Al D’Amato: The Man Schumer Had to Beat

In my last post, I covered Mitch McConnell’s predecessor, Dee Huddleston. Today I will turn it around and cover Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s predecessor, Alfonse D’Amato (1937- ). New York has in truth been a Democratic state for many years before Schumer was elected to the Senate, so it must be understood how D’Amato could get elected.

New York Politics in the mid-late 20th century: the four-party cocktail

The dynamics of New York politics for a time were strange, with there being four relevant parties: Republican, Democrat, Liberal, and Conservative. The Liberal Party had emerged from a 1944 exodus of anti-communist liberals from the American Labor Party, at the time its foremost figure being the famously pro-Soviet Congressman Vito Marcantonio. Although the Liberal Party often endorsed Democrats, they also backed liberal Republicans. This created some interesting political calculations and encouraged Rockefeller Republicanism in the state. Although they didn’t endorse Rockefeller himself, they consistently endorsed Senator Jacob Javits in his campaigns and twice backed John Lindsay for New York City’s mayor, their endorsement being crucial to his viability after he lost the Republican nomination in 1969. The Conservative Party, responding to the incentives of Republicans to move liberal, formed as another force in 1962 to represent conservatives when they were dissatisfied with Republican Party nominations. In 1965, they notably ran National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. for New York City’s mayor, a quixotic bid that served to give conservatives an option. The dynamics between the four parties most notably came to a head after the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968. Governor Rockefeller appointed Congressman Charles Goodell of upstate New York, who although previously a mostly fiscally conservative Republican who was liberal on foreign aid and civil rights, he shifted to staunch liberalism as a senator in an effort to win the Liberal Party nomination along with the Republican nomination. Although that part of his plan worked, his bid to win a full term was complicated by the entry of Buckley’s brother, James (who will turn 100 if he lives to March 9th!) as the Conservative Party candidate. He would win the election as the liberal vote was split between Goodell and Democratic Congressman Richard Ottinger, giving New York their most conservative senator since James W. Wadsworth Jr., who had lost reelection in 1926 to liberal titan Robert Wagner. This would be the single greatest achievement of the Conservative Party of New York. Such dynamics would emerge again regarding Senator Javits ten years later.

Javits had been one of the most liberal Republicans in national politics since the 1940s, being regarded by conservatives as one of if not the most “me too” Republicans, and commanded a loyal following, particularly among New York City’s Jews, but his reelection prospects were getting increasingly complicated by 1980. His equally liberal Republican colleague from New Jersey, Clifford Case, who also had a long career in the Senate had lost renomination in 1978 to conservative activist Jeffrey Bell, who would proceed to lose the election. Javits was also going to be turning 76 that year and worse yet, his revelation in February 1980 that he had been diagnosed with ALS the previous year. Although ALS usually kills its victims between two to five years of diagnosis, his was developing at an abnormally slow rate, so he thought he could survive one more term. It also didn’t help that in 1974, James Buckley had beat him to the punch in calling for Nixon’s resignation over Watergate. Republican conservatives turned to Al D’Amato, the supervisor of the Town of Hempstead and vice chairman of the Nassau County Board of Supervisors. Like Clifford Case had in 1978, he lost renomination to a more conservative challenger. However, Javits had still won the Liberal Party nomination, so he proceeded as their Senate candidate. The Conservative Party also nominated D’Amato, thus the right had a united front in the election. The Democrats nominated liberal Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, resulting, just like in 1970, a split among liberals. Unlike New Jersey’s Bell, however, D’Amato won by 1.4% on account of the race being three-way, with Javits getting 11% of the vote on the Liberal Party ticket. This was the same dynamic that had allowed James Buckley to win in 1970. Also elected to Congress that year from Brooklyn and Queens was Chuck Schumer. Javits would die of complications of ALS in 1986, falling just short of what would have been a full term, and the Liberal Party would decline in influence afterwards.

Senator D’Amato

Although the majority of New Yorkers hadn’t voted for D’Amato, he sought to make himself more marketable in the state. He moved towards the center and became known foremost for securing funds for and addressing constituent service in New York State, leading his critics to call him “Senator Pothole”. However, he and his supporters embraced this name, and indeed, New Yorkers proved receptive. D’Amato would also go to bat for the state through filibusters. In 1986, he engaged in a 23 1/2 hour solo filibuster on the military appropriations bill for it stopping funding of the building of a jet trainer plane from a Farmingdale, N.Y. company in which he read from the Washington D.C. phonebook (RealClearPolitics). This was the second longest filibuster in Senate history. That year, the Democrats nominated a staunch liberal in Mark Green, the chief speechwriter for Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), and D’Amato prevailed by over 15 points, this time with a majority. He was socially liberal on issues surrounding civil rights and gay rights, supporting affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws for homosexuals, and opposing “don’t ask, don’t tell”. D’Amato, however, was conservative on the subject of “law and order”, favoring the death penalty and weakening the exclusionary rule. He also, more controversially for the Democratic and pro-choice New York, had a pro-life record. D’Amato was strongly in favor of defense spending while being more liberal on issues regarding organized labor as well as domestic spending. He would also vote for the Family and Medical Leave Act. In 1992, with reelection looming and drawing a tougher opponent in New York Attorney General Robert Abrams, he conducted the ninth longest solo filibuster, this time regarding the dropping of aid for a typewriter company in Cortland, N.Y. that motivated the firm to move operations to Mexico for 15 hours and 14 minutes, in which he sang “South of the Border” (Down Mexico Way). To this day, he is the only person to appear twice among the top ten solo filibusters of Senate history. D’Amato won reelection by 1.2%. Always cognizant of jobs in New York state, he voted against NAFTA.

Throughout his time in the Senate, D’Amato was the de facto boss of the New York Republican Party, and provided critical support for the campaigns of both George Pataki to the governorship
and Rudy Giuliani for Mayor of New York City in 1994. That year, he sang his version of “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in response to the Democratic crime bill over what he regarded as pork, singing,

“President Clinton had a bill, ee-ay-ee-ay-oh.
“And in that bill was lots of pork, ee-ay-ee-ay-oh.
“New pork here, old pork there,
“Here a pork, there a pork,
“Everywhere pork, pork.
“The president’s bill cost much too much,
“And it must be chopped.
“With a chop, chop here,
“And a chop, chop there
“Chop that pork off everywhere.
“Then we’ll have a bill that’s fair,
“Ee-ay-ee-ay-oh” (Powers).

He would also be accused by critics of running a corrupt political machine, and these claims were bolstered by a Senate Ethics Committee rebuke in 1991 for permitting his brother to use Senate stationery to write a letter to one of his clients as well as a perception that large campaign contributions could result in extraordinary legislative action from him (Harden). In 1995, D’Amato wrote Power, Pasta, and Politics: The World According to Senator Al D’Amato, in which he offered his insights on the politics of his time.

During the Clinton years, D’Amato maintained a moderate conservative record and was acidic in his criticism of the Clintons during hearings regarding the Whitewater controversy. He also attracted particularly strong criticism for his vote against the Brady Bill, as gun control measures poll well in New York. His record as well as his declining share of the vote in a state that had voted for not just Clinton in 1992 and 1996 but also Dukakis in 1988 spelled trouble for his next reelection in 1998.
Although initially former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, who had been the first woman to nominated for vice president on a major party ticket in 1984, was the top nominee for the Senate race, Congressman Chuck Schumer campaigned energetically throughout the summer of 1998 and massively outspent Ferraro. Ferraro’s campaign stalled while he was gaining in Democratic polls and by the September 15th primary, he won with 50.8% of the vote.

D’Amato knew he was at risk, and launched negative attack after negative attack on Schumer, claiming he had a poor attendance record and derided him as a New York City liberal who didn’t care for upstate New York, with Schumer responding constantly and calling D’Amato a liar. He blundered when while making a speech encouraging Jewish leaders to support him, he called Schumer a “putzhead” (this is the Yiddish equivalent of calling someone a “dickhead”) and referred to the obese Congressman Jerry Nadler as “Congressman Waddler” and performed a physical imitation of him. This wasn’t D’Amato’s first time getting negative attention for impressions; during the O.J. Simpson trial he had used a Japanese accent to mock Judge Lance Ito, for which he apologized (USA Today).

Schumer focused his attacks on D’Amato implying that he only focused on local issues when his reelection was coming up and condemned his vote on the Brady Bill, which he had sponsored in the House. On Election Day, Schumer prevailed by 10 points. His lifetime ACU score was a 67% and his DW-Nominate score was 0.182.

In researching D’Amato, I found myself surprised that on a surprising number of meat and potatoes cultural issues he was conservative. From a New York senator, I honestly didn’t expect him to be staunchly pro-life and pro-gun. That being said, a point I have made in the process of my writings is that constituent service can get a politician a long way despite policy disagreements. It worked for Vito Marcantonio of Harlem, New York, the legendary skinflint H.R. Gross of Waterloo, Iowa, and Al D’Amato for three terms. This leads me to ponder, could D’Amato have won in 1998 had he not called Schumer a “putzhead” and beat Strom Thurmond’s filibuster record?


Chuck Schumer for Senate – 1998 tv ad. YouTube.

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D’Amato accused of insulting Schumer. USA Today.

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Harden, B. (1998, November 4). New York’s Veteran ‘Senator Pothole’ Gets Run Over by Schumer. The Washington Post.

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Longest Filibusters in American History – Alfonse D’Amato. RealClearPolitics.

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Powers, R. (1994, August 25). New York’s Singing Senator Voices Objections to Crime Bill With PM-Crime Bill Bit. Associated Press.

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Schumer topples D’Amato in New York Senate race. (1998, November 3). CNN.

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