- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. | He was the baby-faced Long Island congressman who took on first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the historic 2000 race for the U.S. Senate. The crushing defeat took him out of politics.

Now, with state government in disarray after an embarrassing power struggle that paralyzed the legislature for over a month and the sinking approval numbers of Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson, the Republican is set to announce his candidacy this week for governor.

“It’s time,” said the moderately graying 51-year-old Rick Lazio. “The state is in terrible trouble; clearly it’s the worst fiscal crisis.”

The situation is so worrisome for Democrats that President Obama himself has been sending broad hints that Mr. Paterson not run for re-election, hints the governor is so far refusing to take.

Mr. Lazio has been advising on investments and public policy for JPMorgan Chase since he left Congress after four terms and a Senate loss to Mrs. Clinton. He said his banking and political experience make him “uniquely qualified” to lead the state.

“It’s time for me to step up and show some leadership,” he said. “People want somebody who is willing to fundamentally rethink how state government operates.”

Mr. Lazio called this summer’s failed attempt by Republicans to wrest control of leadership in the state Senate “the most embarrassing political episode in my lifetime.” But, he said, the coup was symptomatic of much bigger problems in Albany.

Mr. Lazio said he would call for a constitutional convention to eliminate the Assembly and state Senate and create a state Legislature with one chamber instead of two. Nebraska is currently the only state with a unicameral lawmaking body, but proposals have been floated in Maine and Connecticut in recent years.

“There’s no transparency; we have to eliminate the game-playing where the Senate passes a bill and the Assembly won’t even take it up for a vote,” Mr. Lazio said. “People have lost faith.”

Mr. Lazio would face either Mr. Paterson, who has said he intends to seek a full term, or another Democratic challenger who could be the more popular state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, himself the son of a former governor.

On the Republican side, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is also mulling a run. Mr. Lazio replaced Mr. Giuliani as Mrs. Clinton’s Senate challenger in 2000 after Mr. Giuliani bowed out with prostate cancer, and also announced a separation from his wife. A Giuliani spokeswoman declined comment on Mr. Lazio’s entry into the race; Mr. Lazio on Friday called Mr. Giuliani a friend.

“Lazio is a [former congressman] who has run statewide before, so he is certainly a credible candidate,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll. Winning, however, is another thing. “Our previous polls have shown he was way behind Andrew Cuomo, and running neck and neck if it’s against Governor Paterson.”

But Mr. Giuliani remains the “prohibitive favorite” for Republicans, he said.

Mr. Lazio says the ability to prepare for a statewide race more than a year before Election Day in 2010 will be different from the five-month sprint run he conducted against Mrs. Clinton in 2000, which he lost by 12 percentage points.

“I’ve run in seven campaigns and won six and I learned more from the losing race,” he said. “You learn from your setbacks.… In 2000, we were running in crisis mode most of the time.”

Mr. Lazio will have to persuade voters in a Democratic-controlled state — dwarfing the Republican Party in voter registration 2-1 statewide — to elect him. He decided to postpone an announcement of his candidacy until Tuesday after learning of Mr. Obama’s plan to visit upstate Troy on Monday.

He will also need to win over fellow Republicans. A Marist poll last week found Republicans evenly split, 43 percent to 43 percent, on whether Mr. Lazio should enter the race.

“Who I run against is less important to me than having a discussion with the people of New York,” Mr. Lazio said. “We need to have a discussion about how we can improve infrastructure, increase private sector jobs and restrain property taxes.”

Mr. Lazio announced last week that he is bringing in some heavy political muscle to lead his campaign, including Arthur J. Finkelstein, who advised both former Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and former Republican George Pataki in their successful runs for the Senate and governor. Also on the team is Beth Myers, former campaign manager for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign.

Mr. Lazio said he would be more involved in strategic decisions of this campaign than he was in 2000, when the national Republican Party had a heavy hand in trying to stop Mrs. Clinton.

“This is my campaign and the ideas will be mine,” Mr. Lazio said. “One thing I learned from 2000 was to trust my instincts more.”

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