For Sen. D'Amato, Power Flows from Fund Raising

June 11, 1995|By PETER H. STONE

When Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, convened Washington lobbyists late last year to meet Alfonse M. D'Amato, the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he joked that Mr. D'Amato was the only senator who, when raising funds, "doesn't take yes for an answer."

Laughter filled the packed room at the NRSC's offices, though for many in the audience it was an old story. In a decade and a half in Washington, the New York Republican once known as "Senator Pothole" has earned a reputation as a prodigious fund-raiser for whom nothing succeeds like excess.

In a city where money and power go together like roses and love, Mr. D'Amato is sitting pretty. He is chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, traditionally a powerful magnet for special-interest money. He is the national See steering committee chairman for Mr. Dole's presidential drive and helped deliver critical early support to him in New York. As NRSC chairman, he is poised to play a big role in the 1996 Senate campaigns. And he's now widely regarded as the most influential politician in his home state after leading the push last year to install an obscure state senator, George E. Pataki, in the governor's mansion.

Mr. D'Amato "has managed to parlay a number of positions, each important in themselves, into an extraordinary power base," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "He has now moved from being simply one of the most parochial members of Congress . . . to a major political figure in the party and in the country."

Mr. D'Amato's clout is the more remarkable because he nearly lost his seat in 1992, after being rebuked by the Senate Select Ethics Committee for letting his brother use his Senate office for personal business.

His political resurrection isn't a complete surprise. Colleagues describe him as tenacious, driven and a fighter.

"He has almost unbridled energy," said Paul Coverdell of Georgia, the NRSC vice chairman. "He almost reminds you of a boxer in a ring."

Overdoing it?

But Mr. D'Amato's critics say that his aggressiveness in fund raising goes too far and that he could be headed for another fall.

In April, Joseph Asaro, a reputed organized crime figure and former executive with New York City-based Cumberland Packing Corp., which manufactures Sweet'n Low, was indicted for a multimillion-dollar campaign financing scheme that kicked more than $58,000 into Mr. D'Amato's campaign coffers.

Mr. Asaro, who was the chief lobbyist for the sweetener manufacturer, has been described in court papers as an associate of the Bonanno crime family and ringleader of a "massive fraud invoicing scheme" to conceal more than $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions to several politicians over a decade.

Mr. D'Amato received more than $58,000 of those contributions from 1985 to 1992 from Mr. Asaro and other company officials.

There has been no allegation that Mr. D'Amato knew the contributions were illegal, and Mr. D'Amato said that any contributions deemed inappropriate will be returned. An investigation is continuing, according to Newsday.

Saccharin, the chief ingredient in Sweet'n Low, was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 1977, but Congress has placed a moratorium on enforcing the ban.

Mr. D'Amato has been a key sponsor of legislation to sustain the moratorium, but he has denied that there was any link between the legislation and the contributions.

"D'Amato could be the poster child for the rotten campaign finance system on Capitol Hill," said Ann McBride, president of the lobby group Common Cause.

Mr. D'Amato's national profile is likely to rise even further when the banking committee launches hearings into the Whitewater investigation. But the hearings could carry political risks for him -- and for the Republican Party -- if Democrats try to use the proceedings to point out Mr. D'Amato's own track record on ethics questions.

"I think he's perceived by some to be a loose cannon," said James Thurber, a political scientist at the American University. "That worries some people in the Republican Party and delights people in the Democratic Party because he becomes an issue."

Mr. D'Amato expresses no concern. "The fact of the matter is that I thrive on increased responsibility," he said. "I want to make a difference while I'm here. . . . I'm doing the things that bring me enjoyment and fulfillment."

During his early years in the Senate, Mr. D'Amato hardly seemed destined for national prominence. The son of an insurance salesman, he had earned a law degree from Syracuse University in 1961. After trying unsuccessfully to get a job on Wall Street, he wound up as a law clerk in the Nassau County attorney's office on Long Island. From there, he worked his way up through the Long Island Republican political machine, winning election in 1971 as a Hempstead town supervisor and in 1977 as presiding supervisor -- a post that is equivalent to mayor.

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