When Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, convened Washington lobbyists late last year to meet Alfonse M. D'Amato, the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he joked that Mr. D'Amato was the only senator who, when raising funds, "doesn't take yes for an answer."
Laughter filled the packed room at the NRSC's offices, though for many in the audience it was an old story. In a decade and a half in Washington, the New York Republican once known as "Senator Pothole" has earned a reputation as a prodigious fund-raiser for whom nothing succeeds like excess.
In a city where money and power go together like roses and love, Mr. D'Amato is sitting pretty. He is chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, traditionally a powerful magnet for special-interest money. He is the national See steering committee chairman for Mr. Dole's presidential drive and helped deliver critical early support to him in New York. As NRSC chairman, he is poised to play a big role in the 1996 Senate campaigns. And he's now widely regarded as the most influential politician in his home state after leading the push last year to install an obscure state senator, George E. Pataki, in the governor's mansion.
Mr. D'Amato "has managed to parlay a number of positions, each important in themselves, into an extraordinary power base," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "He has now moved from being simply one of the most parochial members of Congress . . . to a major political figure in the party and in the country."
Mr. D'Amato's clout is the more remarkable because he nearly lost his seat in 1992, after being rebuked by the Senate Select Ethics Committee for letting his brother use his Senate office for personal business.
His political resurrection isn't a complete surprise. Colleagues describe him as tenacious, driven and a fighter.
"He has almost unbridled energy," said Paul Coverdell of Georgia, the NRSC vice chairman. "He almost reminds you of a boxer in a ring."
But Mr. D'Amato's critics say that his aggressiveness in fund raising goes too far and that he could be headed for another fall.
In April, Joseph Asaro, a reputed organized crime figure and former executive with New York City-based Cumberland Packing Corp., which manufactures Sweet'n Low, was indicted for a multimillion-dollar campaign financing scheme that kicked more than $58,000 into Mr. D'Amato's campaign coffers.
Mr. Asaro, who was the chief lobbyist for the sweetener manufacturer, has been described in court papers as an associate of the Bonanno crime family and ringleader of a "massive fraud invoicing scheme" to conceal more than $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions to several politicians over a decade.
Mr. D'Amato received more than $58,000 of those contributions from 1985 to 1992 from Mr. Asaro and other company officials.
There has been no allegation that Mr. D'Amato knew the contributions were illegal, and Mr. D'Amato said that any contributions deemed inappropriate will be returned. An investigation is continuing, according to Newsday.
Saccharin, the chief ingredient in Sweet'n Low, was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 1977, but Congress has placed a moratorium on enforcing the ban.
Mr. D'Amato has been a key sponsor of legislation to sustain the moratorium, but he has denied that there was any link between the legislation and the contributions.
"D'Amato could be the poster child for the rotten campaign finance system on Capitol Hill," said Ann McBride, president of the lobby group Common Cause.
Mr. D'Amato's national profile is likely to rise even further when the banking committee launches hearings into the Whitewater investigation. But the hearings could carry political risks for him -- and for the Republican Party -- if Democrats try to use the proceedings to point out Mr. D'Amato's own track record on ethics questions.
"I think he's perceived by some to be a loose cannon," said James Thurber, a political scientist at the American University. "That worries some people in the Republican Party and delights people in the Democratic Party because he becomes an issue."
Mr. D'Amato expresses no concern. "The fact of the matter is that I thrive on increased responsibility," he said. "I want to make a difference while I'm here. . . . I'm doing the things that bring me enjoyment and fulfillment."
During his early years in the Senate, Mr. D'Amato hardly seemed destined for national prominence. The son of an insurance salesman, he had earned a law degree from Syracuse University in 1961. After trying unsuccessfully to get a job on Wall Street, he wound up as a law clerk in the Nassau County attorney's office on Long Island. From there, he worked his way up through the Long Island Republican political machine, winning election in 1971 as a Hempstead town supervisor and in 1977 as presiding supervisor -- a post that is equivalent to mayor.
In 1980, Mr. D'Amato successfully challenged Jacob K. Javits, New York's legendary 76-year-old liberal Republican senator, in the GOP primary. That November, he won 45 percent of the vote against Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman and Mr. Javits, who ran on the Liberal Party ticket.
In Washington, Mr. D'Amato soon earned a reputation for sticking to parochial issues and bringing home the bacon -- and making sure that his constituents knew about it. "He always paid careful attention to local projects," said Michael J. Malbin, director of the Center for Legislative Studies at the State University of New York at Albany.
Even today, analysts say, Mr. D'Amato is not driven much by strong ideological convictions or policy objectives. "I think he loves the game, and the motivation is the game," said Mr. Mann of Brookings. And for Mr. D'Amato, collecting political contributions has been an important part of the process.
As a freshman, Mr. D'Amato was named chairman of the Banking Subcommittee on Securities, a post that he used to block or weaken legislation that was anathema to Wall Street interests. The securities industry soon became one of his leading financial backers. According to the Wall Street Journal, he raised more than $500,000 from the industry's political action committees (PACs) and from executives of securities firms from 1981 through mid-1986. (In November 1986, he lost his subcommittee chairmanship when Democrats regained the Senate majority.)
The Journal also reported that in 1985, Drexel Burnham Lambert Group Inc., the nation's leading junk-bond underwriter, put on a $1,000-a-plate dinner for Mr. D'Amato just a week before he planned to hold hearings on a measure that would have curbed federally regulated thrifts from buying these high-yield, high-risk securities. Mr. D'Amato had promised to support such a proposal but later dropped it from legislation he offered. He denied there was any connection between the Drexel dinner and his action.
For his 1986 re-election campaign, Mr. D'Amato raised $12.9 million; his opponent, Mark Green, a former aide to Ralph Nader, raised only $1.6 million.
Mr. D'Amato's ascent to the NRSC chairmanship is testimony to his dogged fund raising, particularly his spadework in the 1994 campaigns.
Mr. D'Amato personally oversaw fund-raising events for John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee and several other GOP candidates.
The previous NRSC chairman, Phil Gramm of Texas, used the committee as a stepping stone to a presidential campaign. But Mr. D'Amato is likely to use the position "not to build himself up as a candidate but a power broker in Washington," Mr. Malbin said.
Democrats and some lobbyists charge that Mr. D'Amato is using hardball tactics to rake in donations. "Our donors say to us that he's more aggressive in pursuing money and making the connections between money and legislation than anything they've ever seen before," said Donald J. Foley, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Scoffing at charges
Mr. D'Amato scoffed at the notion that he exerts too much pressure, calling it "absolute nonsense." Wooing contributors isn't terribly hard, he said; many PACS gave to Democrats not because "they liked them" but out of "enlightened self-interest." What's more, the NRSC raises 63 percent of its money from small contributors, he said.
Mr. D'Amato has assumed the banking committee chairmanship the panel is slated to consider a major restructuring of the financial services business. The House Banking and Financial Services Committee has approved legislation that would allow banks and securities firms to affiliate through parent holding companies -- an arrangement now forbidden under the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act.
Mr. D'Amato wants to go even further. He is backing a bill that would allow a much broader range of companies to affiliate with banks. The legislation tracks closely a proposal by the Financial Services Council, a group of leading Wall Street investment houses, big banks and major corporations.
Some financial service industry lobbyists say they doubt that Mr. D'Amato will do much on the issue this year -- and that financial considerations may be the reason. "The longer the bill hangs out there and the more industries are potentially affected by it, the larger the fund-raising target," an industry lobbyist said.
In July, the banking committee is likely to be preoccupied with the Whitewater hearings. The proceedings will be bipartisan, Mr. D'Amato said. "They're going to be fair and they're going to be thorough."
But some observers predict that Mr. D'Amato's past could come back to haunt him during the hearings. From his earliest days in public office, Mr. D'Amato has repeatedly faced questions about his ethics.
As a county official in the 1970s, Mr. D'Amato was a protege of the GOP's county boss, Joseph M. Margiotta, whose empire crumbled in 1983 when he started serving a two-year prison term on federal mail fraud and extortion charges. For years, Margiotta had coerced county workers into kicking back 1 percent of their salaries into party coffers. He also pressured insurance brokers who handled policies for the county and the town of Hempstead into dividing their commissions with GOP politicians.
Mr. D'Amato was implicated but not charged in the insurance scam. As a Hempstead supervisor, Mr. D'Amato "would appoint or dismiss" brokers on instructions from Margiotta, according to the report of a grand jury that investigated the county boss. At the time, Mr. D'Amato said he knew nothing about kickbacks. But years later, a letter that he wrote to Margiotta in 1971 surfaced; in it, Mr. D'Amato said that a county employee's raise would be approved "if he took care of 1 percent."
Mr. D'Amato figured prominently in the scandals that surrounded the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department. As a member of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversaw funds for HUD, he had enormous influence over the appointments of HUD regional directors who dispensed hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to New York and Puerto Rico, and critics accused him of helping campaign donors and friends obtain grants.
According to the Wall Street Journal articles in 1989, Mr. D'Amato pushed a request for subsidized housing units in Puerto Rico about a month after several Puerto Rican developers gave him a total of $18,000 on the same day in February 1987.
Mr. Dole sometimes refers to Mr. D'Amato as "King Alfonse" -- and no wonder. In the aftermath of the 1994 New York governor's race, Mr. D'Amato is the reigning Republican in the nation's second most populous state on the eve of a presidential election year.
Mr. Pataki, a state senator without much fund-raising experience, was deemed a long shot against Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo until Mr. D'Amato took an interest in his candidacy.
Mr. Pataki, a Yale graduate, appeared bland alongside the hard-charging Mr. D'Amato, but the two formed an effective partnership. Perhaps more important, Mr. D'Amato tapped his network of supporters, helping Mr. Pataki to raise $13 million more than Mr. Cuomo did.
If Mr. D'Amato is the monarch of the New York GOP, his popularity with rank-and-file voters seems to be slipping. A New York Times poll in early May found that only 24 percent of the registered voters gave him a favorable rating.
Still, Mr. D'Amato -- who calls Mr. Dole a "hero" and "role model" -- has used his New York connections to give a big boost to Mr. Dole's presidential campaign. This spring, he rounded up endorsements from Mr. Pataki, all 14 of the state's GOP House members and the state legislature.
Because of New York's complicated ballot qualification rules, Mr. Dole was able to get onto the ballot in his 1988 presidential campaign in only about two-thirds of New York's congressional districts. With the backing of the party apparatus, he's assured of having delegate slates in every district. That will give him an "enormous" leg up in New York, Mr. Dole said in an interview.
Mr. D'Amato also had a big hand in putting together a New York fund-raiser for Mr. Dole in April that pulled in more than $1.5 million.
Thriving on work
Mr. D'Amato says he is confident that he can juggle all his responsibilities. "When I work 18-20 hours, that's recreation to me," he said.
He says he has learned some lessons from the ethics committee investigation. "I make mistakes like everybody else, but hopefully I'm big enough to admit it," he said. "You have to be conscious of appearances that can be hurtful."
Mr. D'Amato is certainly not letting critics interfere with his frenetic pace. There was a flurry of negative stories this spring when he made a crude ethnic joke about the Japanese-American judge in the O. J. Simpson case, but he apologized and the story seems to have faded.
Some analysts say that Mr. D'Amato is following a path charted by others. Congress has as a "history of leaders who have done very well in bringing in money and redistributing it," American University's Mr. Thurber said.
He noted that Mr. Dole and two of his predecessors as Senate party leaders -- Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen -- helped solidify their power with political fund raising. Mr. Thurber cautioned, however, that such practices are increasingly "what American people are upset about" when they look at Washington.
Peter Stone is a reporter for the National Journal, from which this article is adapted.