New York's Veteran 'Senator Pothole' Gets Run Over by Schumer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 1998; Page A33
NEW YORK, Nov. 3 — For nearly two decades, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato played politics on the edge of a cliff.
A Republican in a Democratic state, he dared to annoy New York voters by scolding President Clinton and his wife in acidly partisan hearings into the Whitewater affair.
An antiabortion activist in a state favoring abortion rights, he fuzzed over his conservatism by delivering federal pork and selling himself as "Senator Pothole."
A relentless fund-raiser in a city where the world keeps its money, he managed to defeat Democrats three straight times by outspending, out-attacking and out-hustling them.
But today, in his fourth attempt at living dangerously, Senator Pothole was finally pushed off the cliff by Rep. Charles E. Schumer, the sharp-elbowed son of a Brooklyn exterminator who plotted a pugnacious campaign that let no D'Amato attack go unanswered.
The result was a frantic and frequently ugly race that subjected New Yorkers to two months of incessant TV commercials that, according to late polls, soured the stomachs of many voters and raised the negative feelings they had for both candidates.
In an acceptance speech tonight – the live television broadcast of which was turned off at D'Amato's election-night headquarters – Schumer tried to smooth over the brickbats of a campaign that almost daily accused D'Amato of being a liar, a bully and a sleaze.
"As hard as I fought to win this election, I will fight even harder to show you that politics can be a noble undertaking," Schumer said, adding that he did not want young people to confuse the "rough and tumble of the campaign" with the "rewards of public service."
The Schumer campaign, however, made no apologies for the bruising character of the race. "We gave them some of their own medicine," said Hank Morris, Schumer's principal campaign strategist.
D'Amato's concession speech followed Schumer's speech because, as the senator explained it, he got caught for 25 minutes in an elevator in the New York Hilton on the way down to a ballroom partially filled with supporters. Without visible bitterness, the senator congratulated Schumer and encouraged his backers to support the Democrat for the good of New York.
"He is our senator and we want him to be effective," D'Amato said in a remarkably short, but sunny speech.
On his way in and out of the ballroom, however, D'Amato brushed quickly past his supporters without comment and without shaking hands.
At Schumer's jubilant election-night party in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, who lost to the Republican incumbent in 1986, shouted that "the era of D'Amato is over."
D'Amato's greatest weakness going into the election was the strong negative reaction his name evoked among more than 60 percent of New York voters. Voter perception of the senator's ethics problems included awareness of a Senate ethics committee rebuke in 1991 for allowing his brother to use Senate stationery to write a letter to a client, as well as a widespread belief that D'Amato's legislative muscle could be purchased with large campaign contributions.
D'Amato went after Schumer the day after the congressman cruised to a primary victory in mid-September. The senator's television ad campaign – the spine of his election effort – sought to tar Schumer as a liberal from Brooklyn who does not care about upstate New Yorkers and whose senatorial ambitions had blinded him to his responsibility to show up in Congress and vote.
Schumer, as part of a campaign that he planned for two years, attacked D'Amato as a conservative senator whose anti-gun-control views are radically different from those of most New Yorkers.
At the same time, Schumer presented himself as a moderate Democrat and accomplished legislator who will look after New York's interests without embarrassing the state, as he claimed D'Amato has, with "too many lies for too long."
In the campaign's main unscripted event – which for a few days actually drowned out the accumulated bile of TV attack ads – D'Amato stumbled by calling Schumer a "putz head" in a meeting with Jewish supporters.
When asked if he had uttered the Yiddish slur, the senator initially denied it. Then he angrily contended all he meant to say was that he believes Schumer is a "fool." The Yiddish term literally means "penis head" but often is used with the softer meaning of fool.
The Democratic congressman seized on the incident, framing it as part of a career-long pattern of mendacity by D'Amato and buying air time to broadcast news clips of D'Amato denying he uttered the word. That ad was broadcast across the state tonight before the polls closed.
D'Amato and Schumer have tapped contributors for more money – $37.8 million – than any two candidates in the history of congressional elections. The 1994 Senate race in California between Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and then-Rep. Michael Huffington (R) ended up costing considerably more, $44.4 million. Much of that money, however, came from Huffington's personal fortune.
The prime reason for the fund-raising success of both Senate candidates in New York has been their much-polished skill in extracting big money from the place where the big money is – Wall Street. D'Amato, who raised $24.5 million, is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Schumer is a senior minority member of the House Banking Committee. Both men have been reliable minders of the legislative interests of the securities industry.
Although D'Amato outspent his opponent in the last two months by nearly 2 to 1, he was not able – as he was in previous races – to dominate the airwaves. Schumer, having raised more than any Senate challenger since Republican Oliver L. North spent $20.6 million in 1994 in losing to Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) in Virginia, bought TV time to respond to every wave of D'Amato attack ads.
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