- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2000

As a Suffolk County, N.Y., prosecutor in the mid-1980s, Rick Lazio put away robbers, racketeers and rapists.

With his trademark knack for moving up, Mr. Lazio was elected as a Suffolk County legislator in 1989 and successfully moved measures that tackled hookers, drug dealers and unions.

Now the 42-year-old Republican congressman is fighting for a seat in the U.S. Senate against a different sort of nemesis: the politically savvy and widely acclaimed first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Lazio is filling the celebrity shoes of New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who announced Friday that prostate cancer treatment would prevent him from continuing his Senate campaign against Mrs. Clinton.

The new Republican hopeful is:

• A Mets-loving Long Island native with a toothy smile and a gentle style.

• The Italian, Roman Catholic son of an auto parts store owner who represents a heavily blue-collar suburban district that is mostly white and middle class.

• An often centrist Republican who has identified himself with abortion rights, environmental concerns and gun control.

• A sometimes mainstream Republican who has voted to eliminate the marriage penalty tax, to bar taxpayer-funded abortions and to make flag desecration a crime.

In other words, Mr. Lazio is a poster boy for New York Republicanism.

Detractors, however, say he has played the middle for too long, trying to appease everybody.

A Congressional Quarterly vote analysis found Mr. Lazio voted with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich 83 percent of the time in 1995 and the lawmaker also voted with the president 72 percent of the time in 1994.

Perhaps most important now, Mr. Lazio has wanted a Senate seat almost since his 1992 election to the House, said an adviser.

"He's wanted this his whole life," said Jack Burkman, a political veteran who has worked with Mr. Lazio since 1992. "We talked about it four, six, eight years ago. This is a hugely determined man."

Or at least a man who has had his eye on this chance since he got his degree in political science from Vassar College in 1980.

While attending Vassar, Mr. Lazio worked as a campaign volunteer for U.S. Sen. James Buckley, a Conservative Party stalwart who served from 1970 to 1976.

Mr. Lazio also was active in student government, someone "who had mature plans for himself," said Colton Johnson, dean of Vassar College and dean of studies when Mr. Lazio was a student.

"He would give you the impression of someone who had plans for himself," Mr. Johnson said. "He looks and sounds today as he did then."

Three years after Vassar, Mr. Lazio received his law degree from American University with a single-minded purpose.

"He wanted to be a prosecutor in his home county," said Michael Moriarty, a law school classmate. "Rick really had a track established, unlike most people who were going to law school."

Mr. Moriarty was impressed enough with his classmate to introduce him to his sister, Patricia, who became Mrs. Lazio in 1990.

Fresh off passing his bar exam, Mr. Lazio joined the prosecutor's office. Not long after his hire, Mr. Lazio was custom-fit a title, "executive assistant district attorney."

In 1988, he left the office and went into private practice. In parting, Mr. Lazio said the move "will allow me to be able to speak out on public issues in a manner I would be constrained against if I were a member of the D.A.'s office."

He already was formulating his political future. A few months later, he was overwhelmingly elected to the Suffolk County Legislature, winning 3,611 of the 5,538 votes cast.

Two years later, Mr. Lazio regained his office handily, along the way learning something about fund-raising; he raised $25,000 to his opponent's $3,000.

"He's able to develop close personal relationships, and these people come forward," Mr. Moriarty said. "Rick is from Long Island; he knows the people."

As a county legislator, Mr. Lazio tackled routine municipal issues with gusto, moving to write bills in layman's terms, looking to make county inmates pay for part of their incarceration and even persuading two hesitant colleagues to vote for a human-rights resolution that included homosexuals.

When Mr. Lazio decided in 1992 that it was time to become a U.S. representative, he told voters about 151 overdrafts at the House bank from his opponent, 18-year incumbent Thomas Downey.

He won with 53 percent of the vote and has not come close to losing since.

In each campaign, he courts constituents with the easy-going manner that has made him a natural from his first election.

"It was apparent that he was the best candidate," said Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney. "He was the class. He's a tough guy, mentally tough and physically with a lot of stamina."

More succinctly: "He never sleeps," said Barbara Vogl, director of the candidate's Long Island office.

But his fast-track career comes with that sometimes puzzling voting record, one that has him appearing to strive to please all.

And he doesn't always get his way; Mr. Lazio failed in his effort to require inspections of homes with mortgages approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"He doesn't take failure well," noted Mr. Gaffney.

But it's been victory that Mr. Lazio has known best in his political endeavors. This campaign will test his mettle as never before. If he vacillates on an issue, Mrs. Clinton will assuredly hack away.

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson already has called Mr. Lazio a "Gingrich Republican with a record that's too extreme for New York," a charge that will dog the candidate through November.

On Tuesday, Mr. Lazio is expected to receive the state's Republican nomination at the party convention in Buffalo. From there, it's the campaign trail through the fall, his aides said.

"He really wants this office for its own value," said Mr. Burkman, the adviser. "Giuliani wanted it so he could have a place to fall. But Rick wants it for what it is."

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