Candidate Lazio owes debt of gratitude to selfless DioGuardi

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 12, 2000

If Rick Lazio does come from behind and becomes the junior Senator from New York defeating Hillary Clinton, he will owe his election in part to a decent gesture on the part of an old political warhorse who put his country above political ambition. New York is one a handful of states where candidates for office can run on multiple party lines. For many years the Liberal Party beat the Democrats in New York into submission until that party became sufficiently liberal. The Liberal Party always threatened to run different candidates from the Democratic Party - thus potentially defeating the ticket - if the Democrats were not liberal enough. There were a fair number of conservative, old-line Democrats in New York back then. Not any more. The Democrats got the message.

Then in the 1960's, in the era when Nelson Rockefeller dominated New York Republican politics, the Conservative Party was formed. It made the same threat against the Republicans. Unless the Republican nominees were conservative enough, the Conservative Party would run a separate candidate and virtually ensure the defeat of the Republican candidate. In 1970, James Buckley (now a federal judge) was elected Senator on the Conservative Party ticket, defeating the Democratic candidate and the Republican incumbent, Senator Charlie Goodell. Indeed in the past twenty years no Republican has won statewide office without also running on the Conservative Party line.

Well, Rudy Giuliani had been elected Mayor of New York City running on the Republican and Liberal party lines. He proposed to run his candidacy for the Senate on the same two party lines. The Conservative party was outraged.

They had been the reliable ally of the Republicans for two decades and Giuliani told them to take a flying leap. He wouldn't even meet with their leader Mike Long.

So former Congressman Joe DioGuardi stepped into the picture. DioGuardi was famous in the 1980's for defeating Bella Abzug in her try at returning to the House. Since that time he had also tried to return to Congress but failed. Nevertheless, under these circumstances DioGuardi was a credible candidate, and was so treated by the New York media when he announced his candidacy. He would have been able to get the Conservative Party line, the Right to Life Party (that party provided Al D'Amato with his margin of victory in the three-way Senate race of 1980), and the Independent Party (which will likely field Pat Buchanan on the presidential line in New York State). Running on those three party lines DioGuardi would have had a minimum of six percent of the vote, perhaps as high as 10 percent of the vote statewide. With a break, if both candidates stumbled, he even had an outside shot of turning the race into a three-way contest.

That was the way Hillary Clinton could have been elected Senator from New York. Every poll taken showed she could get 45% of the vote. Few had her much higher. With a third party conservative in the race draining votes away from Giuliani, he would have been hard pressed to win.

Well, Giuliani is history as far as that Senate race is concerned. In stepped Congressman Rick Lazio. Lazio is a moderate. DioGuardi is a genuine conservative. Immediately, strong conservatives begged DioGuardi to stay in the race. He might have deprived Lazio of the Conservative Party nomination had he done so. At minimum he would have cost Lazio a lot of money to have to fight for that party's nomination while he needed to spend every dime against Hillary Clinton. DioGuardi was virtually guaranteed the Right to Life party's nomination and had a good shot at the Independent Party nomination as well. He had every right to stay in the race. He got in while Lazio was pacing the floor in the shadows wondering what Giuliani would do next.

Instead DioGuardi called Mike Long and told him he would support Lazio. He called the Right to Life party and begged to be let off the hook. He informed the Independent Party he was backing the Republican candidate.

Lazio could not have been happier. Governor George Pataki called DioGuardi and personally invited him to be at the GOP convention. (DioGuardi and GOP leaders have been at odds for years).

It was a tough call for DioGuardi. He had wanted to run. He had some financial resources. He had supporters pleading with him to stay in. He loves the campaign trail. Instead, he put aside his pride and backed Lazio, knowing that Lazio, if he had the Conservative and Independent Party nominations, would have a real shot at defeating Hillary Clinton. (The Right to Life party will still likely field a candidate but the candidate will likely not have the stature or credibility of DioGuardi).

"I thought about it. My heart told me I should run. My head thought about Hillary Clinton in the Senate. It was the right decision," DioGuardi said.

Because DioGuardi moved immediately, Lazio was able to get a rip-roaring start to his campaign for the Senate. Had he had to worry about those minor party nominations and had his position on those tickets been in doubt, it would have thrown his race into confusion.

Hillary Clinton is a formidable candidate. New York is a Democratic state. Hillary is a celebrity. New Yorkers love celebrities. Al Gore is way ahead in New York in the presidential race. Whether Lazio - who, despite recent polls showing the race a tight contest, is still the underdog - will be able to defeat the First Lady is an open question. But if he does, he will owe a considerable debt to Joe DioGuardi. How he treats DioGuardi if he is the next Senator from New York will tell us a lot about his character.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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