The Return of Rick Lazio

Most people remember seeing Rick Lazio ten years ago, when he was running against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate.

At one point during a televised debate, Mr. Lazio tried to get Mrs. Clinton to sign a pledge not to use unregulated, soft money during the campaign.

"I want your signature," he said. "I think everyone wants to see you signing something that you said you were for. I’m for it. You haven’t done it. You’ve been violating it. Why don’t you stand up and do something important for America while America is looking at New York? Why don’t you show some leadership?"

Mr. Lazio did not leave it at that. He left his podium, walked across the stage, and stood next to Mrs. Clinton, imploring her to sign a pledge not to use soft money.

The other memorable moment from that night was Mr. Lazio’s closing remarks. "She’s done nothing for New York," he said. "I’ve delivered for New York. And as that old Yankee manager Casey Stengell used to say, 'You can check it out.’”

Mr. Stengell's quote is, actually, “You could look it up.” But by that point, Mr. Lazio’s fate was clear. He was not going to beat Mrs. Clinton.

Now, ten years later, he’s running for governor. Mr. Lazio is more disciplined and less showy. The defining moment of his current campaign may have already come and gone.

Mr. Lazio appears in an ad from the New York State Conservative Party, where he says, "New Yorkers have been through enough. Now, a terrorist sympathizing imam wants to build a $100 million mosque near Ground Zero."

Mr. Lazio was one of the first candidates to state his opposition to the proposed Islamic center set for construction two blocks north from where the World Trade Center stood. Mr. Lazio helped put a spotlight on the issue. Now, everyone from President Obama to Sarah Palin has weighed in.

Many credit Lazio with bringing the issue to the public's attention. Fox Five News anchor Rosanna Scotto greated Mr. Lazio recently with this line: "Rick Lazio joins us this morning. You have been front and center on this issue, from the very very beginning."

Indeed, he has. Mr. Lazio has, basically, been on every television network and in every newspaper, because of this issue. It's the kind of profile-raising most candidates would die for. But not all the attention has been good.

Meet the Press host David Gregory had this to say when Mr. Lazio appeared on his show: "You have made it a point of politicizing this issue."

That’s one of the lesser charges hurled at him. Critics say Mr. Lazio has distorted the character of the imam behind the project. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf made some controversial comments during a 2001 television interview about American foreign policy and it being an "accessory" to the terrorist attacks. 

When Lazio appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews, the host challenged the way Lazio was characterizing the imam.

Here's how the exchange went:

Mr. Lazio: "As I recall, he said American foreign policy was an accessory to the crime of 9/11--"
Mr. Mathews: "That's not this sentence. He said 'I wouldn't say that the U.S. deserved what happened. But the U.S. policies were an accessory'--and we can argue about the word 'accessory' but he didn't say we deserve to be hit."

The nine-and-a-half-minute nationally televised interview broke down into high-volume finger pointing.

Mr. Lazio went on to say, "Chris, if you want to apologize for a guy who compared us to Hamas..." Mr. Matthews replied, "Okay Rick, I know what you're doing here. I know your tactics."

Newspaper editorial boards--on the left and right--have also been critical of how the candidate has campaigned on the issue. The New York Times blamed Lazio for using images of the September 11 terrorist attacks in his ads about the mosque, and that he's unfairly maligning Islam. The New York Post--which, like Lazio opposes the mosque--said Lazio is not focusing on the critical issues facing the state.

After those criticisms, Mr. Lazio seems to have adjusted his talking points.

A Manhattan-based Tea Party organization recently hosted a candidate’s forum in the basement of Baruch College. Mr. Lazio casually made his way into the building, ignoring the man dressed in the chicken outfit outside, sent by his Republican opponent Carl Paladino, a self-financed real estate developer who wanted to debate Mr. Lazio. Mr. Lazio has refused, saying they've both spoken to voters and the public has an understanding of both candidates.

At Baruch, Mr. Lazio--still boyishly young-looking--spoke about less controversial issues. He relayed a story about what made him reenter politics after working ten years in the private sector. He was driving his older daughter to visit different colleges and thinking about her future when the state's problems hit him.

"I got to thinking as I looked in the rearview mirror and she [his daughter] was falling asleep in the backseat," he said. "I wonder where she'll go when she graduates. I wonder what will happen. Will she meet somebody, fall in love, and move away. Will she feel like she got a job offer that was too good to turn down? And then I got to thinking. Maybe, it won't be that at all. Maybe she'll feel like she's got to get out of town, that she's got to leave this state--because the taxes are so high, the jobs aren't there, the cost of living is too high."

That story resonates with a lot of people, from middle-class families in Mr. Lazio’s former congressional district on Long Island who are worried about college bills, to upstate parents who've seen their kids move out of state chasing jobs that used to be in their hometown.

Since he left congress, Mr. Lazio worked for JP Morgan, a major financial institution. That private sector experience may appeal to some, but Democrats are trying to make it a liability. JP Morgan got federal bailout money and also gave Mr. Lazio more than a million dollars in bonus pay. The New York State Democratic Party called Mr. Lazio a "bonus baby."

Lazio told me it's a distraction.

"They don't want to talk about the issues," he said, referring to his Democratic critics."They don't want to talk about Andrew Cuomo's record on spending, his record at HUD, his proclivity to support people and raise taxes and spending, the fact that he has nine million dollars of special interest money funding his campaign. The fact that the special interests are running his campaign. They don't want to talk about any of those things."


Mr. Lazio faces an uphill battle. He struggled to raise money since the State Republican Chairman openly supported one of Lazio's rivals. Lazio was able to block that other opponent from getting on the ballot, and the chairman is now supporting him. But money is not pouring in. At one point, nearly half the 500,000 dollars Lazio has left in his campaign came from a loan he made to himself. More recently, there's been a slight uptick in contributions.

But not enough.

Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee for governor, has more than $23 million in his campaign account. Mr. Lazio’s Republican opponent has pledged to spend ten million dollars of his own money on the race.

Despite the mosque issue, Mr. Lazio has a low-key presence on the campaign trail. At a time when voter anger and the rising Tea Party movement is propelling unlikely candidates to victory, Mr. Lazio comes across as sincere, but not passionate.

Back in the basement of Baruch College, Mr. Lazio stuck to a more traditional script. He said taxes were too high and Democrats too corrupt. Interestingly, when asked about protecting New York from terrorism, he made no mention of the mosque.

Afterwards, he said he wasn’t changing his talking points, and that questions about the Islamic center were important.

"We should have grave questions when somebody, this imam, Rauf, dodges the issue of whether Hamas is a terrorist organization, we should have a problem with that. Why is that a tough question?" he asked.