In 1993, when a delegation of Jewish leaders and elected officials visited Israel on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, William Rapfogel found himself in frequent conversation with Rick Lazio.
A former Suffolk County prosecutor who had just been elected to Congress, Lazio had a lot to say about Israel and the Mideast peace process.
But Rapfogel, the executive director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, quickly found that Lazio could hold his own in a discussion about federally subsidized housing for the elderly, immigration and home care services.
"We spent a great deal of time talking about how services can be provided much more effectively," recalled Rapfogel this week, as Lazio quickly shifted his Senate campaign from dormancy to high gear following Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s withdrawal from the race to succeed Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "We were walking in this redevelopment area in Tel Aviv, talking about immigrant absorption in New York.
"He has a good grasp of domestic Jewish concerns, and he understands that the Jewish community is not a one-issue community … that Israel is not the only issue."
As chair of the House Subcommittee on Housing Appropriations, Lazio has been an ardent defender of government-subsidized housing for the elderly.
"Year after year this has been an issue, and Rick is the one who has drafted the bills," said one Jewish activist in Washington.
But despite his pro-Israel credentials and warm relations with the Jewish community in his western Suffolk district Lazio, 43, is expected to have a tough time winning the solid Jewish backing enjoyed by Giuliani. A moderate Republican, Giuliani’s liberal stances on social issues made it easier for the overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish community to cross party lines.
Lazio’s stances on abortion and gun control put him on the left side of his party, but he is a more traditional Republican who has voted along party lines about 70 percent of his time in Congress. His stance on church-state separation issues will likely make him a tough sell outside of Orthodox, Republican and politically conservative Jewish circles. "Washington Rick Lazio acts and votes differently than Long Island Rick Lazio would have New Yorkers believe," said Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "The fact that he has a 73 percent Christian Coalition rating and advocates for prayer in schools is going to make our job a lot easier in the Jewish community."
Lazio has declined to co-sponsor the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, supported by numerous Jewish organizations, which would strengthen existing hate crimes laws. And he was the prime sponsor of a bill that allowed public housing authorities to limit the number of poor tenants in certain buildings.
According to the Congressional Quarterly, he has voted about half the time with abortion rights proponents. But Lazio has voted for legislation, vetoed by President Bill Clinton, to ban partial-birth abortions. He has voted in support of taxpayer-funded vouchers for parochial school education.
Lazio said Sunday on "Meet the Press" that he would accept the nomination of the state’s Independence Party even if the controversial conservative Pat Buchanan topped the ticket, though he maintained that George W. Bush was his presidential candidate of choice. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton has made an issue of her opponent’s willingness to appear on the Independence line with Buchanan.
Lazio’s campaign did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Andrew Siben, a Jewish lawyer from Bay Shore who worked on Lazio’s 1992 campaign, said he had shown his independence from the GOP on a number of issues.
"He has taken many positions contrary to the majority of Republicans, like [supporting] the Family Leave Act and pro-environment [measures]. He supported the assault weapons ban," Siben said.
Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf predicted that with aggressive courting of conservative Jewish voters Lazio could match the 40 percent that former Sen. Al D’Amato commanded in 1986 and 1992.
"Lazio’s profile is similar to D’Amato’s," said Sheinkopf. "An Italian American Catholic from the suburbs, with a voting record from the suburbs. If he starts moving around … the more conservative elements of the downstate Jewish community he’s going to capture those votes."
Lazio is poised to do well among those who do consider Israel their make-or-break issue, particularly since Clinton is perceived by many in those circles to be too sympathetic to the Palestinians.
"My experience with Lazio is that he has deep concerns about [Yasir] Arafat’s behavior and whether Arafat is serious about peace," said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Several Jewish constituents interviewed this week said they have found him accessible and responsive.
"He is a genuine and sincere individual with tremendous talents, and he is a powerful friend of every community," said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, who attends the annual prayer breakfast founded by Lazio. "It is apolitical and about raising the level of soulfulness to a communal level … and about opening the lives of politicians and clergy and businesspeople to the presence of God in their life." The breakfast is presided over by a rotating roster of clergy of all faiths.
At this year’s breakfast, held May 12, Lazio spoke about how prayer and politics are interwoven into the fabric of the country, and that the founding fathers had a deep faith in God.
Ilene Herz, who runs a carpeting business with her husband in Plainview, has been a supporter of Lazio’s since she hosted him at her Dix Hills home during his initial 1992 bid for the House.
"He is very well received," said Herz. "All my friends who know him, even the registered Democrats, are very impressed with him. He has grown into the role and become such a fine statesman." Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.