Amid political glitz, an everyday guy

He's no star, but the Long Islander brings an earnest style to battling a first lady for the Senate.

In June of 1976, the dance rage was the hustle. The West Islip Lions, the high school football team, had a mediocre year, but the girls' swim team was champ. And one of the graduating seniors was a young man, Enrico Lazio, who did not make much of an impression on anyone besides the stamp club at the time.

"He wasn't a bully or a tough guy, he was just a regular guy," recalls Justin Lite, who grew up on the same block.

Rick Lazio, a.k.a. Mr. Nice Guy. The same Mr. Lazio now running for the US Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton. In an era of celebrity candidacies and millionaires with inflated bank accounts, Lazio represents another genre of politician today - the earnest everyday man.

"He's typical of some of the new members of Congress - approachable, young, and educated," says Diane Casey, president of America's Community Bankers in Washington.

The question is whether the man who many say is a true Boy Scout can take on a national figure, who has all the benefits and baggage that brings.

Certainly, Lazio won't be outworked. Underneath the youthful looks is a suburban boy who made it to the top through long hours and a lot of shoe leather. Words used to describe his eight years in Congress include "clean, honest, accessible."

"He's a very likable guy, very personable, a New Yorker, which is kind of like an acquired taste," says Charles Cook, an independent political analyst.

He got the work ethic and the interest in politics from his father, Tony, who ran an auto parts store in Lindenhurst, N.Y., and worked for the Suffolk County Republican Party. To earn extra money when he was growing up, Rick would lug mufflers from the back of the store for customers.

Another thing Lazio has going for him is an Empire-State-size ambition.

He announced his interest in the seat almost immediately after Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced he would step down. While New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dithered over whether to run, Lazio kept the pressure on.

Mr. Cook estimates Lazio's staff has sent him more than 150 e-mails in the past year. "I've gotten more e-mails from him than any other candidate for the House or Senate," says Cook.

While Lazio may be politically ambitious, he has developed a reputation as a right-leaning moderate in Congress, where he serves on two key committees - the House Banking and Commerce Committees. He is chair of the subcommittee on Housing.

It's in housing that Lazio has made his mark. Six years ago, he shouldered the task of rewriting the nation's public-housing law. "There had been no housing bill for many years, because the issues were very contentious," recalls Alfred DelliBovi, former deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

After meeting with experts and traveling around the US, Lazio's subcommittee sent on legislation that is just now having an impact.

Among Lazio's changes: allowing some higher-income people in public housing. "The critics claimed it was the gentrification of public housing, but Rick understood that if someone gets an entry-level job, you just can't kick them out of public housing," says Mr. DelliBovi.

DelliBovi says the legislation is also illustrative of how Lazio attacks a problem. He asks a lot of questions, reaching out to people on both sides of an issue. "He takes his time, gets to know the stuff himself - he does not read a one-page briefing paper and then try to wing it," says DelliBovi.

Lobbyists describe Lazio as accessible and willing to listen. "Even when he voted against us, he was willing to listen to our concerns," says Ms. Casey.

His voting pattern does not fit easily into a category. While he gets high marks from the US Chamber of Commerce (89 out of 100), he also is praised by environmentalists. In the past, the League of Conservation Voters has endorsed him.

One reason may be his pro-environment stands. He was a leader in the House opposition to an attempt to allow mountain-top strip miners to ignore federal environmental laws. "He's gone out of his way to support environmental legislation," says Chris Meyer of the US Public Interest Research Group. But he notes that Lazio also voted against the Patient's Bill of Rights. Overall, US PIRG gives Lazio a 56 percent rating - one of the highest for New York Republicans.

That Lazio even made it to Congress is somewhat surprising. In 1992 he took on Democrat Tom Downey, who had held the seat for 18 years. Mr. Downey was one of many congressmen to get caught kiting checks that year.

Lazio, who was running behind in the polls just weeks before the election, successfully hammered at Downey for the checking affair and for his frequent trips overseas. Since Lazio won his seat in Congress, no Democrat has come close to challenging him.

One reason is that he is a relentless campaigner. After Mr. Giuliani bowed out of the competition, reporters joked that the pace of the Senate race had suddenly gone from 0 to 60.

Asked if Lazio had any interest in sports, New York Rep. Jack Quinn (R), who entered the House the same year as Lazio, replies, "Yes, his sport is politics."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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