It must be pretty tough to breathe when you’re the odd man out and all the political oxygen is being sucked up by New York Governor David Paterson, his media melodrama, and his budding feud with his undeclared Democratic primary opponent, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
But presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Lazio—remember him? he’s the guy who was trounced by Hillary Clinton 10 years ago and hasn’t been much heard from since—is trying his best not to sound like he’s gasping for airtime.
Does Lazio even like Cuomo? “I’m not going to go there,” he replies with a laugh.
“It’s probably a net positive,” the former Long Island congressman tells me about his under-the-radar status in what is shaping up as the nation’s most operatic brawl—as in, soap opera. “The lack of media attention allows us to build an organization, communicate our positions and do all the things you need to do to have a winning campaign. We’re not worried about the fact that we haven’t been airing commercials a year before the election. I’m certainly pleased not to be in the media spotlight in the way that some of the other candidates or potential candidates have been.”
What’s a widely ignored politician to do?
In the 51-year-old Lazio’s case, the answer is to quietly raise money and rack up Republican endorsements (including that of non-candidate Rudy Giuliani, at one time the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination), retool himself as a public-spirited press critic and, ironically enough, become the embattled Paterson’s staunchest defender outside of the governor’s office.
“I know David and I know Andrew,” Lazio says. “Andrew and I spent a lot of time together [when Lazio was chairman of a House subcommittee on housing and Cuomo was Bill Clinton’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development]. I know David less well but, by all accounts and from mutual friends, he is a likeable man. He had a reputation in the legislature of being someone that folks liked to be around. So when I agree with him, I say so, and when I disagree with him I say that, too. I’m not hearing anything from Andrew Cuomo—he’s not taking any positions on anything. All I see is that he is trying to undermine a governor in his own party.”
Does Lazio even like Cuomo?
“I’m not going to go there,” he replies with a laugh.
Who would he prefer to face in the general election campaign: the well-heeled Cuomo or the sparsely funded Paterson?
“My preference," Lazio says, "would be Andrew Cuomo—with David Paterson’s money.”
Thus Lazio used Friday’s eagerly anticipated New York Times hatchet job on Paterson—which depicted the governor as distracted and disengaged—as a rare opportunity to get himself in the game. On Friday morning, Lazio issued a lengthy disquisition on the sorry state of journalism and politics, condemning the Times and Cuomo in equal measure.
“It is clear from the story today and the media frenzy of the past few weeks that The New York Times is using its power and prestige to denigrate Governor Paterson and to advance the candidacy of Andrew Cuomo,” Lazio’s statement said in part. “Many people believe that Andrew Cuomo and his supporters have been pushing derogatory rumors about Governor Paterson in an attempt to force the governor out of the campaign. The New York Times has the reputation as the most important newspaper in America, and to sink to this level and to do so for clearly political purposes for the advantage of Andrew Cuomo is outrageous.”
Translation: Hey, people! It’s me, Rick! Over here!
Lazio’s tactic is clever, and it seems to be working up to a point. While the Paterson camp is content to let him bask in relative obscurity—and declined to comment on Friday’s “heartfelt” critique—the Cuomo-ites are taking the bait. “Mr. Lazio’s suggestion [that the attorney general his supporters are spreading anti-Paterson rumors] is completely false and not true,” said Cuomo spokesman Phil Singer, acknowledging that a real campaign involving someone named Lazio actually exists.
Lazio—who in October 2000 memorably crossed the stage during the televised debate with Hillary to brandish a sheaf of papers at her, the notorious defining moment of her victorious Senate race—has spent the past decade making money on Wall Street, most recently as an executive for J.P. Morgan. He says he decided to get back into the ring “because of a social conscience.” He adds with a chuckle: “That’s the first step toward ruin.”
Lazio has focused his campaign themes on budgetary discipline, economic growth, and cleaning up the political culture of Albany, by all accounts a sump pit of corruption and legislative gridlock. “New York is facing a fiscal Armageddon,” he says. “It is entering a budget cycle with north of a $9 billion deficit. It is likely that the state will operate without a budget all year long. We live in fiscal chaos. And the voters are tuning in to it…. This is a tipping-point election.”
A proponent of abortion rights and same-sex civil unions, Lazio is a Northeastern moderate in the tradition of Massachusetts' newest senator, Republican Scott Brown. “New York Republicans need to reestablish their own brand of Republicanism—which to me is a party that stands for growth, fiscal discipline, and some social tolerance,” Lazio says. And if the Dems attempt to tar him with the right-wing brush of the national GOP, “It will work no better than it worked for Martha Coakley,” he predicts, mentioning Brown's hapless Democratic opponent.
Lazio, who is often described in news accounts as “genial”—an adjective seldom applied to the attorney general—seems to have weathered none of the tabloid-friendly personal issues that have plagued Paterson and Cuomo. Paterson, who is legally blind, publicly confessed to extramarital affairs when he succeeded disgraced governor Eliot Spitzer in March 2008, and has been dogged since by unsubstantiated rumors about his private life. Cuomo’s bitter 2003 divorce from Kerry Kennedy, of the famed political dynasty, was splashed on the front pages of the New York Post and the Daily News.
“One thing you can be pretty confident about,” Lazio says, “is that when you’re up against the Clinton machine, if there was anything that would be politically useful to have out there, it would be out there. And the last 10 years have been equally boring. Sadly.”
The thing is, if Paterson and Cuomo sufficiently damage each other in a scorched-earth primary battle that lasts till September 14, when the balloting finally takes place, the Republican could emerge as the most palatable choice for an otherwise disgusted and disaffected electorate—and Lazio, surprisingly enough, could find himself New York’s 56th governor.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.