Lazio Eyes Green Support to Burnish Moderate Image

In a state that prefers Republicans in moderation, New York’s environmentalists often find themselves escorting G.O.P.-ers through the middle passage. As Governor George Pataki has demonstrated, green credentials get many Republicans past ideological gatekeepers. And as a member of the House of Representatives, Rick Lazio has counted on the support of environmental groups to validate his moderate image.

But when the Sierra Club and environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently announced their enthusiastic support for Hillary Rodham Clinton in this year’s Senate race, Mr. Lazio’s pro-environmental stance, and therefore part of his claim to being a moderate Republican, was in jeopardy. So all eyes have turned to another politically active environmental organization, the League of Conservation Voters.

The league, whose board is made up of some of New York’s old-guard power elite, has supported Mr. Lazio in the past. This year, however, the L.C.V.’s endorsement is up for grabs, and Mr. Lazio, while desperate for a moderate group’s seal of approval, apparently isn’t doing some of the legwork that would impress the board’s members. Some environmentalists are puzzled. For if Mr. Lazio can point to the support of group like the L.C.V., he will be able to counter Mrs. Clinton’s attempts to cast him as a dangerous right-winger.

“For a Lazio, it’s very important because the thrust of the Clinton campaign is this guy is Newt Gingrich lite,” said Kieran Mahoney, Governor Pataki’s campaign strategist. “Newt Gingrich lite doesn’t get the L.C.V. endorsement.”

Mr. Kennedy, who sits on the league’s board, told a press conference that Mr. Lazio “can’t point to a single instance in which he has ever demonstrated environmental leadership on any environmental issue. He walked in lockstep with the Gingrich Congress.” But Laurence Rockefeller, Mr. Kennedy’s Republican counterpart on the board, told The Observer he would not make his views known until the endorsement process “is finished.” The league is expected to make its endorsement public in late September.

Other Republicans on the L.C.V. board note that both the league and the Sierra Club have had no trouble endorsing Mr. Lazio in his re-election campaigns. His 1999 league scorecard was 69 percent–tying him for the second-highest rating of any New York Republican, although it still put him in the bottom third of the New York Congressional delegation. In 1998, the L.C.V. raised money for his re-election campaign.

Even Democrats on the L.C.V.’s board say Mr. Lazio has an argument to make. “Everybody would agree, in the case of Al Gore and George W. Bush, there is a big contrast,” said Barbara Fife, a Deputy Mayor during the Dinkins administration. “In the case of Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton, there isn’t an automatic endorsement. They both have things going for them and going against them. They both have a fair shot.”

Aware of the importance of its endorsement, the L.C.V. is setting its bar high. The group is hoping to set up an environmental debate sometime soon. Neither candidate has given a “definitive answer,” according to league executive director Marcia Bestrewn, although Mrs. Clinton has expressed “strong interest.”

The league has made it clear that it wishes to be courted. “We’ve told both candidates that [the league’s endorsement] is not a slam-dunk for either candidate,” said board chair Paul Elston. “So how hard they press for the endorsement is very important.”

He Forgot His Briefs

Mr. Lazio will have to do better with the L.C.V. than he did with the Sierra Club. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, who quietly flew up to meet with the group in June at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, Mr. Lazio stalled before agreeing to a meeting in mid-August, according to Rhea Jezer, the Sierra Club’s Atlantic chapter president.

“And then, he wasn’t even briefed!” Ms. Jezer added. “I told both campaigns in advance what we would be asking them about, but when we asked Mr. Lazio about a proposed new water treatment plant, he had to consult with an aide.”

Unfortunately for the Lazio campaign, Ms. Jezer is also a board member of the L.C.V. Perhaps Mr. Lazio was overconfident. When Ms. Jezer told a Lazio aide of the Sierra Club’s endorsement, “he was quite upset,” she added. “They thought they had us. He’s a moderate Republican, and they know the Sierra Club likes moderate Republicans.”

Mr. Lazio has lagged in his courting of the L.C.V., according to some insiders. Mrs. Clinton, ever the good student, returned the league’s questionnaire early. She met with the group twice while Mr. Lazio dispatched an aide, Mike Moriarty.

But most baffling to some L.C.V. board members is the low profile of Governor Pataki, a Lazio supporter who is very close to the L.C.V., particularly Mr. Elston, its president. Mr. Elston said he’s heard from the Governor, but six other board members–who asked not to be identified–say they’ve heard nothing from the Pataki camp and were surprised by the lack of high-level pressure. “The lobbying is just not very intense,” said one. “I’ve worked closely and well with the Governor, but I haven’t seen any action from him,” said another.

A Message Delivered

A board member inclined toward the Democrats, however, said the Governor’s camp is leaning on the Lazio campaign to accept the L.C.V.’s debate offer. Mr. Elston seemed to confirm that, albeit indirectly. “Everyone that I talk to who are Republicans and good friends of the environment say they’ve conveyed the importance of our endorsement to the Lazio campaign,” Mr. Elston said.

Some league members speculated that the Governor, facing his own hard-fought contest in two years, isn’t prepared to spend his league capital on the Lazio endorsement.

But Mike Murphy, Mr. Lazio’s campaign strategist, rushed to the Governor’s defense. “Mr. Pataki has been wonderful,” Mr. Murphy said. “On this and other things.”

Still, Mr. Murphy was not averse to trotting out his pre-endorsement spin: “What’s really on trial in this endorsement is the league’s credibility. Is it an environmental organization or a partisan organization? Because there’s no question Rick is an environmentalist.”

That’s an argument that might find a receptive audience within the league. “This race pits a Republican with a mixed environmental record with a Democrat who has no legislative record,” said board member Rich Kassell. “If I were a betting man, I would not place a bet on which way this endorsement will go.”

Betsy Loyless, the National League of Conservation Voters’ political director, took pains to say that Mr. Lazio has been “responsive. We’ve found his door to be open, although he doesn’t vote the pro-environment vote all the time.”

Ms. Loyless said that Mr. Lazio has been weakest on what Republicans call “regulatory reform” (environmentalists call it “deregulation”). And Mrs. Clinton seems quite ready to promise environmentalists the moon and the stars. On issues from sewage treatment in the Long Island Sound to acid rain in the Adirondacks, from PCB’s in the Hudson to auto emissions, there isn’t an issue the First Lady hasn’t covered.

And therein lies the agony for the league. “We look for progressive Republicans who are good environmentalists, but we also want to know who’s the best representative for us in the Senate–and those are not the same questions,” Mr. Elston said.