Field Memo: Wag the Fonz

Political consultant Arthur Finkelstein never gives interviews and is so rarely photographed that he could shake an opponent’s hand without being recognized. But for all his reclusiveness, Finkelstein has quietly assumed a massive undertaking in this year’s election, simultaneously overseeing the campaigns of New York’s governor and its junior United States senator. George Pataki and Al D’Amato, quips Democratic strategist Philip Friedman, “are joined at the consultant.”

It’s a big moment for a man whose slash-and-burn campaigns have earned him a hallowed place in Republican Party history. Wildly successful in his blunt attacks on Democratic opponents (“hopelessly liberal”; “unbelievably liberal”; “embarrassingly liberal”), Finkelstein ran into a wall in the 1996 elections, when four of his five Republican Senate candidates were swept aside by Bill Clinton’s coattails. Critics chortled that his one trick had worn thin.

That same year, Boston Magazine revealed that Finkelstein, who’d re-elected Jesse Helms by linking his opponent to radical homosexuals, was gay himself, living with a man and their two adopted children. The revelation led to a torrent of condemnation from the left, while a client, North Carolina senator Lauch Faircloth, let him go (the senator claims it was due to a routine reorganization).

The experience left the 54-year-old Finkelstein exposed for the very first time, though his friends quickly circled the wagons. “Only the liberals seemed to care about his lifestyle – and they’re supposed to be the tolerant group,” says a Finkelstein confidant. “It was the Republicans who stood by him.”

Many top GOP consultants are ex-Finkelstein protégés, and they consider him nothing less than a visionary. “Arthur understands that politics is entertainment and politics is information flow,” says former GOP spin doctor Roger Stone. “I used to go to these meetings with Finkelstein and the candidate would start talking about the organization he was building, and Arthur would just giggle. He understands it was nonsense. All that matters is mass communications – you put up 10,000 gross points of TV and you win.”

But now, trying to bounce back from his personal and professional troubles of the last two years, Finkelstein faces the grimmest scenario of all: the loss of his franchise candidate, D’Amato. Close since D’Amato’s famously nasty 1980 campaign (when Finkelstein’s commercials blasted the incumbent Jacob Javits’s failing health), the two remain one of the longest-running acts in the business, boosting each other to successive triumphs.

Having helped D’Amato elect Pataki governor in 1994, Finkelstein was made chief strategist of the 1996 Republican national senatorial campaign effort by the senator. D’Amato says Finkelstein helped the GOP win a net gain of two seats and “would have to have been God Almighty himself” to have salvaged some of the other races that year.

Some say D’Amato helped Finkelstein land his most successful client in recent years – Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and the senator also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to install Finkelstein as head of Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. “He’s without peer in understanding electoral politics,” says D’Amato, no slouch in that area himself.

Now D’Amato is on the ropes, plagued with middling poll numbers and a strong field of Democratic challengers. And he’s turned once again to a man he widely touts as a political genius. “You have to know that Finkelstein’s priority is the election of D’Amato over all else,” says a Democratic consultant.

The governor, on the other hand, is considered a shoo-in for re-election, and some wonder why he’s not distanced himself from his unpopular mentor. “Somewhere along the line someone had to convince Pataki that the short end of the stick was really the long end of the stick,” muses Friedman. He speculates that Pataki may need the D’Amato-Finkelstein duo for his presidential hopes.

Democrats involved in the Senate primary are bracing for the Finkelstein treatment. “They’ll do some people-oriented spots to try to soften D’Amato up around the edges,” predicts one campaign manager, “but after the primary they’ll turn it into a vicious, slice-and-dice campaign. It’ll become not who’s the best of the two candidates but who’s the least bad.”

Field Memo: Wag the Fonz