, the GOP county leader, tried at first to make the freshman legislator the majority leader, an unheard-of elevation of a 31-year-old rookie. Lazio was reelected to the legislature in 1991 and immediately launched his 1992 successful run for Congress.
Lazio’s first three races—from 1989 through 1992—were magnets for the dirty money that has dominated the county’s politics. Even though Lazio was one of 18 members of the part-time legislature, Sam Albicocco, a powerful, mob-tied businessman, was his largest giver, contributing $2000 while Albicocco’s son, John Anthony, added another $1000. By then Albicocco had made headlines for hiring Neil Migliore, a Luchese capo who rode around in a Mercedes owned by Albicocco’s construction company.
None other than U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani fingered a firm Albicocco helped finance as the vehicle through which organized crime monopolized major Manhattan construction projects. Though the Albicocco business was named in three federal trials, Lazio not only took major contributions from him, but from his business partner, J.D. Posillico Inc. One owner and a former owner of Posillico, which settled a civil-racketeering suit initiated by the district attorney, kicked in another $2000 (the son of a principal added $1000). The Posillico company was involved years earlier in one of the great political scandals of Suffolk lore, the Southwest Sewer District scandal, which destroyed the career of GOP boss Buzz Schwenk. A close friend of Lazio’s father, Schwenk and his businesses gave $675 to the campaign kitty. While Albicocco and Posillico have never been convicted of a crime, Schwenk, who dubbed Rick a “shining star,” was nailed on a tax-evasion charge.
At Schwenk’s trial, one witness testified that he stopped signing blank party checks over to him when he saw a check written to Tony Lazio for an amount much larger than he thought appropriate. Schwenk says now that the father put together the organization’s major fundraising events, adding: “There wasn’t much going in Republican politics that Tony didn’t know about.” (see “Born to Be Mild” by Ward Harkavy, October 31, 2000)
Albicocco was also named in news accounts as involved in the tax-evasion case of another GOP county leader friendly with Lazio’s father, Bobby Curcio, who was convicted in 1988 of not reporting $200,000 in income. Though not related to the Conservative leader, Bobby Curcio also came from Babylon, and was a longtime associate of Tony Lazio’s. Albicocco, who allegedly paid a $50,000 brokerage commission to Curcio in connection with the purchase of his son’s restaurant, joined one of the Posillicos at a 1988 defense-fund party for Curcio, who was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail.
While these contributions are not large compared with the soft-money funding surrounding the current Senate race, this circle of donations was highly significant in Lazio’s initial campaigns, all of which occurred after Tony Lazio’s 1985 death. Sam Albicocco has given $1850 to Lazio’s federal committee in recent years, while Schwenk has contributed $2000 and the Posillico family $3500. As recently as this May, Lazio’s state committee paid the Albicocco restaurant in Babylon, John Anthony’s, for a fundraiser there.
The push-polling that linked Hillary Clinton to the attack on the USS Cole was financed by the state Republican Party, which has been attracting gobs of gigantic soft-money contributions from the strangest places. Though Lazio claimed to have nothing to do with the inflammatory phone calls targeting Jewish voters, donors closely associated with him are funding the state party.
For example, Dr. Jerome Levy, a Manhattan physician, gave $15,000 to the state GOP on October 13. On June 9, he gave $25,000 to the Friends of Rick Lazio, the special committee Lazio set up in 1999 and shut down this summer shortly before he launched his soft-money attack on Hillary Clinton. A donor to Lazio since 1997, Levy was scheduled to host a fundraiser for the congressman at his oceanfront house in Fire Island this summer, but Lazio canceled when things got a little sticky.
Lazio, who also owns a home on Fire Island, has long supported a $70 million, federal beach-replenishment project there, but he began inching away from his prior unquestioning support. Shortly before he became a Senate candidate, Lazio suddenly announced that his backing for 11 miles of new dunes was contingent on there being “no construction” on any now vacant waterfront lots that would be made more attractive for building after the project.
This was an apparent bow to opponents who’ve derided costly efforts to subsidize people who build houses in vulnerable places. Since canceling the party, Lazio has steered clear of the welfare-for-the-rich issue, though Fire Island Association president Gerard Stoddard still describes the congressman as a supporter.
Other big givers to the now defunct Lazio committee have also switched to the state GOP, like Adele Smithers, who gave $50,000 to the Lazio war chest in 1999 and just gave $15,000 to the party. Lewis Ranieri, the former Salomon Brothers vice chair who is a nationally known mortgage-bond titan, raised $20,000 for Lazio in 1999 and became Lazio’s finance chair this year. He wired $76,500 to the state committee on August 2.
William Rouhana, the CEO of WinStar Communications, a New York-based, broadband-services firm, donated $20,000 on October 13 to the state party. The Daily News reported in June that Lazio collected another $20,000 in WinStar-connected contributions, adding that a bill to benefit the company was before a House committee Lazio sits on.
Developer Sam Klein, who helped steer $35,000 in contributions to Lazio after the congressman assisted a stalled HUD project of his, also became a major donor to the GOP in October. He gave $20,000.
Major national GOP donors, apparently attracted to the New York party as a way of stopping Hillary, have also been dumping big bucks here. Lawrence Kadish, a New York and Florida developer, has given $120,000 to the state committee, as well as $15,000 to the Friends of Rick Lazio. Kadish is a member of the Regents, an exclusive, 139-member club of Republican contributors who have given at least a quarter of a million to the party. So is John Hennessy, a top executive of Credit Suisse First Boston, who just kicked in $10,000, and Oklahoma oil tycoon David Koch, who gave $76,500.
Research: Rob Morlino, Robbie Chaplick, Jennifer Fagan