The Life of Lazio: Mrs. Clinton’s Foe Devours Expectation

The librarians at a quiet public library on eastern Long Island have spent a lot of time recently assisting big-city reporters looking for the 1976 West Islip High School yearbook. That’s because the yearbook contains a picture of one Enrico Lazio-a cherubic young man with a bad 70’s haircut and a bow tie who was a member of the school’s Coin and Stamp Club.

Elsewhere in the same book, there’s a photo of Tom Downey, the local congressman and West Islip native, schmoozing with the young students. Who knew that the geeky-looking kid in Mr. Downey’s midst would later put an end to the congressman’s 18-year reign as one of Washington’s most powerful Democrats? Mr. Lazio, who ditched his formal first name, the bow ties and the haircut, was an obscure county legislator in 1992 when he stunned the pundits by demolishing Mr. Downey with a relentlessly negative campaign. His fliers offered “Tom Downey’s Limousine Liberal guide to surviving the recession.” The onetime cherub even went so far as to assail Mr. Downey’s wife.

Now that Mr. Lazio has replaced Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as the Republican Party’s champion against Hillary Rodham Clinton, he has again assumed the role of an affable young man who has emerged from nowhere to reap the rewards of his quiet but lethal ambitions. Mr. Lazio has skillfully played his latest opportunity as that of a polite local boy who has lucked into the shot of a lifetime-Eddie Haskell meets Rocky. But in politics, as in sports, you make your own luck, and in Mr. Lazio’s case, his unexpected journey from obscurity to national renown is the product of careful, long-range plotting; an instinct for capitalizing on fleeting opportunities; a cautious approach to controversial issues; skill in navigating internecine Republican Party warfare; and relentless pursuit of goals supposedly beyond his reach.

As he prepared to accept his party’s senatorial nomination on May 30, a reporter asked him where he gets his drive. Mr. Lazio’s response sounded like a carefully formulated blend of Senator Charles Schumer’s self-advertised taste for the wonky business of lawmaking and Governor George Pataki’s embrace of moderate Republicanism, along with the requisite political clichés.

“I love legislating,” he told The Observer , several hours before embarking on his very own bus tour, the Split-Lip Express. “When we step up to the plate to talk about lowering taxes for New York, creating better jobs, cleaning up the environment, creating better educational opportunities, I think I’m going to be able to do more for New York as a senator than even a four-term House member.”

The telegenic Mr. Lazio, who was voted one of the best-looking members of Congress by a group of gay staff members, has been dismissed by one opponent as “a well-polished hood ornament.” But, as Mr. Lazio has demonstrated yet again, he has built a career on being underestimated. His acceptance of the G.O.P.’s nomination in Buffalo on May 30 was the climax of a stunning turn of events for a man whose fervent wish to take on the First Lady had, just weeks before, been ridiculed as the daydream of a self-promoting lightweight.

Mr. Lazio began seriously discussing a Senate run as early as the fall of 1998-barely minutes after Alfonse D’Amato conceded defeat to Mr. Schumer, according to an associate of Mr. Lazio “D’Amato’s defeat meant that there was an opening for another statewide Republican to be viewed as a viable candidate,” the associate said.

But few would have considered Mr. Lazio such a candidate, at least not in 1998. And once Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced that he would not seek a fifth term in 2000, Republicans went looking for a big name, and seemed to snag one in Rudolph Giuliani, who was serving a lame-duck term as Mayor. Mr. Giuliani’s star power became even more important when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton decided to enter the race. Suddenly, the New York Senate campaign became one of the nation’s hottest political stories, a battle of political superstars.

But the emerging consensus that Mr. Giuliani would be the candidate didn’t stop Mr. Lazio from visiting the Mayor in City Hall a year and a half ago. After their formal meeting, the two men sent their aides out of the room, and Mr. Lazio informed the Mayor-very politely, of course-that he would be exploring the possibility of a run.

“He said … that he had no problem with it,” Mr. Lazio told The Observer in June 1999. Eventually, however, Mr. Lazio, egged on by the tacit support of Governor Pataki, became so persistent an annoyance that Mr. Giuliani’s aides mounted a behind-the-scenes campaign to drive the congressman out of the race. The effort culminated in Mr. Pataki’s surprise announcement last August that he believed that Mr. Giuliani had “earned the right” to be the G.O.P. candidate.

“It was a tremendous shock to Rick,” said Andrew Siben, a friend of Mr. Lazio for 15 years. “He simply wasn’t expecting it.”

Mr. Lazio was humiliated, but still he refused to withdraw completely. He was motivated, his allies said, by a nagging sense that Mr. Giuliani was not serious about running and by an almost irrational optimism that this would indeed be his race. In the months following the Governor’s endorsement of Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Lazio managed the difficult balancing act of keeping his name in the news while taking care not to offend the Governor.

At times, Mr. Lazio’s zeal got the best of him. Months ago, when Mr. Lazio made the rounds of the talk shows blasting Mr. Giuliani for his apparent disinterest in the race, Mr. Pataki was so annoyed that he personally expressed his displeasure to the congressman, according to an associate of Mr. Lazio.

But Mr. Lazio’s self-promotional campaign paid off. After Mr. Giuliani’s withdrawal, Mr. Lazio instantly emerged as the front-runner in the replacement game-simply because he never really stopped campaigning.

Republican Roots

Mr. Lazio learned to take himself seriously at a young age. He was the only son of a popular and influential local Republican; he had three older sisters. Mr. Lazio tells moving stories about his father, who returned from World War II to build an auto-parts business from scratch. But the elder Lazio was also well connected to local Republicans, who treated his young son as something of a political prince-in-waiting, and later appointed him head of a local political club.

By most accounts, Mr. Lazio had an idyllic suburban childhood. He grew up in the district he now represents, a series of South Shore towns strung along Montauk Highway and lined with delis and boat dealerships. Like most of the South Shore in the 1960’s, West Islip was an optimistic place with a patriotic, hard-working, heavily Catholic population. Mr. Lazio’s adolescence was a time of pickup basketball, guitar playing and skits acted out in the garage.

“We used to do homemade movies,” said Bill Drake, a former high school classmate of Mr. Lazio. “We would play newscasters in a city of the future.”

After high school, where he participated in the United Nations Club and the Marine Biology Club when he wasn’t collecting stamps and coins, Mr. Lazio surprised classmates by attending Vassar College, a progressive upstate school. It was another case of exquisite timing: As it happened, Vassar had just begun to admit men.

“I remember thinking, ‘Man, I can’t believe he’s doing that,'” Mr. Drake recalled. “Then it occurred to me that this guy had no competition. It was all women. This guy was always a step ahead.”

The conservative-looking Mr. Lazio was an unremarkable presence on the diverse Vassar campus. Despite the small class size, few of Mr. Lazio’s fellow students could remember any distinguishing qualities, save his cheerful demeanor, his Long Island accent and his ever-present drive.

“While most 18- to 22-year-olds were trying to figure out what to do in life, he had a very clear idea,” said Nancy Bennett Jennings, a fellow 1980 Vassar graduate. “He was in student government on campus and I believe he spent summers working in Republican politics on Long Island.”

After earning a law degree at American University in Washington, D.C., Mr. Lazio joined the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office in the early 1980’s. He compiled a remarkable conviction rate, which one colleague credited in part to Mr. Lazio’s ability to land the right cases.

“He was a very popular guy in the office, and he always went out to talk to people,” said Jim Manfre, a fellow lawyer in the D.A.’s office who later ran for Congress against Mr. Lazio. “But Rick was not a guy who took chances. He took the cases that were meant to be winners. He was never a risk taker.”

Mr. Lazio then moved out of the courtroom to take a job as the D.A.’s spokesman, further boosting his public profile. “He had quite a bit of exposure, which was all planned so he would be able to run for office,” Mr. Manfre said.

Mr. Lazio did just that, serving a three-year stint as a county legislator, where he skillfully set himself apart from his colleagues. They recalled that he managed to remain well liked by legislators on both sides of the aisle, even as he slammed their work when the cameras were rolling.

Sense of Timing

In the early 1990’s, Mr. Lazio began to sense that Mr. Downey-one of the top Democrats in the House of Representatives-had left himself vulnerable. In Mr. Lazio’s view, Mr. Downey had grown complacent, losing touch with his constituents even as his star rose inside the Beltway.

“Rick saw something,” recalled Pat O’Farrell, an old friend from West Islip. “He saw that each guy that ran against Downey did better than the guy before. Downey was getting weaker and weaker.”

Many of Mr. Lazio’s friends tried to talk him out of running, telling him he had no chance. The year was shaping up as a good one for Democrats, with Bill Clinton at the top of the ticket. But Mr. Lazio pressed ahead.

“It was a real David-and-Goliath match,” said Mr. Siben, who worked on the campaign. “Rick was throwing stones while Tom Downey was swinging clubs. I couldn’t believe how hard he was willing to work. We covered every supermarket in town, every shopping center, every train station.”

Hard work aside, Mr. Lazio’s chances were aided immeasurably by a colossal stroke of good luck. Not long after Mr. Lazio launched his campaign, Mr. Downey was named as one of dozens of House members who “bounced” checks written against their official accounts. Mr. Lazio jumped at his good fortune, battering his opponent with a barrage of negative direct mail. Mr. Downey had also been criticized for a Caribbean junket; one of Mr. Lazio’s mailings featured a photograph of Mr. Downey tossing a football on a Barbados beach.

He charged that Mr. Downey had helped get his wife a patronage job in the office of the House Sergeant-at-Arms. The upstart wound up defeating Mr. Downey by six percentage points.

Once in Congress, Mr. Lazio artfully played the Republican moderate for his home constituents, taking on pro-choice and pro-gun-control positions. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, he maneuvered into the good graces of Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay-the leaders of the ascendant Republican majority that swept into power in 1994. Striking, as always, a careful balance between moderate constituents and right-wing party elders, he earned national attention by being one of the last Republicans to decide to vote for two articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton in 1998.

Now Mr. Lazio has been offered the ultimate career opportunity: a chance to gain instant national fame by defeating the first First Lady to run for elective office while in the White House.

“Rick was the luckiest guy in the world, walking into the Downey race,” said one longtime colleague. “He lucked into that one, and he lucked into this one.”

Mr. Lazio certainly did get lucky.

That’s exactly how he planned it.