D'Amato Slurs Schumer
By Blaine Harden
The nation's closest and nastiest Senate race has downshifted yet again, with the Republican incumbent, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, labeling his Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles E. Schumer, with a vulgar Yiddish insult at a breakfast with Jewish leaders.
The remark, made Tuesday, was seized upon today by Schumer, who called it a "cheap slur against me." He linked the insult to D'Amato's claim earlier this week to be more committed than Schumer to helping survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. He also challenged the senator to "have the guts to use that same slur to my face" when the two meet for debates this weekend.
The Brooklyn congressman, who is Jewish and who polls show is locked in a dead heat with D'Amato, also accused the Italian American senator of lying by denying that he used the insult, "putzhead," which is rough slang referring to the male member, but in colloquial American usage can also mean "jerk."
The incident comes in the homestretch of the most expensive Senate race in the nation, with D'Amato spending nearly $6 million a month since September, mostly on TV attack ads, and Schumer spending roughly half that amount on the same kind of highly negative ads. D'Amato has accused Schumer of being a Brooklyn liberal who cares more about sending foreign aid to Mongolia than attending to the needs of New Yorkers. Schumer accuses D'Amato, among other things, of being a chronic liar.
Asked several times this morning by reporters if he had called Schumer a "putzhead," D'Amato was animated but equivocal as he walked away from reporters: "I don't know. I don't remember. It certainly was not for any public, eh. . . ."
Responding to the same question a few minutes later, the senator said: "I have no knowledge of ever doing it. I just don't. I think it is ridiculous. I think [Schumer] is probably pretty desperate and that is why when you ask me . . . I have no knowledge of it. I would never, I have not engaged in that. I wouldn't engage in it. It's wrong. I haven't done it. Why I am going to do it now? It's ridiculous."
This evening, though, D'Amato acknowledged using the word. In a "Dear Chuck" letter that he sent to Schumer and made available to reporters, D'Amato wrote:
"The Yiddish word I used to describe you at a private meeting means 'fool.' Again, you are trying to twist that into a religious slur . . . I stand by my remark 100 percent . . . I urge you to stop this transparent politically motivated attack immediately."
According to two people at the breakfast, one of whom is former New York mayor Edward I. Koch, D'Amato also mocked a Schumer ally, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y), by calling him Jerry "Waddler," an apparent reference to the Manhattan congressman's weight.
D'Amato then waddled around in a circle, making fun of Nadler's girth, according to Koch and one Jewish leader at the breakfast who did not want his name used. The Jewish leader said that while many at the breakfast "giggled" at the "putzhead" comment, they "reacted a little more negatively, without any giggling" to the senator's imitation of Nadler.
Nadler demanded an apology from D'Amato for what he called "a pattern of contempt" for Schumer, himself and "all New Yorkers."
Koch, an active supporter of D'Amato, said he does not consider the senator's comments at the breakfast on the 27th floor of a Park Avenue high rise to be "inappropriate."
"It was in the context of Schumer having called him a liar. Schumer has engaged in vile language," Koch said.
The former mayor also defended D'Amato for mocking Nadler.
"I think he was being jocular and serious at the same time," Koch said. "Jerry is extremely heavy. His friends are worried about his health. I think that is what the senator was conveying."
The furor over the senator's breakfast remarks oddly echoes a statement that helped decide the 1992 Senate race here between D'Amato and then-state attorney general Robert Abrams, his Democratic challenger.
Abrams called D'Amato a "fascist" at an October political rally and refused to apologize for it for several weeks. D'Amato seized on the remark, calling it "inexcusable" attack on his Italian heritage and demanding an apology. Analysts said the incident contributed to Abrams's narrow defeat.
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