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The Soul of a New Machine Politician

Al D'Amato, the Senate's leading shakedown artist.

Last March Senator Alfonse D'Amato was having din- dinner at his favorite restaurant in New York City's Little Italy when he was told he had a phone call from President Reagan. The president was personally calling senators to line up support for an upcoming vote on the MX missile, a cornerstone of the administration's defense buildup. The outcome very likely could be decided by a single vote. 

“Molinari, you creep, cut this bullshit out,” D'Amato barked into the phone at Reagan. New York Representative Guy Molinari, a friend of D'Amato, only minutes earlier had made a crank call to D'Amato's table, pretending he was Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. D’Amato thought it was Molinari calling again. After Reagan had convinced D'Amato that it was indeed the president of the United States speaking, the senator listened to Reagan’s pitch for the MX.  

When lobbying D’Amato, White House officials had come to expect adventure. Four months before, in November 1984, when the White House solicited D’Amato’s support on an earlier MX vote, D’Amato had delivered a blunt message to the president. He would vote with the administration only if Reagan would do him a favor: provide $140 million to hire more customs agents and Coast Guard personnel to combat drug smuggling in New York. The White House staff was shaken. They had given into D'Amato on occasions too numerous to count, trading grant money, extra appropriations, and favors for New York in exchange for D'Amato's votes. “He always had a long shopping list ready whenever we approached him,” says a former senior White House official. “He never just voted one for the Gipper without asking for anything in return.” Mike Kinsella, D'Amato's administrative assistant, confirms that the senator routinely asks the White House for tit-for-tat deals. Recalling the incident when D'Amato mistook the president for a crank caller, Kinsella said, “Alfonse was so nonplussed ... he forgot to ask him [Reagan] for his usual trade.” To ensure that no opportunity to extract a favor from the White House goes untapped, D'Amato had New York State's lobbyist in Washington compile a wish list of the state's needs. 

White House officials did not like the fact that D'Amato had put the squeeze on the president. They talked of calling the senator's bluff. But knowing the vote on the controversial missile was going to be a close one, they finally decided to give D'Amato the additional customs agents.

Would D'Amato have voted against the missile program, perhaps even casting the decisive vote to kill it, if the White House hadn't acquiesced to his demands? “Yes,” says Mike Hathaway, the senator's former national security adviser and current staff director of the Helsinki Commission. “The senator goes eyeball-to-eyeball with the White House all the time. If he ever blinked first—even just once—he wouldn't have any credibility to deal again.” Bruce Ray, D'Amato's legislative chief, agrees. “If the White House had told him to get lost, I have no doubt he would have walked right out onto the floor and voted 'present.'“

D'Amato originally denied to me that the deal ever took place. “Listen, kid,” he said before we even sat down for an interview, “I don't make deals. You understand? Never.” He then started imitating the “Saturday Night Live” character Mr. Bill, talking in a comical, high-pitched manner: “If you vote for me, I'll vote for you. Do me a favor, I do you a favor.” D'Amato reverted to his own voice and started yelling: “I don't do things that way, kid. All right?”

I WOULD LIKE to believe the senator. He is personable and plainspoken, a rarity in Washington politics. But after our first conversation I spoke with some nine people—including White House officials, lobbyists, reporters, and four of D'Amato's aides—who told me of their firsthand knowledge of D'Amato's trading his vote. When I spoke with D'Amato again and told him what I had learned, he admitted discussing funds for new customs agents with White House officials. But he insisted he never asked for a specific quid pro quo: “I would have voted for the MX no matter what happened,” the senator now says.

In November 1984, however, D'Amato was telling a different story. He boasted to a convention of state and federal law enforcement officers in Syracuse, New York, that he definitely would have voted against the MX unless the White House came up with the extra $140 million. D'Amato told the drug agents that he did not agree to vote for the MX until two hours before the roll call, when he received a written guarantee about the extra funds. When shown a newspaper account of his remarks, D'Amato again changed his story, saying that, yes, he really would have voted against the MX. He said he shook down the president only because drugs are “the greatest problem this country faces.”

D'Amato's vote trading has won him a certain notoriety on Capitol Hill. At a recent gathering of Republican Party activists. Senate Majority Whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming asserted he was “not a bagman” for costly Western water projects. D'Amato was also present at the gathering and laughed. Then Simpson pointed good-naturedly in D'Amato's direction, declaring, “If you want to hear a real bagman, go to AI D'Amato.” But there are others who prefer to drop the whole subject. “You print a story saying that we have done all these favors for D'Amato, and we'll have a dozen senators asking us for favors the next time we need them,” says a White House official. “We'll have chaos around here.”

An obvious question: New York might benefit from the favors D'Amato receives. But doesn't the nation as a whole suffer when every senator demands and gets these expensive special favors? Not at all, says Bruce Ray. “I'll tell you what I used to tell my students,” he adds (he was once a political science professor): “The only real definition of pork barrel is jobs for somebody else's district or state.” 

Al D'Amato is one of Washington's most remarkable success stories. With less than a year before he faces reelection for the first time. New York Democrats have yet to come up with a well-known opponent. Geraldine Ferraro and Brooklyn district attorney and former representative Elizabeth Holtzman, two potentially powerful challengers, have declined to make the race. Close associates of Ferraro say that advance polling showed she had little chance of winning. Meanwhile, D'Amato has amassed a six-million dollar campaign war chest to scare off other opponents.

How has this happened? After all, D'Amato himself says that when he came to Washington, he was viewed by many as a “Neanderthal—some corrupt cretin.” Before his election to the Senate he had spent his entire 20-year political career, first as a minor cog and later as a key lieutenant, in the corrupt political machine headed by Republican boss Joseph Margiotta. Margiotta has dominated political life in Nassau County on Long Island for more than two decades. Until he went to prison in 1953 on federal fraud and extortion charges, his suburban political machine closely resembled inner-city Democratic machines like those of Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia and Richard Daley of Chicago. D'Amato has adapted the ways and methods of machine politics and made them work for him here in Washington. More than any other reason, that is why Alfonse D'Amato could remain in the Senate for the next 30 years.

SHAKEDOWNS WERE a way of life in Margiotta's Nassau County. Municipal workers were required to kick back or “set aside” one percent of their salaries each year to the Republican machine to ensure their eligibility for raises and promotions. Even professors at the local community college had to ante up. At one time D'Amato denied that he knew about the practice when he served as the presiding supervisor of the town of Hempstead, * sprawling suburban community on Long Island. In sworn testimony to a grand jury that indicted three of the town s commissioners for the one percent scam, D'Amato said, “Officially and unofficially no one has ever come to me and complained to me and made known that type of policy... I would have certainly used my influence to see that it would not be collected.”

But in later civil litigation, a letter written by D'Amato surfaced, revealing that he not only knew about the institutionalized shakedowns, but participated in them as well, have spoken to Mr. Margiotta,” D'Amato wrote to a local Republican leader on behalf of a friend, “and he has indicated to me that the raise for Mr. Marcus of the Sanitation Department would be approved if he took care of the 1 percent. Accordingly, please find a check for $75. . . .”The jury in the civil suit concluded last August that between 1973 and 1976 the town of Hempstead, the Hempstead Republican Committee, and the Nassau County Republican Committee Were responsible for the one percent system. During that time, D'Amato was a Hempstead town supervisor.

Margiotta, D'Amato's mentor, went to jail for running a scheme in which insurance companies that wanted to do business with the county government were required to pay Kickbacks to prominent Republicans. The grand jury that indicted Margiotta also implicated D'Amato, It concluded that the illegal scheme partly relied on the “reasonable belief” by insurance firms that “the Presiding Supervisor of the Town of Hempstead . . . would appoint or dismiss as broker of record for the town . . . any person whom . . . Joseph Margiotta told him to.” Furthermore, if the insurance firm “did not make and continue to make the payments as directed by . . . Margiotta, it would not be appointed as broker of record for the town of Hempstead.” he presiding supervisor of Hempstead during the time “ted in the indictment was Alfonse D'Amato.

D'Amato and Margiotta financed D'Amato's long-shot campaign for the Senate in 1980 in the same way they had financed their local campaigns: from the people whose livelihood depended on the county. The Village Voice re- Ported that D'Amato received more than $100,000 for the •Republican primary alone “from Nassau and Hempstead contractors, employees, and other businesses that profit from the decisions he makes as presiding supervisor,” D’Amato's campaign was also helped by $80,000 in loans from a New York bank at interest rates eight points below “e prime rate of the time. D'Amato had previously placed eight million dollars of Hempstead's tax money in various ranches of the bank in interest-free accounts. He continued to do so even after a federal grand jury pointed out that had cost Hempstead's taxpayers more than three million dollars in interest payments.  

WITH THIS effective fund-raising operation, D’Amato, a political unknown outside of Nassau County, was able to keep pace with the fund-raising of incumbent Republican Jacob Javits, a 24-year veteran of the Senate, and Democratic nominee Elizabeth Holtzman, an eight-year veteran of the House. He used the money to flood the state with television commercials pointing out that Javits was in poor health. “And now, at age 76, and in failing health, he wants six more years,” an announcer declared.  

A grand jury investigated the bank loans to D’Amato’s 1980 campaign and cleared the senator of any wrongdoing. Another grand jury looking into the question of the coerced one percent payments accepted the senator’s word that he knew nothing of such things. (The letter he wrote proving otherwise did not surface until three years later.) The grand jury that implicated him in Margiotta’s kickback scheme declined to charge him. While D’Amato’s friends were busy fighting criminal convictions and prison sentences, he was elected to the Senate.  

D'AMATO'S SUCCESS is due in part to a kind of journalistic immunity. Although the Voice and Newsday published lengthy investigative stories about D'Amato's Nassau County transgressions before the 1980 election, the state's—and for that matter the nation's— “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, hardly printed a word about them.

Readers of the Times never learned that D'Amato's father obtained a $34,000-a-year seldom-show patronage job to “keep abreast of the current statistics in the field of economics as they apply to the county of Nassau.” Armand D'Amato claimed that his patronage job kept him so busy that he could only find time to manage the insurance firm he had run for the last 43 years on nights and weekends. But the business did not seem to suffer. The firm received more than $60,000 in commissions from another insurance company that did business with the local government that Alfonse headed.

The Times's support by omission continues. In December 1983 a close friend of D'Amato named Philip Basile was convicted of conspiring with a leader of the Luchese organized crime family to arrange a dummy job for an imprisoned mob underling trying to obtain parole. D'Amato testified as a character witness on Basile's behalf. A federal law enforcement official familiar with Basile's numerous dealings with the Luchese family says, “I get nauseous when I hear Al D'Amato talking about his so-called antidrug crusade. How does he think the Luchese family eams all their money?”

When D'Amato testified last fall about his role in the one percent shakedown scheme and admitted that he had misled the grand jury, the Times did not even run the story—about a local senator, mind you—on page one. Shortly after that the Times ran a lengthy, favorable profile of D'Amato. The only mention of his role in the Margiotta machine was D'Amato's own comments on the subject:

“Maybe it is something I have to prove to people,” he says in a rare moment of introspection, “that you don't have to be an Ivy Leaguer or come from a certain stratum, that you can be Alfonse Marcello D'Amato, and you can have been the product of a political machine and certainly you made mistakes along the way, but that in the final analysis, it's the kind of job you want to do.”

This was not, as the Times described it, “a rare moment of introspection,” but rather a shrewd way to defuse criticism of his past. A former aide says: ““When the corruption thing comes up, there's little he can do to defend himself against specific allegations, so he talks about his humble, working-class Italian background. That way he can make an attack on him appear to also be one of Italians and working-class people in general.”

D'Amato demonstrated his flair for favorable media coverage at an informal hearing last January 1985 on subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz. The hearings were sponsored by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, no slouch himself in media manipulation, (See “Media Specter,” September 30, 1985.) But D'Amato stole the show. First he agreed to a request by Goetz's attorney to be a witness at Goetz's trial. Then he unfurled ten-foot-long computer printouts of the criminal records of the three young subway felons who had never served time in prison. As the printouts flowed over his desk, television cameramen and photographers moved Forward to record the scene. Specter, watching in awe, was overheard whispering to an aide, “Why can't you guys come up with something like that for me?

The biggest reason for D'Amato's success in the Senate is that he devotes almost all of his energy to obtaining additional federal funds and grants for high-visibility projects in New York, showing little interest in national and international problems. His critics have named him the “alderman senator” or the “pothole senator,” titles D'Amato relishes. “The more things I bring back for New York,” D'Amato told me, “the greater chance I'll be coming back to the Senate,” Columnist Richard Cohen has denounced D'Amato for bringing ““the mentality of the ticket-fixer to the seat once occupied by Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy.” But it must be acknowledged that the senator is skilled at bringing home the bacon. In 1983, for example, D'Amato built a coalition of senators From states with mass transit interests who agreed to oppose the five-cent-a-gallon gas tax unless one penny in five was set aside for mass transit. That already has meant an extra $600 million for New York. Officials with New York's Mass Transit Authority speak appreciatively of D'Amato's successful Fights against Reagan's proposed funding cutbacks. “You really have to refer to Al D'Amato as the miracle worker,” said New York Mayor Ed Koch. ““He really does deliver.”' D'Amato has delivered in countless smaller ways too. He helped obtain federal funds For a senior citizens' project near Albany, for a zoo in Syracuse, for a nuclear cleanup. “IF someone has some nuclear shit in their backyard,” a D'Amato aide says, “we’re the ones to call.”

But D'Amato doesn't work his miracles For just anyone. When New York officials asked him early in his term For help in securing funding for a low-income housing project in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, D'Amato brushed them off. “We didn't do too well with the animal vote, did we?” he said. “Isn't it the animals who live in these projects? They're not our people.” 

In contrast to his fondness for construction projects, D'Amato has opposed spending on social programs. He voted against restoring administration cuts for CETA and youth employment, and against financial assistance for poor people hardest hit by rising Fuel costs. He repeatedly supported administration cuts in the student loan program (although recently he has opposed such cuts). Although he now supports Funding For the Legal Services Corporation, he originally supported administration efforts to abolish the agency, D'Amato says that though the sacrifices were painful, they were needed to balance the budget and to cut dangerous deficits.

Yet D'Amato's concern about the deficit disappears when the subject is pork barrel projects—even in other states. On the same day in September 1982 that he voted against a new Federal jobs program For the unemployed, he voted to continue Funding the notoriously wasteful Clinch River Breeder Reactor. Between 1980 and 1984 he was one of only 12 senators who voted For appropriations For each and every water and public works project proposed. Taking into account his support For such projects on the Appropriations Committee, D'Amato may be the Senate's leading pork barreler.

Here D'Amato's conservative inclinations mesh nicely with his self-interest. Votes in Favor of the school lunch program or the Legal Services Corporation are largely anonymous acts. The child who has or doesn't have a hot school lunch or the welfare mother who does or doesn't have legal representation usually doesn't know how his or her senator voted on such issues. And even if they do get a hot lunch or free legal advice, the media will pay no attention. But when a senator obtains Federal funds For a housing project, a water reclamation project, a new zoo. For the cleanup of a nuclear waste site, there are announcements by his office, stories in the local newspaper, ribbon cuttings, and ceremonies. Everybody knows who is responsible.

BUT WHY the Fondness For pork in other people's states? Easy, The Garrison River Diversion project in North Dakota is of less importance to New Yorkers than school lunches. But it is of some importance to Senator Mark Andrews of North Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, which oversees federal funding for mass transit projects. Andrews helped D'Amato obtain the federal grants for New York's highways and subways. Similarly, the Tennessee- Tombigbee Canal did nothing For New York, but it waS the pet of Alabama Representative Tom Bevill, whose district would have benefited From its construction. As for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, that was a pet project or then-Senate majority leader Howard Baker, someone you might want to owe you a Favor.

“In the early days,” a top D'Amato aide recalls, “Alfonse made some tit-for-tat deals. You do A for me, I'll do B for you. Later he decided it would be beneficial to do favors without even being asked. Now when we ask for a favor, we’ve already done, A, B, C, and D for the other senator. When you do favors, they are usually returned three times over.” But does it make sense to vote for the three-billion0dollar Tennessee-Tombigbee project so you can obtain an additional $30 million to clean up a nuclear waste site in New York? Or to support $1.5 billion for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in order to get some help later in obtaining funds for a local water-control project?

No matter. D’Amato’s machine politics of the 1980s works well—at least for D’Amato. Representative Thomas Manton, Geraldine Ferraro’s successor in Congress, recently wanted to obtain federal funds for a senior citizens’ home in his district. But an obscure first-term Democratic congressman usually doesn’t have much pull with the Reagan administration. So Manton went to see D’Amato. Manton’s district will probably get the senior citizen’s home; and D’Amato’s reelection campaign will get a TV commercial that features Manton singing D’Amato’s praises. Mayor Koch has all but endorsed D’Amato’s reelection. And New York Governor Mario Cuomo has not exactly been aggressive in working to defeat D’Amato. By sharing his spoils with others, D’Amato has tied their political futures to his own, assuring him they will not be nettlesome adversaries at election time.

ALL political machines—whether they be Margiotta’s in Nassau County, Richard Daley’s in Chicago, or Ferdinand Marcos’s in the Philippines—dispense patronage for two reasons. First, it provides rewards (namely jobs) for those who have given loyal service to the machine. Second, once they are strategically placed in their jobs, they can continue to work on behalf of the machine and its bosses. As a senator, D’Amato has only a limited amount of patronage: he can advise the White House on the appointment of federal judges, US attorneys, and federal marshals. But D’Amato has worked to create patronage opportunities that previously have not existed.

The Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) is a little-known federal agency in charge of doling out mass transit funds to municipal and state governments. In 1983, D’Amato helped his Senate staff counsel, Richard Nasti, become the New York regional administrator for UMTA. Nasti has since helped D’Amato obtain part of the agency’s $1.1 billion a year in the discretionary mass transit grants. “Obviously it’s helpful if you can pick up the phone and say, ‘What’s going on?’” says D’Amato. Richard Nasti has since left his UMTA position so he can, as D’Amato notes, do “something else for me in the private sector.” Nasti is currently directing D’Amato’s Senate reelection campaign.

Officials of New York’s Mass Transit Authority (MTA) and Buffalo’s transit authority were told by D’Amato that if they wanted “to deal with me” they would have to first hire a former D’Amato staff member named Dennis Viera as their Washington lobbyist. D’Amato denies this. He says such allegations are merely the result of the MTA’s resentment of his embarrassing probe of huge cost overruns in the New York subway tunnel project. “It was like I was talking about fairyland,” D’Amato says of the MTA”s reaction to his probe. “And the fact of the matter is that [the tunnel] was an absolute disgrace. And after we did what we did, they said maybe we have a problem. Maybe, my foot.”

Contrary to D’Amato’s claims, MTA officials were reluctant to discus the senator’s demand that they hire Viera as their lobbyist. One MTA official grudgingly confirmed the account. He then asked me not to publish anything about it: “He has been helpful to us. He’s helped us get tens of millions of dollars in grants we wouldn’t have ordinarily seen and fought for us on the Hill. If this gets out, he might get quite angry, and not see a need to be helpful anymore. If you want to be personally responsible for wrecking New York’s subway system, publish your story.”  

D’AMATO uses the same skill he deploys on behalf of constituents in building his own campaign fund. He is chairman of an obscure Senate subcommittee that oversees the securities industry. Campaign finance records show that from 1982 to the middle of 1975 D’Amato received at least $250,000 from individuals and political action committees associated with the industry. D’Amato denies that he shows and favoritism toward the industry. But Arthur Levitt, president of the American Stock Exchange (and once considered a possible Democratic challenger to D’Amato), has hailed him for doing “more for the securities industry than any other senator in the history of New York.”

D’Amato successfully opposed legislation that for the first time would have allowed banks to issue revenue bonds and mortgage-backed securities. The measure would have ended brokerage monopolies in these areas and cost them tens of millions of dollars. In 1985 D’Amato also opposed a bill sponsored by Senator William Proxmire that would have imposed new restrictions and regulations on junk bonds that are used in corporate takeovers. Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, one of the biggest promoters of junk bonds, gave D’Amato’s reelection campaign $38,000 on May 30 and 31, 1985, around the same time D’Amato was considering takeover legislation.

It is the end of a long day, and the senator is wrapping up our interview. “Let’s turn off this thing,” D’Amato says, pointing to my tape recorder. “Sheesus Christ, kid, I can’t believe that story you did on Arlen [Specter]. If you ever wrote something like that about me, I’d come looking for you with a baseball bat. And if I’m not reelected, I’ll just be another guy from Long Island.  I won’t think twice about coming looking for you. So if you write somethin’ I don’t like, you better hope I stay in the Senate for another 30 years.” He is only joking—at least so I hope. D’Amato says to an aide, “Am I serious, Mikey?...Am I telling the kid a story?” He turns to another aide. “Am I serious, Brucie?”

Alfonse D’Amato likes to compare himself to Harry Truman. Truman rose above his roots with the Pendergast machine of Kansas City and he became a statesman. Alfonse D’Amato, on the other hand, took to Washington the skills he learned as a machine disciple, refined them, and put them to use at a higher level.