August 26, 1996
Molinari Family Values
G.O.P. keynote speaker Susan Molinari may seldom be sans baby these days, but the photo-ops can't capture the hypocrisy of someone one toke over the line.
by Russ Baker
On August 11, Representative Susan Molinari will deliver the keynote speech at the G.O.P. National Convention. With that prime-time act, Molinari's rise to political stardom goes into the books as one of the fastest on record. Barely a decade ago, this gum-smacking, chug-a-lugging, carefree young Staten Islander was taking a whirl on the political winds of her father, Guy, a powerful, old-time New York politician, and squeaking into a seat on the New York City Council. Back then she declared her goal in life: to own a bar in the Bahamas. Today, she and her second husband, National Republican Congressional Committee head Representative Bill Paxon, and omnipresent new baby have been transformed into a sort of G.O.P. mod squad ripe for the cover of Time. There is talk of Susan Molinari moving up again, to the Senate. And then, maybe.... But first things first. At the moment, her job is to save Bob Dole and the G.O.P. Congressional majority.
Through artful positioning, G.O.P. image-meisters have deployed the 38-year-old Molinari like the multiple faces of a Buddhist stupa. The press has been very good, and feelings among women run toward warm fuzzies over her image -- she holds her infant while talking about career and family and being pro-choice, all the while praising Newt Gingrich as a "genius" and criticizing loose morals and dissolute ways at the White House.
But if she's seen as the second coming of Christie Whitman, that's perhaps only for lack of closer scrutiny. For one thing, Molinari's perceived moderation bears little resemblance to her voting record, which matches Gingrich's 91 percent of the time. Says one observer, "She's no Rockefeller Republican." Says another, who worked for her dad years ago, "Their personas are completely at odds with their voting records." Guy Molinari, the so-called conservative, has actually voted more often than his daughter for the sort of New York - friendly projects the G.O.P. base hates. And she stumps the country for extremely conservative candidates in place of the increasingly loathed Gingrich. Women's groups, desperate to look bipartisan by finding some passable female Republican, are starting to see that Susan Molinari isn't such a good friend after all. Besides her vote against partial-term abortions, she now says that when she took her leadership post in the House, she promised antiabortion forces she wouldn't use her power to advance the pro-choice cause.
Meanwhile, the G.O.P., in fielding her and Paxon as a poster couple for imaginary perfect Americans, demonstrates both desperation and a particularly transparent hypocrisy. With Newt Gingrich and Susan Molinari firing away at White House drug use, revelations by college friends of Susan's own use of marijuana sparked her recent admission of smoking pot "five or six times." She wed her first husband, John Lucchesi -- a high school graduate and quiet tough-guy wannabe five years her junior, who appeared to have little in common with her besides working in an adjacent office -- not long before her father vacated his Congressional seat, paving the way for her to run for it as a married woman in a traditional, blue-collar district. Just days after being elected to her first full Congressional term, she left Lucchesi. She eventually married her fellow Republican Representative from New York, a first marriage for Paxon, who during one Congressional campaign had distributed a brochure showing himself with a woman and a baby in what looked like a family portrait -- but wasn't.
The next public baby was Paxon and Susan's. "The moment she announced she was pregnant, she said the baby would not be a political issue," says a well-regarded Staten Islander who knows the family. "Since she had the baby, it's been nothing else." He notes that Molinari, a Catholic, even made a point of telling the press her baby was conceived in Israel, presumably appealing to yet another constituency. When she delivered by Caesarean section on Mother's Day and got on the front pages for it, Molinari-watchers had to be excused for wondering if the timing was coincidental. Molinari inexplicably clutched sleeping Susan Ruby while meeting with reporters after Dole's announcement of her convention speech; now we hear that Molinari plans to build her address around the exhausted infant.
Little has been noted of Susan Molinari's connections to Bob Dole, which are worth additional examination. If you look at photos of her first wedding, while she was still on the City Council, you see Bob and Elizabeth Dole. That was in 1988, when Susan and her father had opposed Dole, backing his G.O.P. presidential primary opponent, George Bush. Dole presumably was at the wedding as much for John Lucchesi, who had worked on his New Hampshire campaign and driven him around to New York primary campaign appearances. Lucchesi was involved with limousine and security companies located next door to Molinari's Council office. His colleague Nick Pastoressa, who served as best man, would later plead guilty to bribery in obtaining federal contracts. Interestingly, in 1988, Pastoressa bragged to colleagues about his influence over Dole; he reportedly made the introduction for the Kansan at a fundraising event in Manhattan.
Susan Molinari talks a lot about business these days, about opportunities for women and freeing small businesses from government. "Well, it's nice when you get a fat federal contract," chuckles a source who knows the Molinaris well. One "opportunity" was the Staten Island Homeport, which would have stationed nuclear ships in New York Harbor. Guy and Susan Molinari were instrumental in bringing the $200 million taxpayer-funded project to Staten Island. The complex had barely opened when it was permanently shuttered as part of the federal base closings. But one person who made money on it coming and going was Jim Simpson, owner of a local trucking company. Simpson, who throws fundraising bashes for Susan at his estate in Staten Island, got lucrative contracts to move the Navy in and out. Another beneficiary is Bob Zarrilli, a former community school board member on Staten Island who withdrew from the City Council race when Susan decided to run. A broker, he made money from Homeport housing contracts when hundreds of condos were built for the Navy. Zarrilli provides the music, stages and outdoor equipment whenever Guy Molinari holds an outdoor event. Susan, who wins easy re-election largely on the strength of her perceived effectiveness at constituent service and bringing home the pork, gets a surprising bulk of her political contributions from PACs and lobbyists outside her district.
Despite Molinari's "new woman" role, her career was almost totally engineered by her father. The Molinaris come out of a political world where Democrats and Republicans are often indistinguishable, cutting cross-party deals and running vendettas against former allies. Right after she joined the City Council, Susan provided the crucial deciding vote that turned Democrat Peter Vallone into the Council's all-powerful leader. She was immediately rewarded with a driver and other perks that dissenting Democrats didn't get. Pastoressa, who engaged in bribery while working with Susan's first husband, served Democrat Vallone and provided financial muscle to both Republican Molinaris, father and daughter.
Guy Molinari resigned from Congress in 1989, dropping a notch to be Borough President but putting himself in an ideal position to pull in chits for his daughter's race. Susan calls her father constantly for advice, and indeed, they share many of the same operatives, mentors, advisers and contributors -- including Guy Molinari's buddy and Capitol Hill roommate, Senator Al D'Amato, another convention speaker. As the G.O.P. plows into hearings on what ties Clinton may have had with a mobbed-up union, it glosses over troubling little things concerning Susan's dad, like the San Gennaro Festival. New York City evicted the management of this popular annual Little Italy street fair last fall over mob involvement. Police had arrested a fake priest running a fake charity bingo game. His partner was Leonard Cerami, who also pulled down $16,000 a year as Guy Molinari's part-time "seat belt safety coordinator." Molinari said he was appalled. Molinari's former law partner, Albert DeLillo, who now serves as his highly paid special assistant, handled the sale of the building housing the notorious Ravenite Social Club, a longtime Gambino family headquarters. When questions arose about Molinari's lucrative land purchases, he said he couldn't remember who his partners were. One, Tony Dachille, was identified by law-enforcement officials as having ties to organized crime. There are "questions about many projects that have gone on over the years," says a former staffer.
On another level of hypocrisy, the Paxon-Molinaris -- avid boosters of harsh punishment and swift retribution -- have some history to contend with. Both Susan and her husband bounced checks on the House bank in 1991; Molinari had to take back initial claims of blamelessness she made to The New York Times. And Paxon first maintained he had written no bad checks, then admitted to four, totaling $286, until the Buffalo News reported that the fiscal conservative had bounced a whopping ninety-six, for a total of $18,000, ranking him among the New York delegation's four worst transgressors. Cool couple.
Russ Baker, a New Yorkbased investigative reporter, is currently researching corporate influence in the United States.