First lady wins Senate seat, place in history

Wednesday, November 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea got a kick out of "New York Blondes for Hillary," a procession of women wearing masks of the first lady outside the Clintons' polling place in Chappaqua, N.Y. President Clinton was also on hand to cast a ballot for his wife.

By David Jackson / The Dallas Morning News

NEW YORK – Hillary Rodham Clinton made history Tuesday with an easy Senate win over rival Rick Lazio, extending her family's influence over national politics for at least six years.

In becoming the only first lady elected to Congress, Mrs. Clinton completed an extraordinary political journey that began after her husband was impeached but acquitted for his efforts to conceal an extramarital affair.

Wow! This is amazing," Mrs. Clinton told cheering supporters at her victory party at a hotel next to Grand Central Station. "You came out and said that issues and ideals matter."

Mr. Lazio, a House member who stressed his Long Island roots during his 51/2-month campaign, opened his concession speech by joking about the recent intra-city World Series between the Yankees and Mets.

"I feel like the Mets – we came in second," he told a somber crowd at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

The crowd booed when Mr. Lazio said he had called Mrs. Clinton to congratulate her, but he tried to quiet them: "It's time for us to hold our heads up high and to unify our state," he said.

Mrs. Clinton's voters cited her support for more federal aid for education and health care, issues she has championed since launching her campaign in the summer of 1999.

"It was 16 months and 62 counties, seven-day weeks and 16-hour days," campaign aide Ann Lewis said. "But it was more than just showing up. It was listening to people, meeting with them, hearing what they had to say."

Republican supporters of Mr. Lazio lamented what Oyster Bay estate manager Pat Power called "the continuation of the Clinton disgrace to this country."

Mrs. Clinton and the president, with their daughter, Chelsea, voted early Tuesday at a school in the New York City suburb of Chappaqua. "I feel good about the campaign we've run," she told reporters.

The president predicted another Clinton victory, shouting to reporters: "You can't put me down as undecided – I'm there!"

Mr. Lazio, a four-term House member, described himself as an underdog early in the day but expressed optimism.

"It's a perfect day for New York," Mr. Lazio told reporters after voting near his home in Bay Shore.

The campaigns and their supporters spent an estimated $78 million on a race that in many ways became a local referendum on the political conflicts of the last eight years. Conservative and liberal groups across the country poured money into the race, seeking either a rejection or extension of the Clinton legacy.

Some Democrats began encouraging Mrs. Clinton shortly after Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., announced his retirement in November of 1998. Mrs. Clinton moved forward after conducting a highly publicized "listening tour" of the state.

The first lady's bid captured the imagination of even the most jaded New Yorker, especially when it looked as though she would run against combative New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Mr. Giuliani withdrew in May, after disclosing that he had prostate cancer and a relationship with a woman other than his wife.

New York Republicans then turned to Mr. Lazio. But many supporters – including the wife of New York Gov. George Pataki – said the congressman suffered from the late start. Libby Pataki ripped Mr. Giuliani during a radio interview Tuesday, accusing him of "jerking people around" by waiting so long.

Supporters who gathered for Mr. Lazio's concession speech Tuesday night said the odds were stacked against him from the start.

"This is a 3-to-2 Democratic state," said Joe Santora, a retired attorney from New York City. "And she had all the celebrity, all the power of the White House, and Lazio was kind of a last-minute substitute. I think he did all right."

Seeking to make character an issue, Mrs. Clinton's critics had revived memories of her failed attempt to forge a national health-care plan. They also cited investigations of her role in the infamous Whitewater land transaction and the 1993 firings of the White House travel office staff.

Mr. Lazio's campaign sought to capitalize on the scandals, saying in one fund-raising letter that his campaign could be summed up in six words: "I'm running against Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Some of the first lady's supporters said Mr. Lazio spent too much time talking about her rather than introducing himself. And some criticized him as having "bullied" her during the first debate, when the congressman crossed the stage to demand that Mrs. Clinton sign a written agreement to restrict campaign spending.

"Lazio's trying to portray her as an outsider shows he missed the point of the greatness of New York and of the United States," said Marissa Solomon, a student at Hunter College. "Anyone can come here and prove themselves to the best they can be."

The Middle East conflict took center stage in the campaign's final week. Republicans accused some Clinton contributors of harboring sympathy for terrorism, including the attack in Yemen on the USS Cole. Mrs. Clinton fired back that her critics were playing politics with terrorism.

President Clinton's shadow also loomed over the race. Some of his wife's critics accused her of helping the administration cover up a variety of misdeeds, including his relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky.

Supporters said Mrs. Clinton campaigned as her own woman, noting that she dropped her last name to dub her campaign Hillary 2000.

"She has had a rough life in the last two years or so," said hospital union member Jose Matta, who heard Mrs. Clinton speak recently at a meeting hall near Times Square. "She has come out of a very difficult situation impeccably. She has run a very good campaign."

And if it leads to another Clinton presidential campaign in the future, that would be fine for supporters such as hospital worker Sally Campo.

"As long as she does a good job as senator for New York, those will be her footsteps toward being a presidential contender," Mrs. Campo said.

But Clinton aides quickly shushed any presidential talk. "She's the senator from New York," Ms. Lewis said. "That's a big deal. And you know what? That's a lot."