Lazio cuts across party lines

NEW YORK — 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," Rapfogel recently recalled, 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," said Rapfogel, "that Israel is not the only issue."

As chair of the House Subcommittee on Housing Appropriations, Lazio, 43, 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 may have a tough time winning the 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.

While Lazio's stances on abortion and gun control put him on the left side of his party, he is a more traditional Republican who has voted along party lines about 70 percent of the time in Congress. His stance on school prayer 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, which is supported by numerous Jewish organizations, preferring to 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 so-called partial-birth abortions. He has voted in support of taxpayer-funded vouchers for parochial school education.

Lazio said recently 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.

Andrew Siben, a Jewish lawyer from Bay Shore who worked on Lazio's 1992 campaign, said Lazio 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 is poised to do well among those who consider Israel their make-or-break issue, particularly since Clinton is perceived in those circles to be too sympathetic to the Palestinians.