Lazio’s run may not be a suicide mission after all

Rick Lazio is running for governor. “Who-he?” you ask. Oh, come on, you remember Rick Lazio. He’s the former Republican Congressman who ran against Hillary Clinton for Senate. At one point in the debate, he shocked a lot of people by walking too close to her podium and was jumped on by Democrats and feminists for taking what they perceived as too combative a posture. Lazio is presently the only announced Republican candidate for governor of New York. I asked him about that time with Clinton and whether he would have done it differently now. He made it quite clear he’s older and wiser than he was nine years ago and no, he would not have made that move on Clinton if he had it to do over.

Lazio says that he can win. That would mean beating either sitting Governor David Paterson if he’s the candidate or Attorney General Andrew Cuomo if he runs. There’s a lot of time between now and the election in 2010 and Lazio recalls that when the then popular Attorney General Robert Abrams ran for Senate against Alfonse D’Amato, he was leading Big Al by twenty-five points in the polls yet still lost to the Fonz. One can’t miss the analogy. This time he plays the role of D’Amato and Andrew Cuomo, the most popular politician in New York, plays the part of Robert Abrams.

You have to hand it to Lazio. The very successful former congressman, now a J.P. Morgan banker, has had the courage to announce his candidacy despite the fact that a couple of sharks like Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki are circling around in the waters. But nature abhors a vacuum and Lazio does have a few things going for him.

First of all, he is a genuinely nice guy and he has a way of putting that across. He’s a moderate Republican who takes progressive stances on issues like women’s reproductive rights and he describes himself as a fiscal conservative. Hell, even David Paterson has been acting like a fiscal conservative. Of course, if the Conservative whack jobs decide that Lazio is not Conservative enough on social issues, they could play true to form and throw a Conservative candidate into the race, thus dooming Lazio’s chances.

The politics of Lazio and the new Republican state chairman, Ed Cox, sound a lot alike to me. Lazio says that he likes and respects Cox but when I threw him a curve ball and asked him whether he would keep Cox in the top party job if he became governor, there was a certain amount of hemming and hawing until he decided that he would be comfortable with Cox.

Of course, we all know that George Pataki was also a “who-he” and he won and kept winning. If no one else comes forward to run, it may well be that Lazio will get the nod. So is it a suicide mission? Well, maybe not. Assuming that the Democratic candidate is going to be Andrew Cuomo, how will Lazio catch up? He will certainly have to go on the attack and when I spoke with him at length the other day, I got a taste of what that attack might look like. Lazio and some other people I know think that Cuomo’s soft underbelly is his time as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Cuomo, who was something like thirteenth in line to be president when he was at HUD, didn’t win stellar reviews while he was there. It turns out that Lazio was the chairman of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunities in the Congress when Cuomo was at HUD and Lazio says that Cuomo was a weak secretary. He has facts and figures to back that up. My bet is that his people are doing what we call “negative research” on Cuomo’s time at HUD and we will be hearing a lot more about that from the former Long Island congressman.

Lazio also senses a major Republican resurgence happening in New York. He points to a mess of Republican victories around the state in which county legislatures and county executive positions that were Democratic fell to the Republicans. Right now, Lazio has a big name recognition problem but if he can ride the wave of anti-Democratic sentiment in New York, fueled by the nonsense in the New York state Senate and Governor Paterson’s inability to get other Democrats to go along with cuts in the state budget, he might just prevail. Stranger long shots have come in.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 11/23/09

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