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30th Anniversary Issue / Al D’Amato: Senator Pothole, Proudly

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I was the supervisor of the township of Hempstead, the largest town in the United States, with 800,000 people. Long Island has this image for a lot of people: It’s the expressway; it’s Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. But Long Island’s got diversity, from the South Shore -- with homes on 60-by-100-foot plots -- to the North Shore, where there are the estates, to the more urbanized areas. We’ve got people who love their community. We have volunteerism second to none. It’s a great place. It’s been home to me, to my children, to my grandbabies. I have eight of them now, and they all live on Long Island.

When I was still there, I remember trying to get through to Washington. Forget about it. I remember that because, in the days of the energy crisis, the days of odd and even numbers, some of the rules that were being made were just catastrophic. I felt helpless. And it just struck me that they had this huge bureaucracy that didn’t give two hoots and a holler about the average person. I had a great congressman at the time, Norm Lent, who tried to do everything he could, and all he was able to do was get me an appointment with an assistant secretary of Energy who just shuffled me in and out.

When I ran for the Senate in 1980, I didn’t know any better. It just seemed to me that our senators didn’t care. And I said, “My God, I’m going to do this.” My father tried to talk me out of it. When I told him I was going to run for the Senate, he said, “Son, you should run -- to see a psychiatrist.” He figured it would take a terrible toll on the family, and he was right. But it was too late. I had already announced and was in the race and was going no place, and I said, “My gosh, what am I doing?”

I was the senator who wasn’t supposed to be. They treated us with a certain amount of disdain at first, you know: Who is this young upstart who came out of a political machine and beat Jack Javits in the primary unfairly and got in by a fluke?

Then, in about 1982-83, they said there was nothing that was too small for Alphonse to undertake, and he was like a councilman kind of thing. It was an attempt to diminish my accomplishments. I told people, “Listen, I’m proud to be someone who makes a difference in the lives of my constituents.” It’s better that they call you Senator Pothole. It means you’re attentive and you’re there and available. And that pothole may be a matter of life or death for the person whose needs you are addressing. To them, that’s not a pothole; that is making a difference in their lives.

I am proud to be a doer. And if I take on a battle, people understand that I become committed to that. I took on the Swiss, who after 50-plus years were horrific in the manner in which they defrauded and just compounded the tragedies of those who were the most victimized during the Holocaust. Any damn fool can say, “Oh, that’s easy,” but where were they?

Edgar Bronfman and the World Jewish Congress came to me and spelled out how they were being stonewalled by the Swiss bankers, and they asked me, as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, to help. And when we looked, we found out that what they talked about was true. It was truly scandalous. It was truly shocking. The very people who had been the most victimized, who had lost their families, were now being robbed by those who had been entrusted with safeguarding their assets, being told, “Give me a death certificate if you want to lay claim to your father’s money” -- when they knew it was impossible because the father had died in a death camp!

You know, the greatness of this country is, you can make a difference, you can stand up. That’s why I do stand up and take on those issues. Sometimes I rock the boat and people don’t like it. The large banks, they’re not happy with me, because I say that what’s happening in this electronic banking and the ATMs is wrong. But hey, I’m not going to change now. And I think it’s that maverick kind of thing that I’ve always kept; I’ve always tried to put myself in the place of people who need help.

I’ve always been the underdog. It’s never bothered me. I mean, that’s life. God didn’t make me six feet five, blond hair, blue eyes, and drop me into a family pedigree, so I could go to Harvard. But I had a loving and wonderful family that instilled in me the greatness of this country, the greatness of a work ethic, the wonderfulness of a loving, caring family and being what I am and doing the best I can and never giving up until we were totally exhausted. I get beaten at times, but I do the best I can. And I was fortunate. I went to a great school Chaminade High, a Catholic school in Mineola, and the Brothers instilled in me a sense of saying you do the best you can, and if you work as hard as you can and you do the best you can, you can live with what the results are. And that’s the way it’s been. So I don’t mind.

I was tired when I said I wasn’t going to run again during the 1992 campaign, and annoyed and hurt by some of the horrible accusations that even after they’re proven to be false stay there and linger. I shouldn’t have said it. But I indicated six years ago or five years ago that I was still going to hold myself available for the people, and if I felt that I could do the job, and I had the strength and the ability to continue, I would.

This year, I should have everybody endorsing me, but that’s not the reality of life. So there’s going to be an opponent, and I’ll do the best I can. Now, let’s forget about Republicans and Democrats, and the make-believe issues that we all create to advance ourselves or detract from an opponent. If you can say that I haven’t been an effective fighter, well, then, you should vote against me. But if you think that I have been effective and I have been a fighter for this state and for this city and for people, well, then I think people are going to say, “You know what? We don’t agree with Alphonse on everything, but he’s the person we want there making a difference and fighting for us and doing the job.” And that’s going to be my campaign.

It’s never easy on your family, and you always cringe a little bit about that. The characterizations that have come along can sometimes be very hurtful. They’re vicious and mean-spirited, and some really are almost racist in nature by tying Italian-Americans to organized crime. There are some people who make a specialty of doing that. That has been difficult for my children at times. My daughters in particular. So I think that has been probably the meanest kind of hurt, when you see that inflicted on your children.

George Pataki was a former mayor of Peekskill, an assemblyman for ten years, state senator for one year. I am tremendously pleased, not only that he was elected but also that he has kept his promises and worked to turn around the state and make it a better place for people to live. And I think he’s done it in such a gentlemanly style, with class and dignity, that people truly are proud of him.

I am gratified to see that our investment in time, in energy, and in political capital has resulted in a situation where we have a governor who is listening, who is making changes, who is not dictating to people what is good for them, who doesn’t treat people and businesses as a source of revenue just to raise money and spend it.

Politics was probably more mean-spirited back in the days of the Know-Nothings -- with thugs, goons, stealing elections, and so on -- than it is now. But the charges that were once heard by just a few are now amplified and brought into the bedrooms and living rooms of all Americans in such graphic, descriptive detail that it permeates every area.

Before, there was just a small percentage of people who cared, and the average guy didn’t care. Now the average guy, even if he doesn’t care, he can’t help but get bombarded. He’s driving in a car in the morning, and he hears it. He comes home at night, he wants to watch the fights or whatever, and they still get it in. But the nonsense was always there. This business of them saying it’s more vicious today -- the people who say that are not students of history.

Interviewed by Craig Horowitz


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