Duel of Young Titans as Lazio Finds Rival In Secretary Cuomo

They are a perfectly matched pair of antagonists, two relentlessly ambitious politicians who have long regarded each other as prospective obstacles. Representative Rick Lazio and Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo are both 42 years old. They are both atamake-or-break point in their bids for political stardom. They even weigh about the same-although the people in Mr. Cuomo’s corner insist that their man has far more heft above the shoulders than Mr. Lazio, whom they caricature as little more than an intellectual flyweight.

The reason for their mutual distaste is simple: Mr. Lazio, who is running for the Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Mr. Cuomo, a top supporter of Mrs. Clinton, have long sought to build a career on the same issue: housing. Not long after they arrived in Washington, D.C., eager to rack up career-building accomplishments, their mutual interest in housing spawned a bitter behind-the-scenes rivalry that escalated over the years as they wrestled over a gargantuan housing reform bill, which passed with great fanfare in 1998.

Now they once again find themselves at odds. In recent weeks, Mr. Lazio, the chairman of the House subcommittee on housing since 1995, has revived his assault on what he described as wasteful spending at Mr. Cuomo’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. And for the first time, Mr. Cuomo is striking back.

“Rick Lazio is doing what conservative Republicans do: They define themselves by their opposition to H.U.D.,” Mr. Cuomo told The Observer , in his first public comments about Mr. Lazio since the congressman formally declared his Senate candidacy. “It’s one of their litmus tests. H.U.D. is helping poor people, helping cities, and [conservative Republicans] define themselves by their opposition to H.U.D.”

Bryan Flood, a spokesman for Mr. Lazio, brushed off Mr. Cuomo’s contention, arguing that the congressman had been a lonely voice in opposition to the Republican leadership’s efforts to dismantle H.U.D. in 1994.

“Rick fought for, and saved, H.U.D., successfully fighting off Republican efforts to eliminate the department,” Mr. Flood said.

The two politicians certainly are in a position to do each other a great deal of damage at this critical moment in their respective careers. Mr. Cuomo’s reputation as a public official is built almost entirely on his tenure at H.U.D., long a bureaucratic and financial nightmare. Mr. Lazio’s criticism of H.U.D. threatens to undercut Mr. Cuomo at a time when he is seriously mulling a run for governor, perhaps his best shot at electoral glory.

Mr. Cuomo, meanwhile, may tarnish Mr. Lazio’s much-hyped role as an author of the housing act, the most significant piece of housing legislation since the New Deal. The congressman and others cite his contribution to public housing as his greatest accomplishment, proof of his reputation as a moderate Republican willing to grapple with an urban issue not normally associated with the conservative wing of his party. But if Mr. Cuomo’s criticism sticks, it could damage Mr. Lazio’s claim to be a serious lawmaker and not an ambitious opportunist.

That fact apparently hasn’t been lost on Mr. Cuomo. In the interview with The Observer , Mr. Cuomo charged that Mr. Lazio had in fact played little to no role in the passage of the landmark legislation.

“To the extent that any legislation was passed, it was passed through the appropriations process,” he said. Translated out of wonk-speak, Mr. Cuomo’s remarks mean that the bulk of the legislation as it passed was written by others in Congress, and not by the subcommittee headed by Mr. Lazio.

“It’s patently false,” responded Mr. Flood, adding, “The Times described [the bill] as landmark legislation and gave credit to Rick Lazio as being the driving force behind the legislation. The bottom line is that this was Rick Lazio’s bill.”

A Friendly Disagreement?

Some supporters of Mr. Lazio and Mr. Cuomo go out of their way to assert that differences between the two men are nothing more than a friendly series of policy disputes between well-meaning housing advocates. But the strains between Mr. Lazio and Mr. Cuomo were almost immediately evident when both men arrived in Washington in the mid-1990s, eager to make their mark as public servants.

Mr. Lazio had been given a leadership post on housing, an issue not exactly dear to Republicans caught up in the giddy triumphalism of the Newt Gingrich revolution. Mr. Gingrich and his followers saw H.U.D. as the perfect symbol of the discredited liberalism they had vanquished when they swept into power in 1994. Still, Mr. Lazio wanted to raise his profile, and housing would have to do. He threw himself into the issue, touring the shabbiest Chicago projects and calling failed public housing projects “giant hulks of despair.”

Mr. Cuomo, meanwhile, had established a reputation as a fearsome political operative under his father, Mario Cuomo, and as a builder of privately funded housing for the homeless. But he had yet to prove his bona fides as a public servant. He, too, immersed himself in the housing issue as an assistant secretary at H.U.D., bringing a Clintonian, red-tape-busting zeal for efficiency to the agency

With Mr. Lazio seeking to place his stamp on an agency under Mr. Cuomo’s control, it was only a matter of time until sharp ideological differences emerged between the two ambitious New Yorkers.

“Mr. Lazio and I had fundamentally different policy positions, and ultimately they couldn’t be reconciled,” Mr. Cuomo said.

But some Capitol Hill staff members familiar with their relationship say their differences went beyond policy. Some colleagues began to view their relationship as something of a zero-sum game.

Indeed, so many of their colleagues on Capitol Hill saw the two as potential rivals that top aides to both men-struggling to keep the focus on genuine policy differences-made a secret pact not to discuss each other by name in the press, according to a person close to the discussions.

“From Day 1 they were rivals,” said one congressman who has worked extensively with both men. “But it goes beyond just political rivalry. The view [among congressional colleagues] was that if Lazio wants something Cuomo would be against it, and vice versa.”

As negotiations over the mammoth housing bill dragged on in 1998, Mr. Lazio’s supporters began to see Mr. Cuomo as a relentlessly self-promoting politician who was eager to salt the bill with provisions he could call his own.

“Lazio didn’t trust Cuomo,” said a Capitol Hill staffer involved in the negotiations. “He thought Cuomo would go around him to accomplish whatever it was that he wanted to do. [Mr. Lazio’s staffers] thought Andrew was trying to cut a deal around him.”

“It was common knowledge that the secretary was upset that Lazio seemed to be getting everything and he was getting nothing,” added a Republican staff member involved in the negotiations.

But Cuomo partisans say that Mr. Lazio bogged down the negotiations by insisting on a number of onerous provisions, none of which found their way into the final law. Among them: a massive rollback of New Deal housing protections, a change in the rent cap for poor public housing residents, and a reduction in the proportion of the public housing units awarded for the lowest income people.

To hear Cuomo allies tell it, Mr. Lazio’s insistence on these provisions irritated some of his Republican colleagues, including Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who was facing re-election and was concerned about raising the ire of housing activists and tenant groups.

The Curse of D’Amato

“D’Amato used to curse him like crazy,” said a senior H.U.D. official. “He used to say Lazio didn’t know how to make a deal. We worked out agreements with the moderate Republicans. Lazio was left on the side.”

Mr. Flood, the spokesman for Mr. Lazio, let out a final, exasperated sigh. “The repeal of the New Deal housing law was dropped from an early draft, with no substantial effect on the legislation,” he said, adding that the rent cap survived in a slightly reconfigured form.

Now that Mr. Cuomo is working for the election of Mrs. Clinton, relations between the two men have grown worse. A senior H.U.D. official charged that Mr. Lazio has used his congressional oversight of the agency to order investigations of Mr. Cuomo and his staff at taxpayer expense. The official said Mr. Lazio frequently increases the budget of H.U.D.’s internal watchdog, known as the inspector general, and often asks the inspector general to scrutinize the department’s activities with an eye towards embarrassing Mr. Cuomo. “He uses the inspector general for political mischief and rewards her with increased funding,” the official said.

As with any titanic battle between ambitious politicians, this one figures to get nastier as Election Day approaches.