D'Amato's 1992 campaign
City Limits MONTHLY
Date: March 1998
THE ADVENTURES OF LIBERAL
MARVEL as he Wrestles his own Republican Record! GASP as he Raids the
Secret Vault of the Liberal Avengers! THRILL to Sight of him Saving
his Seat! > By Glenn Thrush
Al D'Amato, the man who won his last Senate race by
tattooing "hopelessly liberal" onto poor Bob Abrams' blank-slate
pate, found himself surrounded in a dangerously enclosed space last
spring. Actually, it was D'Amato who had summoned the small platoon
of hardened liberal tenant leaders to his D.C. inner sanctum. The
Junior Senator was furious.
In an attempt to pull him into the rent wars raging in Albany, the
state Democratic party and the tenant groups had been broadcasting a
TV ad portraying the three-term senator from Long Island and his
protégé, Governor George Pataki, as radical conservatives intent on
kicking a million New York City tenants out of their apartments.
D'Amato started off with the DeNiro-as-Capone routine. "Are you
trying to fuck me?" And then he waited for the reaction.
There was none.
"He was trying to intimidate us. He was being a real prick," recalls
a former tenant lobbyist who attended the meeting. "But we didn't
mind. That's what he does. He was trying to feel us out, see how far
he could get with us. With D'Amato you know what you're getting--it's
a totally political agenda."
In the weeks following the meeting, D'Amato proceeded to do much of
what they had asked. The senator boosted his profile in the rent
control battle and, to the chagrin of his conservative supporters,
opened his own back-door negotiations with state Democratic leaders.
D'Amato deftly cut the ground out from underneath conservative state
Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno's feet and helped convince Pataki to
accept a compromise.
D'Amato's behavior was based on a single political objective: to
convince people who despise him to hate him just a little bit less.
As far as he's concerned, it's OK if most New York City Democrats
regard him as an asp in Florsheims. But he won't allow their disdain
to grow to the point where Dems unite in an all-out effort to beat
him. And he certainly doesn't mind if they suspect that somewhere
beneath that Right-To-Life lapel pin beats a secret liberal's heart.
"I believe he played a major role in the final deal," says Billy
Easton, lobbyist for the New York State Tenants and Neighbors
Coalition, a top tenant group. Easton's organization, which had been
behind some of the anti-D'Amato commercials, shifted gears following
the victory and featured D'Amato on the cover of its newsletter.
"By continuing to do the right thing on housing, he's effectively
neutralized his tenant opposition,"
Easton admits now. "You saw those TV ads last year. You won't see
them again this year. We have nothing to gain and lots to lose."
Easton is nothing if not brave. Progressive policymakers, activists
and lobbyists demanded anonymity when they told City Limits they felt
the same way about the senator after he fixed their pet potholes.
D'Amato may profess to disdain liberals in campaign ads, they say,
but he helps them mightily in private.
And that bodes ill for the senator's Democratic opponents. There are
no spontaneous uprisings in politics. So his challenger will need
liberal opinion leaders to organize their constituencies--tenants,
activists, freelance liberals--into an army to vanquish D'Amato, who
will probably amass a three-to-one cash
advantage against them
"I would never say this to anybody--so God, don't put my name on this-
-but I have a lot of affection for Al D'Amato," says a lefty
Washington-based housing lobbyist who worked closely with the senator
and his staff for years--and watched as D'Amato maneuvered the defeat
of right-wing public housing legislation proposed by fellow
congressional Republicans. "I hope no one figures out I said this."
After he anointed George Pataki as his party's gubernatorial
candidate in 1994, Al D'Amato could make his claim as King Bee in a
state of political gnats. But as he approaches his own race this
November, D 'Amato has the misfortune of being a powerful populist
without a permanent plurality. To endure, therefore, D'Amato must
endear. "When push comes to shove, 45 percent of the voters hate him,
45 percent like him and 10 percent are open to persuasion," says a
top aide to one of D'Amato's would-be Democratic challengers. "No
matter what he does, those numbers stay basically the same. That's
why he needs to be so aggressive in wooing people who don't like him."
Mostly, those people are New York City Democrats. Bob Abrams, the
former attorney general who came out of the 1992 Democratic primary
bruised and broke, only missed upending D'Amato by 81,000 votes--
which translates into one thin percentage point. And in the city,
Abrams walloped the senator by a half million votes.
This basic calculus hasn't changed. According to a recent Quinnipiac
College poll, former Veep candidate Geraldine Ferraro would wipe out
D'Amato 52 to 38 percent and Public Advocate Mark Green would win by
six points. The senator barely edges out Brooklyn Congressman Chuck
For the D 'Amato camp, the good news is his approval rating is as
high as it has been since 1994. The bad news is it's still only 43
"Al's got to get his numbers up in the city," says Democratic
consultant Norman Adler. "He's in as weak a position as he has ever
been going into an election year."
To any other pol, such low numbers would be devastating. After all,
D'Amato's been aggressive in his effort to reach out to new voters.
In what was widely perceived to be a masterstroke, he ran a series of
TV ads with female family members to help push for the state's
environmental bond act. He has also picked up on the breast cancer
issue on Long Island. "He needs to do this stuff. He's so weak among
women," says Republican political consultant Joseph Mercurio.
D'Amato has been even more successful shoring up other weaknesses. He
has practically worn a groove in his scalp from slamming a yarmulke
on and off, courting the state's historically left-leaning Jews to an
extent no self-avowed conservative has ever done before. He netted 41
percent of the Jewish vote statewide six years ago; that number might
be higher this time around after his well-publicized efforts to
recover Swiss-held gold Nazis stole from Jews during World War
II. "It was a brave political stand, risking all those Swiss votes
like that," says pollster John Zogby, a friend of D'Amato's. "In
Jewish houses, right next to Elijah's cup, they're going to put Al's
cup," adds a Democratic strategist.
But that won't be enough. To assure he won't lose, D'Amato needs to
avoid making new enemies. In the rent control battle, D 'Amato made
sure his staff kept the lines of communication open with tenant
leaders--even after they picketed his girlfriend's Upper East Side
D'Amato watchers say the first real inkling they had that he was
targeting the Left came in 1993, when he unexpectedly backed Bill
Clinton's effort to allow gays in the military--a move that earned
him brickbats from GOP allies. "[D'Amato] is to the left of Clinton
on this issue," John Kassar, chairman of the Brooklyn Conservative
Party said at the time. "We feel betrayed."
But his most significant entreaties to liberals have been of the
When the GOP grabbed both houses of Congress four years ago, D'Amato
took maximum advantage--not to punish his enemies, but to deal them
into his newly-won largesse. He is a master of the fundamental,
political task of wielding power to deliver for the folks back home,
whoever they might be. "No matter what he espouses philosophically,
he is the liberal of all liberals when it comes to the big government
thing," adds Zogby.
Since 1997, D'Amato has used his pull to dampen the opposition of one
of his most dangerous natural enemies, hospital union boss Dennis
Rivera, the energetic Puerto Rican leader who controls one of the
city's most powerful get-out-the-vote operations.
Hint of a D'Amato-Rivera entente emerged last summer when D'Amato
helped secure $1.25 billion in federal money to help hospitals--and
workers at Rivera's Local 1199--deal with the potentially jarring
move into Medicaid managed care.
This year, D'Amato and Rivera have worked on an issue even closer to
home for the union. For years, 1199 has been battling management at
Bed-Stuy's crumbling, debt-ridden Interfaith Medical Center. At
Rivera's prodding, the senator strong-armed Pataki to release $150
million in State Dormitory authority bonds to rebuild the hospital
and add three primary care centers--a deal Pataki was reportedly
loathe to pursue. But D'Amato's personal appeals prevailed. The
senator helped preserve 1,500 jobs and shored up a hospital in a
Democratic stronghold where, not incidently, roughly one-third of
1199's members live. D'Amato told the New York Times upon closing the
deal, "What is the sense of [having] the best if it only goes to a
Publicly, Rivera will probably endorse and, to some extent, bankroll
the political operations of D'Amato's Democratic opponents. But
neither he, nor the members whose jobs D'Amato helped save, are much
inclined to launch an anti-Al crusade--even if the senator's support
of welfare reform has harmed a lot of people in Central
Brooklyn. "D'Amato will never get our endorsement, but he's achieved
a significant victory if he gets Dennis not to work too hard to
defeat him," says a source close to Rivera. And that, the source
says, is a likely bet: "D'Amato has done everything the hospitals and
the union have asked him to do.... Al and Dennis have a purely
business relationship. It's a matter of Dennis saying to himself: Do
I support someone whose goals I agree with, or do I support a guy
whose busting his ass for me even if I know he's a pig?"
D'Amato has also quietly endeared himself to the hardest of all
hardcore low-income Democratic constituencies: public housing
residents and their advocates.
In addition to lobbying against the elimination of HUD and further
cuts to the Section 8 rent subsidy program, he has quietly played a
pivotal role blocking a young Long Island Republican Congressman's
attempt to hammer through a conservative public housing bill that
would hike rents for the poor and raise the income levels permitted
in the projects. Congressional staff and advocates tell City Limits
that D'Amato, again at the behest of liberal lobbyists, effectively
blocked Congressman Rick Lazio's bill, even though it had the
enthusiastic support of Mayor Giuliani--and the backing of D'Amato's
potential Democratic opponent Charles Schumer.
D'Amato has his own more moderate proposal which is still being
mulled by a Senate-House conference committee. But behind the scenes,
D'Amato reportedly has been skeptical about passing anything at all.
"The main thing he told his staff was that he didn't want anything
crazy coming out of his committee when it came to public housing,"
says a prominent housing lobbyist, who like so many others requested
anonymity for fear of being labeled pro-D'Amato. "Only bad things
could come out of the process for him. If it passes, some people back
home will be pissed off."
As the housing stalemate grinds into its third year, the relationship
between Lazio and D'Amato has reportedly deteriorated from cool to
Still, there's no denying that by the numbers, D'Amato really does
live up to his conservative self-billing. He is anti-abortion. He was
one of the lustiest proponents of welfare reform. His love for
government pork is exceeded only by his hatred for taxes. His
environmental record has improved with his support of the
Environmental Bond Act--simply because it couldn't get much lower
than the "0" ranking the League of Conservation Voters gave him two
years ago. And don't forget that his campaign's brain is lodged in
the right-wing skull of consultant Arthur Finkelstein, the man who
coined "liberal" as a slur and whose highest profile client is Bibi
D'Amato's overall voting record, according to the centrist National
Journal, has actually gotten a little more conservative over the last
Trying to reconcile his official record with his backroom friendship
with the left is a little jarring. It might also be a civics
lesson. "Are we trying to imply he's being responsible to an
intelligent electorate?" asks Republican consultant Mercurio. "Oh
God, that would be an awful thing to admit."
The strategy may succeed come election day if the two D'Amatos are
never forced to face each other--in, say, a mirror.
"Quite frankly, I know he hasn't been with us on every issue," says
Mile Long, a Brooklyn wine store owner who runs the New York State
Conservative Party. "He's not the most conservative member of the
U.S. Senate, but I can live with it."
Democratic opponents put it another way: "Who the hell knows what he
really believes?" says Washington- based pollster Donna Victoria, who
frequently works New York races. "Who the hell cares?
The question is, how are his opponents going to go after him when
he's taking away most of their issues?"
And how do you go after him when he's so good at going after every
single vote he can get his hands on?
Late one night about five years ago, pollster John Zogby was just
dozing off when he was jolted awake by a call from a friend. The man,
a Palestinian-American businessman who hated D'Amato for his hard pro-
Israel line, was nearly hysterical.
His young son, a photographer with a French news agency, had been
arrested by Israeli security forces for taking pictures of West Bank
riots. The kid, Zogby's friend explained, was being held
incommunicado. His camera had been smashed.
"I'll call D'Amato," Zogby offered.
There was a silence, then an eruption on the other end of the
line. "Are you out of your mind? D'Amato loves Israel. He hates
Undeterred, Zogby called D'Amato. Twelve hours later, the boy was on
a plane back to the states.
The businessman, who still resents D'Amato's pro-Israel stance, now
votes for him, recruits his friends to do the same and even doles out
the occasional campaign offering.
Four-and-a-half years have passed. One recent day, the businessman
came home from work to find an envelope in the mailbox from D'Amato's
office. He tore it open and discovered it contained a $500 check
issued by the Israeli consulate. Puzzled, he read the enclosed letter
explaining that it was meant to cover the cost of the smashed camera.
It was signed "Al D'Amato, U.S. Senator."