New Priorities, Same Game

D’Amato Still Makes His Presence Felt

Posted February 29, 2008 at 3:23pm

All-night filibusters, hugging it out with fellow Senators and loudly taking credit for earmarks in a thick Long Island accent are all part of how former New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R) made his mark in Washington. After all, you don’t earn the nickname “Sen. Pothole” for nothing.

[IMGCAP(1)]And since his loss to Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer in 1998, D’Amato’s game hasn’t changed much. He’s still bombastic and opinionated, and he keeps a hand in politics. But a new son and wife, along with a burgeoning lobbying practice, have brought out the softer side in D’Amato, who says he has no regrets that he no longer calls the Senate home.

“This is a time in life to build a good business and then begin to devote time and energy heretofore impossible to family,” D’Amato said from his home in Long Island. “I spend as much time now as I can on the island close to home.”

At 70, D’Amato now shares his time with Katuria Smith, his wife of four years, and Alfonse Marcello D’Amato, his newborn son. D’Amato adoringly refers to his son as “Alfonso Secondo” when he talks about his home office becoming a nursery.

Changing diapers isn’t that far removed from the nasty election against Schumer that came after a decade of controversies. In 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee reprimanded D’Amato for allowing his brother to use official stationery to solicit contracts. While not crushing, the issue was a tipping point for D’Amato in a series of events that led to Schumer’s victory.

Like the lifelong New Yorker he is, D’Amato didn’t walk away from the political arena quietly. Instead, he chose to reinvent himself. Quickly he recognized the political capital he still had: friendships with a motley crew of Senators and House Members — D’Amato counts among his allies Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — and a proven track record of creatively bringing federal dollars back to his constituents.

This track record is one of the things upon which D’Amato prides himself. For example, in 1992 he wanted to take $250 million out of the Defense Department’s budget to fund cancer research by the National Institutes of Health. (Long Island has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the country). After his initial attempt was thwarted, D’Amato worked with Stevens to keep the money in the Defense budget but have it earmarked for breast cancer research.

[IMGCAP(2)]Following his Senatorial loss, D’Amato decided that instead of shirking from public life, he’d put his experience and contacts to use and form Park Strategies, a lobby shop. Today D’Amato’s firm has offices in New York City, Albany, Long Island and Washington, D.C. He said about 30 percent of the firm’s revenue comes from federal lobbying and the rest is from state and local work.

“He’s a great strategic thinker; a little unpolished you might say, so a lot of Members who you wouldn’t think would be natural allies seek him out for political advice,” said Kraig Siracuse, head of Park Strategies’ Washington office.

D’Amato relies on Siracuse, also a New Yorker, to do the day-to-day work. And for his part, Siracuse says working for D’Amato now isn’t that much different than it was during a long stint as D’Amato’s appropriations staffer on the Hill.

“The volume level certainly is different than any other office,” Siracuse joked.

The firm has a growing presence in Washington and counts a variety of health care, defense and appropriations companies on its client list. These include United Technologies, SAP America and Lockheed Martin.

As important as business is, D’Amato appears to be content to stick closer to home, making regular trips to Washington every month or so.

Still, D’Amato is careful to stay abreast of what is happening inside the Beltway. He likes to dine at the Monocle and grab a steak and wine at Capital Grille with old colleagues instead of lobbying them.

“I never wanted to be someone who was like, ‘Hey, I’m a former Member’ and ‘remember me?’” D’Amato said.

And D’Amato still has his opinions. On the new lobbying restrictions, for instance, he offers that “It’s all a bunch of baloney.”

One legislative area in which he’s taken a keen interest is reversing the ban on online poker. The Poker Players Alliance was first a lobby client of D’Amato’s firm; now D’Amato serves as chairman of the association, trying to get his former colleagues to see the issue as he does.

“It’s a question of choice,” D’Amato said. “Shouldn’t people have the right to use the Internet to play poker in their own home?”

One of the liberating things about leaving Congress is the ability to speak out on issues like online gambling, D’Amato said. Besides lobbying, he does that by working as a commentator at Bloomberg Radio, doing a weekly program on Time Warner Cable with former New York Mayor Ed Koch and writing a column for a local paper.

D’Amato also has stayed active giving money to political candidates and inserting his voice in the presidential election. After causing a stir by endorsing former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) instead of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), helping Thompson with debate prep and traveling with him at times, D’Amato has swung his support to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). D’Amato’s son even wore a McCain beanie home from the hospital.

But while D’Amato looks kindly upon his former colleagues, he has no plans of returning.

“That’s for younger people, people still in battle,” D’Amato said. “I couldn’t return with my family responsibilities as such. Sometimes you do as much as you can. Now I’m fighting for John McCain.”