D'Amato straddles `pothole' politics and national agenda. Senator known for getting the `bacon' is gaining stature on drugs, housing

Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York still isn't exactly a household name. But his tenacious approach to a few pet issues - particularly the nation's drug problems - and his willingness to criticize the Republican administration on these issues has brought Senator D'Amato, known for his local loyalty, respect on a national level.

Most observers agree, for example, that the appellation ``Senator Pothole'' - one who delivers favors to his constituents - still pertains. Mr. D'Amato unabashedly likes to furnish his New York voters with everything from highway projects to housing programs.

To be sure, the conservative Republican who emerged from a corrupt political machine has many critics who don't like his politics or his style.

D'Amato began his rise up the political ladder in Long Island's Nassau County as the prot'eg'e of Joseph M. Margiotta, head of the county's Republican Party. In 1983, Mr. Margiotta was sentenced to prison for federal mail fraud and extortion. D'Amato himself has been investigated but was never actually charged in the cases involving Margiotta. His name was also brought up in the Wedtech controversy when a former Wedtech executive testified that he made campaign contributions to the senator. D'Amato denies, however, any knowledge of illegalities regarding campaign contributions.

But despite questions about his ethics, New York's junior senator is making a name for himself. He is not a statesman-like orator or intellectual like his New York colleague, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D). But the word ``stature'' has begun to creep into conversations about D'Amato, and political observers say he has matured since he came to Washington in 1981.

The change in D'Amato is not dramatic, and is even erratic, says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. But, he says, there has been an evolution.

``His interests have begun to shift to where he's dealing with more national and international issues,'' says Mr. Ornstein, referring to D'Amato's criticism of the administration's efforts to oust Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, accused of involvement in drug trafficking.

D'Amato agrees that he has matured in eight years in the Senate. ``It's a whole new agenda,'' he says. ``I had no experience as it relates to foreign policy matters, international security matters [eight years ago]. There's a certain educational process that we go through in life, and it's no different for those who go to Congress.''

D'Amato says the ``pothole'' label - acquired during his initial days as a senator - is a little unfair.

``I think there's an awakening - if I might be so presumptious - that there's a lot more to Al D'Amato as a senator than just constituent service,'' he says.

In New York, D'Amato retains a solid approval rating of 59 percent, according to recent polls by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. And many New Yorkers like the fact that he does bring home the bacon.

``He's a good example of a working senator,'' says Mitchell Moss, director of the Urban Research Center at New York University. Dr. Moss adds that by capturing federal projects, thus jobs, for the state, D'Amato has proven vital to the well-being of the state economy, filling in the void left by the death of Congressman Joseph Addabbo (D), a champion at bringing federal contracts to the state.

Still, D'Amato's wheeling and dealing led the New Republic to write a profile of him entitled ``Senator Shakedown'' - implying he uses seedy tactics to get votes for the projects.

Even the national issues that D'Amato has picked - such as housing and drugs - have strong local repercussions. But it is in the area of drug issues that D'Amato has earned the most respect. For example, although previously criticized for focusing on controlling the supply side of drugs, he is favorably seen by many in the education and rehabilitation side now.

According to Doug Chiappetta, director of an umbrella organization for residential drug-free programs, D'Amato and his aides ``almost single-handedly'' developed the legislative language that promotes funding for residential programs.

D'Amato chuckles when asked if he has become a thorn in the side of the administration over the drugs issue. ``In the end, as long as it's not contrived ... they come to recognize it if it's true and it's real and it's substantial.''

He says many legislators privately tell him to keep up the work on some of his proposals. Recently, for example, D'Amato dropped his insistence that the current defense budget carry with it the death penalty for drug dealers so the bill would pass. He says that since then several politicians have told him to continue the fight.

``We made an accommodation [on the death penalty issue]. But what you've got to understand is how you can't do it all when you want to do it. And you learn that. That's a kind of maturing process.''

Most observers say this maturing has been inevitable - D'Amato has gained experience, works better with staff members, and has gained confidence, but he still turns first to his home turf.

The change is, says Moss, that D'Amato is now taken seriously, that he is a serious player, and he is persistent.

``D'Amato has done a smart job,'' says Jeff Stonecash, an associate professor at Syracuse University in New York. ``He's covered his constituent base first. Now with a stronger base and more visibility, he can go a little higher.''

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