Centrist Casting

Last Wednesday afternoon, the not-quite-yet candidate stood before likely supporters and delivered a speech that sure sounded like a candidate’s speech. Hillary Clinton at the City College commencement ceremony? Well, yes, she did it, too, but a few of us who decided it was time to advance the B-plot just a little found our way out to Babylon, on the semi-posh end of Suffolk County, to check in with Rick Lazio.

Rick who? From the CV, we see that Lazio is a four-term Republican congressman from the state’s second district, basically the western half of Suffolk. He’s 41, Catholic, married; went to Vassar and American University; was a Suffolk assistant district attorney, county legislator, and lawyer until 1992, when he pulled off what was for the time (pre-Contract, pre-rise-of-Newt) a surprising upset of a well-known Democratic incumbent, Tom Downey, who’d outspent Lazio by more than five to one.

That was then. Last week, he stood before 425 friends and backers at one of those kinda nice, kinda cheesy waterfront eateries, the Robert Moses Causeway announcing itself across the gassy horizon, and tugged at the world’s sleeve, reminding us that this Mother of All Races will likely have a third contender. As he spoke – and as Oklahoma congressman J. C. Watts, who flew in for what amounted to Lazio’s coming-out party, pleaded with him to enter the Senate race and was greeted with a standing ovation – one was struck by Lazio’s casual decency and by the fact that, if he is to climb this greasy pole successfully, said decency may not survive in its current form.

First, on decency: about four years ago, I had lunch with Lazio at a semi-pricey Manhattan restaurant at the urging of an intermediary who’s always after me to get in touch with my inner moderate Republican. As the lunch took place shortly after the House had passed new rules maxing honoraria at $50 – and as New York was picking up the tab – Lazio insisted on examining the check to be sure that his portion of the total didn’t exceed the offending figure. He even factored in his share of the tip! (Would that all those people who “only had a salad” and left early hewed to Lazio’s standards.) An act for my benefit? Call me gullible, but it didn’t come across that way.

And this, I’m guessing, is how he’ll seem to you as you watch him campaign – humble (without being phony about it), direct, unpretentious, plain-spoken to the point of awkwardness with his attempts at rhetorical flight: At one point last Wednesday, he insisted that the Republican Party had to be inclusive of “people of all backgrounds and all colors and all ! genders.” He is emphatically not, like so many of those elected two years after he was in the Newt Sweep, a right-wing nail-spitter. He does not, like a certain probable Republican-primary opponent, believe that anyone who disagrees with him is a socialistic ninny.

The voting record? By Washington standards, he’s very much a moderate. He backed most of the provisions of the Contract With America, and on tax and fiscal matters, it’s pretty much the Full Milton (Friedman). And he did – retain this one, should he actually defeat Giuliani and meet Mrs. Clinton – vote for two of the four impeachment counts. Other than that, he boldly goes where few Republicans have gone before (since the Reagan era, anyway). He works on issues like … disabled rights. And Native American housing, of all odd things. Last Wednesday, his litany of priorities went like this: “inclusiveness,” “reaching out,” “clean air,” “clean water,” “new-generation methods” (creeping Gore-ism!), “gang violence,” “good schools,” “taxes,” “opportunity,” “ethics,” “morality.”

That kind of talk is useful in defeating a nine-term Democratic incumbent and holding on to a swing district. But if he runs for Senate, such talk might turn into a nuisance.

Rudy Giuliani is, by national Republican standards, a centrist – pro-choice, pro-gun control, sort-of-pro-gay rights. Naturally, those aren’t positions that will translate favorably to a conservative Republican-primary electorate. And so the working assumption among insiders is that whoever runs against Giuliani next year will have to run at him from the right. Lazio is seeking George Pataki’s backing, and the support of the state Conservative Party. Michael Long, who heads that party, is on the fence, but sounded favorably inclined toward Lazio when we spoke last week. “I don’t have to endorse anybody until a year from June,” Long says, “but when he called me, I told him, ‘Go see our people around the state.’ I will say he’s doing that, and the mayor’s not doing that. So if he does announce and run, that tends to work as a credit in his favor.”

Lazio’s record is not exactly the stuff of Conservative Party handbills. In addition to all the above, he’s pro-choice in broad terms (though he voted for the partial-birth ban, and on other votes his record is mixed) and pro-gun control. But if he becomes the basket in which Pataki and Long and Al D’Amato (not dead yet) and state GOP chair William Powers decide to deposit their anti-Giuliani eggs, then it would not be shocking to see – how to say it? – a few “modifications” on some of these positions “after much soul-searching.”

Lazio insists this won’t happen. “I had conversations with a couple of friends in the House who’ve run for the Senate unsuccessfully,” he told me after the lunch in a private room where he finally got to eat. “And they said the same thing: Be true to yourself. Let the chips fall where they may, based on who you are and what you believe in. This is not just about achieving another job. This is an opportunity for me to put up or shut up: to put out that kind of message about the need for more inclusiveness that I’ve called for from other folks.”

If Lazio lets himself be overhandled and repackaged as a conservative howling tiger, the inauthenticity will hang over him like the odor of old milk, and he’ll curdle. But if he follows his own advice, he is not to be underestimated against Giuliani, especially if he can do that while securing Pataki’s support and, consequently, the dollars the governor can help him amass and the legwork of the vast majority of GOP county organizations. Far-fetched? The idea that Chuck Schumer would beat Gerry Ferraro and D’Amato seemed far-fetched in the summer of 1997, remember. Lazio doesn’t have Schumer’s killer drive, but he has a nice-guy appeal that, given the competition, may end up counting for quite a lot. Let’s see if he holds on to it.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Centrist Casting