Lazio’s Role Model? Hold Onto Your Hats: It’s Senator D’Amato

Rick Lazio, surrounded by a tight ring of cameras, crouched down on a rooftop playground at a child care center in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

“Go hug Mr. Lazio!” a teacher shouted. A flock of kids ran into the arms of the enraptured Long Island congressman who is running for Senate.

“Oh, my heart! My heart! My heart!” Mr. Lazio shouted as he hugged the kids. “I feel so good! I feel so loved! Just a hug is all I need. You make my heart sing! Ooooh. Aaaah. You’re such a good hugger. This is better than McDonald’s. This is better than a Happy Meal! All that love!”

“Look up, Senator!” a cameraman shouted. He did, and his smiling face was all over the newspapers the next day.

The day before, Mr. Lazio was on board the Mainstream Express, his very own political bus tour, inching down Second Avenue towards Katz’s Delicatessen. At a table toward the front of the bus, each reporter was getting an “exclusive” 10-minute interview with Mr. Lazio. He excused himself to go use the toilet.

“Giddyup!” he said as he edged down the narrow aisle, past ABC correspondent George Stephanopoulos.

“Don’t bring any cameras in here,” he remarked to a group of reporters as he entered the bathroom. “You’ll be very disappointed!”

Mr. Lazio, a skilled campaigner, is happily assuming the role of an anti-star, of Rick the regular guy who has lucked into the opportunity of a lifetime. He stands in sharp contrast to his opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, an imperious and intellectual figure who sees herself as the rightful heir to the mantle of retiring Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

But Mr. Lazio is asking New York voters to admit him to an illustrious club-a pantheon of philosophers and grand personalities whose ideas have shaped the nation’s history. New York senators were among the foremost contributors to the narrative known as the American Century. Robert Wagner authored monumental legislation on labor relations and social security. Jacob Javits’ civil rights laws forced the Republican Party to confront the state of race relations in the 1960′s. Mr. Moynihan wrote a stack of books, inspiring a generation of argument about welfare, social policyandnational defense. And Alfonse D’Amatohelped change the way Americans think about tax policy by inventing the “taxosaurus,” an illustrateddinosaur that he attacked with a pencil on the Senate floor.

So where would Mr. Lazio fit in? In an interview with The Observer , Mr. Lazio evaluated his predecessors and talked abouttheplacehe might occupy among them. (Less seriously, he also revealed that he’s a fan of Mets catcher Mike Piazza.) A self-professed lover of legislating, he was asked to name the greatest legislative accomplishment of a New York senator in the 20th century.

“It may have been Bob Wagner’s involvement with housing,” Mr. Lazio said. “Because affordable housing has been such an important part of quality of life for New Yorkers. That strikes me as one very significant national accomplishment by a New York senator.” It was a somewhat surprising choice for Mr. Lazio, although perhaps less so considering his own involvement in housing policy as a congressman. These days, government housing policy is considered an oxymoron by most conservatives, who would prefer that government get out of the housing business altogether. And while federal housing policy certainly was one of Mr. Wagner’s signature issues, historians might point out that Mr. Wagner is also known for his sponsorship of pro-union legislation and Social Security, issues on which Wagner and Mr. Lazio might not agree.

Mr. Lazio is perhaps far more personable than his opponent, but he is already in danger of being pigeonholed as a dimpled lightweight who lacks the gravitas to join the ranks of New York’s great senators. Maureen Dowd scornfully dismissed the congressman in a recent column as “Little Ricky.” And Ray Harding, the chairman of the Liberal Party, which endorsed Mrs. Clinton after being prepared to support Mayor Giuliani’s now-abandoned Senate bid, has said that adding Mr. Lazio’s name to the litany of illustrious former senators “jars the ear.”

Does it? In the interview, Mr. Lazio was asked what kind of Republican he would be if elected senator. Would he be a liberal Republican like Javits, a movement conservative like James Buckley or a pragmatic partisan like Mr. D’Amato?

“I don’t think any of them fit perfectly with me, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I think I’m me. I mean, on certain issues, I think Jake Javits was a great senator from a legislative standpoint. He left his mark with his work on civil rights and the disabled, which I feel very drawn to.”

“I think Buckley’s sense of principle and of integrity and character-those are areas I look at for him,” Mr. Lazio continued. “I think [of] Senator Moynihan also on some of these areas, his ability to reach across the aisle occasionally, his sense of character and integrity, I think those have been important.”

Which of Mr. Moynihan’s ideas has he found most impressive?

“I think his focus on the concept of work and responsibility and accountability,” he said. “Those have become significant principles for him and I think he tried to introduce those principles of welfare reform. And you see it in terms of his writings on crime for example, the defining deviancy down writings. I think that part of his work has been impressive to me.”

Welfare Votes

Though Mr. Moynihan was an intellectual voice in favor of welfare reform, he, unlike Mr. Lazio, opposed its dismantling. Mr. Moynihan was one of a handful of Democrats who voted against the Republican-sponsored measure that ended welfare as an entitlement in 1996. Mr. Lazio voted in favor of the bill.

Then again, Mr. Lazio and Mr. Moynihan seem to be in agreement on another one of the retiring senator’s favorite issues: Social Security. Mr. Moynihan recently sent a shock wave through the Democratic Party’s establishment by advocating a limited privatization plan for Social Security. (The party’s standard-bearer, Al Gore, calls such proposals “risky.”) Mr. Lazio said he believes the current system is not sustainable. “And so we must look at several options that would give people the ability to get a higher yield and have better peace of mind for their retirement,” he said.

Mr. Lazio said he would seek to emulate Mr. D’Amato’s approach to legislating. “I can’t think of a senator that was more engaged and more effective in terms of watching out for local interests in Washington,” he said. “And I think that’s a good model.”

Does Mr. Lazio, who has assailed Mrs. Clinton for her out-of-state roots, see her carpetbagging as somehow more offensive than that of Mr. Buckley, who ran for Senate on the Conservative Party line in 1970, or Robert F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts native who was elected to the Senate from New York in 1964?

“Jim Buckley had pretty deep New York roots,” Mr. Lazio said. “He ran his brother’s campaign for Mayor [in 1965], he lived right over the border in Connecticut, he spent a lot of time in New York. So he had very deep New York connections before he ran. Kennedy also lived in New York for a while. They both had experience living in New York or working in New York beforehand.”

And finally, Mr. Lazio was asked how he felt about the fact that The Washington Post had erroneously reported that his first name is Ricardo. It is Enrico, after his grandfather.

“If that’s the worst of it I’ll be in good shape,” Mr. Lazio said, laughing. “It probably helps with the Lucy crowd.”

As in Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball.