Can Al D'Amato shed his bad-boy image during the Whitewater hearings this month? 'SENATOR CARTOON'


There was Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato last January, riding high on the GOP jet stream to power and position. He was now chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, chairman of the Republican senators' fund-raising committee.

He was now one of the most influential men in the Senate.

There would be no more singing "Old MacDonald had some pork" on the Senate floor. No more loud and showy productions with a giant "Taxasaurus" prop. No more Mad Dog D'Amato.

He would be a statesman now. A gentleman senator. A more dignified, less scrappy, less D'Amatoesque D'Amato.

And then . . .

Starry-eyed and once again feeling musical, he holds a news conference around Valentine's Day to announce that he's in love with wealthy New York gossip reporter Claudia Cohen, singing "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie." On the Don Imus radio show in April, he uses a Japanese accent to mock Lance Ito, the judge in the O. J. Simpson murder trial, and then goes on the Senate floor to apologize.

His colleagues in the august body roll their eyes. Again.

"You're not going to change a personality like Al D'Amato," says former New York congressman William Carney.

"He's a category unto himself," says a former Banking Committee staffer. "Senator Cartoon. He's bombastic. He's hilarious. He's a show."

Indeed, the 57-year-old junior senator from New York, who will wield the gavel when the Senate Banking Committee begins its hearings into the Whitewater case Tuesday, has been one of Washington's most controversial figures since he first brought what he understatedly calls his "earthy" style to the Senate in 1981.

Even he admits, as he ascends the power rungs of Washington, that bad boys tend to be bad boys.

"I probably should have made some efforts at being less colorful starting a couple of months ago, and I would have avoided putting my foot in my mouth as I did on the Imus show," the New York Republican says with a laugh. "I've been chastened by that, but I haven't done anything to change an image. I probably should have."

The histrionics, the nasal Brooklynese, the tendency to stand too close and talk too loud and wheel and deal too brazenly have earned him more nicknames than the whole gang of Little Rascals.

He is "the Bart Simpson of the Senate." The "prince of chintzy chutzpah." "Senator Pothole," a reference to his devotion to the most mundane constituent services. "Senator Shakedown" and "Senator Sleaze," less laudatory references to his reputation for strong-arming money out of lobbyists and a 1991 Senate ethics committee rebuke.

The embarrassments and ethics questions have taken a toll on his popularity at home. But not so his power as a politico. Over the last two years, Senator Pothole has set his gaze on a bigger avenue, taking some risks -- and, so far, winning.

In a major coup, he engineered the startling defeat last fall of Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo by plucking little-known Republican George E. Pataki out of the state Senate and pushing him on to victory.

Now the senator is hoping to take his political king-making to the national stage. Chairman of Bob Dole's national steering committee for the GOP presidential nomination, Mr. D'Amato has lined up New York's Republican machine behind the Senate majority leader, all but assuring Mr. Dole a primary victory in the vote-heavy state.

As the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he is building up chits within the Senate with his aggressive, even ruthless, fund-raising for his GOP colleagues. And he is poised to lead an investigation that could damage the president and help determine the outcome of the next election.

"It feels like he's in the catbird's seat right now," says William J. Feltus, staff director for the Senate Republican conference.

Mr. Feltus notes that Mr. D'Amato, in an unusually conciliatory move, sought agreement with Democrats in mapping out the scope of the Whitewater hearings. In fact, he believes that, the Ito gaffe notwithstanding, the senator's new clout fits him like a glove.

But much like O. J.'s provocative demonstration before the jury, the fit may be in the eye of the beholder.

Critics say Mr. D'Amato's considerable baggage -- most of all, a 1991 rebuke by the Senate ethics committee for letting his brother use his Senate office to lobby on behalf of a defense contractor -- undermines his credibility to run the Whitewater hearings.

"To have the most ethically-reprimanded senator now sitting presume to judge the ethics of anyone else, much less the president . . . boy, is this the pot calling the kettle black," says New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. D'Amato for his Senate seat in 1986.

The Washington Post called for Mr. D'Amato to withdraw from the Whitewater hearings.

"To have slash-and-burn Alfonse D'Amato, who also is Bob Dole's chief standard-bearer in the Senate, holding a spotlight on Bill Clinton intermittently throughout the year until the eve of the 1996 presidential primary season puts an unmistakably partisan cast on proceedings whose hallmark ought to be straight-and-narrow fairness," the Post said in an editorial.

"Oh, that's nonsense," Mr. D'Amato snaps in response. "I'm a United States senator, chairman of the Banking Committee. I have a responsibility. I'm going to carry it out in a very public way, a proper way, and you'll make your decisions as to the conduct of the hearings."

In the first round of hearings last summer, he was in rare form. "The White House has concealed, disguised and distorted the truth," he bellowed in outrage. And this: "What did the president know and when did Hillary tell him?"

These days, he says he wants to chair the hearings in a "thoughtful manner" and "avoid, wherever possible, political wrangling."

Those around him say he is well aware that to have any credibility at all, he will have to be fair-minded.

"Because of who he is and what people think of when they think of him, if he is obviously partisan and nasty, he won't be effective," says Michael J. Malbin, director of the Center for Legislative Studies at the State University of New York at Albany. "He realizes he's playing a very big-stakes game with


Beating the odds

He has defied the odds before.

Mr. D'Amato has not only survived, but prospered in the Senate through a combination of hard work, determination, unadulterated chutzpah and amazing luck.

Understanding Al D'Amato, in fact, is understanding his first campaign in 1980 when, as a little-known local politician in Nassau County, he unseated Republican elder statesman Jacob Javits in a brutal game of hardball politics.

"The only person who thought he could win was Al himself," says Mr. Carney, now a political consultant.

Others had refrained from exploiting Mr. Javits' degenerative neurological disease for political gain. Not the conservative upstart from the Long Island suburbs. His TV ads noted that Mr. Javits was 76 "and in failing health." And they worked.

After losing the primary, Mr. Javits ran on the Liberal Party ticket, splitting the state's majority Democratic vote. With a little help from Ronald Reagan's coattails, Mr. D'Amato slid on in.

In 1986, he spent more than $12 million to keep his seat in one of the most expensive Senate races ever.

And in 1992, spending a record $15 million (the average Senate campaign cost $4.3 million), he squeaked by with a lead of 1 percentage point over his challenger, New York attorney general Robert Abrams. "I can tell you how he got ahead," says Howard A. Scarrow, political science professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "It's the stupidity of his fellow politicians."

But the senator has also stayed afloat through political savvy, fashioning himself as a voice of working- and middle-class voters, and through his singlemindedness in delivering personal services for his state.

In a classic D'Amato moment, he held up a Senate recess in 1992 by staging a 15-hour filibuster to save 875 jobs at a New York typewriter factory. Earlier this year, he unleashed his trademark temper on the president of the Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., screaming and cursing at the executive, according to industry officials, in an effort to keep him from closing two New York plants.

Leaving issues of policy to his more cerebral New York counterpart, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the junior senator has admitted his priority is "seeing my state gets its fair share."

Former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, who calls his friend a "gifted" deal-maker, says that whenever the Reagan administration needed Mr. D'Amato's vote, the senator would hold out until the White House promised him something for New York state in return.

He is also gifted at blowing his own horn, often putting out press releases hailing accomplishments he had little or nothing to do with.

Former Republican congressman Guy V. Molinari of New York, who shared an apartment with Mr. D'Amato when both were Capitol Hill freshmen, recalls leading the charge in 1985 to persuade the Navy to locate its northeast port at Staten Island.

When the deal was done, Mr. Molinari says, he knew he had to act fast if he wanted any of the credit. "I knew I had a limited period of time to work the press," he says. "I knew once Al D'Amato got started, that would be the end of Guy Molinari."

Sure enough, "That night Al D'Amato was on every television set in New York," the former congressman notes with a chuckle.

Congress watchers say Mr. D'Amato is an equally aggressive fund-raiser, unabashed in his willingness to push an already very elastic envelope of campaign finance rules.

He has raised more money than any other senator for his campaigns, most of it from the banking and finance industries which, as chairman of the Banking Committee, he has a major hand in regulating.

Greg D. Kubiak, author of "The Gilded Dome: The U.S. Senate and Campaign Finance Reform," believes Mr. D'Amato "has taken the game of fund-raising to its logical conclusion of pressuring lobbyists and being on the edge of serious breaches of law, not just ethics standards."

Mark Green calls him "a walking quid pro quo."

But S. William Green, another former New York congressman, says the senator's fund-raising techniques are no different from those of any other New York politician. "If you want to raise money in New York," says the liberal Republican, "you go to Wall Street."

Still, allegations that he has used his office to gain special favors for contributors, friends and relatives have dogged him from his earliest days in office.

The Senate ethics committee spent two years examining a slate of 20 charges including allegations that the senator helped developers who had made illegal contributions to his campaign win a disproportionate share of grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 1991, the committee dismissed all charges except for one involving his brother, Armand, a Long Island lawyer who sent letters to the Pentagon under the senator's signature requesting a contract for a New York defense firm he represented.

Although the committee rebuked the senator, saying he had "conducted the business of his office in an improper and inappropriate manner," Mr. D'Amato considered the slap on the wrist an exoneration.

But questions about his ethics and fund-raising still shadow him.

In April, Joseph Asaro, a former Sweet 'N Low executive and reputed organized-crime associate, pleaded guilty to making $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions -- much of it to Mr. D'Amato. The senator's staff said Mr. D'Amato was not aware of the illegal contributions, nor of his benefactor's alleged mob ties.

In May, a federal judge ruled that the village of Island Park, the small working-class community on Long Island where Mr. D'Amato grew up, manipulated a HUD program to reward the politically connected and keep out minorities. A village clerk testified that Mr. D'Amato ordered him to make sure one of the homes went to a D'Amato cousin. The senator denied it.

While he seems to weather such ethics storms in Congress, the lingering clouds have dampened his popularity back home. "He hasn't weathered them in the arena of public opinion," says New York pollster Lee Miringoff. "As allegations of ethical impropriety went up, his approval rating went down."

In a May New York Times poll, he received only a 24 percent approval rating among registered New York voters, and a 45 percent disapproval rating.

"Lots of people don't like him," acknowledges his friend, Mr. Koch.

But the mayor-turned-talk-show host believes it is a "class issue," a matter of prejudice against the senator's southern, rather than northern, Italian roots. "I told him, to get in good with the chi-chi people he should learn to speak Etruscan," says Mr. Koch. "I think he's going to go work on it."

But he may not need language lessons to get in with the Armani and Park Avenue set, not since recently divorcing his wife, Penelope, the mother of his four children (who used to buy clothes at Salvation Army to save the family money) and taking up with glamorous TV gossip reporter Claudia Cohen, $80 million richer since her split with Revlon executive Ronald O. Perelman.

Now, the one-time "pasta and polyester" politician parties in the Hamptons. "Now he's society," says a critic who believes the uptown move may be the downfall for the self-styled representative of working-class New York.

But somehow, the new upscale love seems to fit with the new authority, the new clout, the new gavel that he will wield with the spotlight squarely on him this week.

He says he would be "naive" not to expect the Democrats to try to shift the focus from the president's Whitewater mess to his own brushes with controversy.

"If that's what they attempt to do, too bad," he says.

With an almost Nixonian flourish, he adds, "I am not the issue -- and I don't intend to be the issue."

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