As Jewish supporters of both Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and Rep. Charles Schumer milled around their respective campaign headquarters Tuesday night, they all spoke of the “defining moment” that cost D’Amato his Senate seat — his now-infamous “putzhead” gaffe.
“It was a defining moment,” said former Democratic Deputy Mayor Abraham Biderman at the Schumer victory party at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown.
“Psychologically it put D’Amato on the defensive and after that it never really turned in his favor again,” he said. “Schumer was able to maximize the fact when D’Amato denied saying it.”
New York City Democratic Comptroller Alan Hevesi added “I don’t think it was as much the name calling as [D’Amato] denying it at first, which was very damaging.”
Said New York City Public Advocate Mark Green: “ ‘Putzhead’ reminded Jewish voters that [D’Amato] was an ethical embarrassment.”
In fact, in a sign that the Yiddish vulgarism will remain a legacy of the campaign, Schumer supporters who had taken over the fourth floor of the hotel were seen sporting T-shirts reading, “Who’s the putzhead now, schmuck?”
Perhaps the most poignant reaction at Schumer headquarters came from former Brooklyn Rep. Liz Holtzman, who suffered a heartbreaking loss to D’Amato in 1980 in their first Senate race.
Asked how she felt Tuesday night, Holtzman, making a quick tour of Schumer’s victory party told The Jewish Week, “It’s 18 years later. Better late than never.”
As 11 p.m. approached, the sound system suddenly erupted in the song “Simply The Best,” by Tina Turner and Schumer came onto a packed stage surrounded by his family, parents, and supporters such as Congressmen Jerry Nadler and Eliot Engel. The crowd roared approval, chanting “Schoo-mer, Schoo-mer.”
“I want to thank you,” the 47-year-old Schumer began. “You have humbled me with your trust.
“Calling for ethnic and religious unity, he promised to fight as hard as he did to win the election for everyone in the state, “and in the country we love.”
He promised to improve public schools, make college more affordable and make HMOs make health decisions by doctors “and not accountants.”
About D’Amato, and the nasty campaign he said, “I respect his tenacity, and his family should be proud about his service.”
Schumer particularly thanked Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore who campaigned several times for him in the closing weeks of the campaign.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, also on stage, told The Jewish Week he was extremely pleased by Schumer’s victory.
“It means an awful lot to have another Democratic voice in the running of this country, a voice who will speak out on urban issues, transportation, the environment. We, Chuck, took down the chairman of banking committee.”
Winners, according to one Jewish leader, were mainstream Jews and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who rids himself of former foe D’Amato and sets himself up as the state’s Republican kingmaker. Losers were the myth of the political power of ultra-Orthodox voters, and former Mayor Ed Koch, who served as D’Amato Jewish attack dog against Schumer.