He was the baby-faced Long Island congressman who took on first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the historic 2000 race for the U.S. Senate. The crushing defeat took him out of politics.
Now, with state government in disarray after an embarrassing power struggle that paralyzed the Legislature for over a month and the sinking approval numbers of Democratic Gov. David Paterson, the Republican is set to announce his candidacy this week for governor.
“It’s time,” said the moderately graying 51-year-old in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “The state is in terrible trouble; clearly it’s the worst fiscal crisis.”
Lazio has been advising on investments and public policy for JPMorgan Chase since he left Congress after four terms and the Senate loss to Clinton. He said his banking and political experience make him “uniquely qualified” to lead the state.
“It’s time for me to step up and show some leadership,” he said. “People want somebody who is willing to fundamentally rethink how state government operates.”
Lazio called this summer’s failed attempt by Republicans to wrest control of leadership in the state Senate “the most embarrassing political episode in my lifetime.” But, he said, the coup was symptomatic of much bigger problems in Albany.
Lazio said he would call for a constitutional convention to eliminate the Assembly and Senate and create a state Legislature with one chamber instead of two. Nebraska is currently the only state with a unicameral lawmaking body, but proposals have been floated in Maine and Connecticut in recent years.
“There’s no transparency; we have to eliminate the game playing where the Senate passes a bill and the Assembly won’t even take it up for a vote,” Lazio said. “People have lost faith.”
Lazio would face either Gov. David Paterson, who has said he intends to seek a full term when ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s term is up next year despite pressure from Democratic leaders and the White House to drop out; or party challengers that will likely include the more popular state Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo.
On the Republican side, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is also mulling a run. Lazio replaced Giuliani as Clinton’s Senate challenger in 2000 after Giuliani bowed out with prostate cancer, and also announced a separation from his wife. A Giuliani spokeswoman declined comment on Lazio’s entry into the race; Lazio on Friday called Giuliani a friend.
“‘Lazio is a former congessman who has run statewide before so he is certainly a credible candidate,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll. Winning, however, is another thing. “Our previous polls have shown he was way behind Andrew Cuomo, and running neck and neck if it’s against Gov. Paterson.”
But Giuliani remains the “prohibitive favorite” for Republicans, he said.
Lazio says the ability to prepare for a statewide race more than a year before election day will be different from the five-month sprint campaign he conducted against Clinton in 2000, which he lost by 12 percentage points.
“I’ve run in seven campaigns and won six and I learned more from the losing race,” he said. “You learn from your setbacks. You are stronger and better able to deal with problems when you’ve been smacked around a bit. In 2000, we were running in crisis mode most of the time.”
Lazio will have to persuade voters in a Democratic-controlled state — dwarfing the GOP in voter registration 2-1 statewide to elect him. He decided to postpone an announcement of his candidacy until Tuesday after learning that President Obama was going to visit upstate Troy on Monday.
He will also need to win over fellow Republicans. A Marist poll last week found Republicans evenly split, 43-43 percent, on whether Lazio should enter the race.
“Who I run against is less important to me than having a discussion with the people of New York,” Lazio said. “We need to have a discussion about how we can improve infrastructure, increase private sector jobs and restrain property taxes.”
Lazio announced last week that he is bringing in some heavy political muscle to lead his campaign, including Arthur Finkelstein, who advised both Alfonse D’Amato and George Pataki in their successful runs for the Senate and governor. Also on the team is Beth Myers, former campaign manager for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign.
Lazio said he would be more involved in strategic decisions of this campaign than he was in 2000, when the national Republican party had a heavy hand in trying to stop Clinton.
“This is my campaign and the ideas will be mine,” Lazio said. “One thing I learned from 2000 was to trust my instincts more.”
Associated Press writer Michael Gormley contributed to this report from Albany, N.Y.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.