November 7, 1997
The Online Explainers take your question on the investigation.
The NewsHour's coverage of the Congressional Investigation.
The inside stories on the political fight behind the public investigation.
The investigation is big news in Washington, but how's it playing around the country.
A closer look at the issues really under scrutiny by the Congress.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Wednesday morning Staten Island commuters, on their way to the ferry for the short trip to Manhattan, didn't seem at all surprised to read their Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had been re-elected to a second term with ease. What might have surprised them was the ease with which the Republican candidate for Congress, Vito Fossella, also rolled to victory. Fossella is a New York City councilman, who jumped into the race this summer after Susan Molinari gave up her seat in Congress for a network television anchor chair.
Fossella's opponent, state assemblyman Eric Vitaliano, was trying to become the first Democrat in 17 years to represent this district in Congress. The race to replace Susan Molinari in New York's 13th congressional district, most of it here on Staten Island, was the only federal election held on Tuesday. Because of all the recent attention given to campaign finance reform efforts in Washington, the money spent on this campaign was closely watched, and there was plenty of money to watch. At a Republican unity rally on Staten Island on election eve Vito Fossella was more than willing to share the stage with two more experienced politicians. There was Mayor Giuliani, on whose coattails Fossella was hoping to catch a ride, and there was Guy Molinari, Susan's father, and himself the district's former Congressman, who was a day away from re-election to his latest job as Staten Island's borough president.
GUY MOLINARI, State Island Borough President: My friends, you're going to be proud of him in the future, as you have in the past. He's a leader, and he's going to be the star in Washington.
KWAME HOLMAN: What was not evident at this rally for local Republicans was the amount of national support Fossella received. The Republican National Committee in Washington bought nearly $800,000 worth of television time to air an ad that never mentioned Fossella's name but did take direct aim at his opponent, Democrat Eric Vitaliano.
AD ANNOUNCER: The tax bite. Today New Yorkers pay the highest taxes in the country because politicians like Eric Vitaliano keep raising our taxes. Vitaliano raised taxes on families over $7 billion. More taxes for more welfare. Welfare spending went up 46 percent. Then Eric Vitaliano took a big bite for himself, raising his own pay 74 percent.
KWAME HOLMAN: That ad was seen all across New York City, including Staten Island, during the week leading up to election day. But because the ad didn't directly advocate the election of Republican Vito Fossella, the money the Republican National Committee spent on the ad fell outside federal election laws and into the category of unlimited, unregulated contributions known as soft money. Jim Nicholson is RNC chairman.
JIM NICHOLSON, RNC Chairman: The courts have looked at this. They've interpreted these laws, and they're complicated, and they're too complicated, I think, but thank goodness, there still is a right in this country for anybody that wants to, to go up and advocate an idea or an issue that's an issue that's important to them.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Republican Fossella agreed that charges made against his Democratic rival in the TV ad were fair.
VITO FOSSELLA, Republican Candidate: Well, I've made an issue, I don't know about with the Republican Party, but my issue has always been with my opponent; that I'm committed to cutting taxes. I'm committed to continue to reform welfare. And my opponent has a record of raising taxes by billions and welfare, as well, when he was in the assembly. I think that's a legitimate issue to talk about it. It's something that the voters clearly want to know where the candidates stand.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Eric Vitaliano found himself on the defensive at event after event trying to refute what he said were gross distortions in the RNC's TV ad.
ERIC VITALIANO, Democratic Candidate: It's so transparent that my seven-year-old son can figure it out. And this is obviously a campaign that's orchestrated by Newt Gingrich to beat me because he doesn't want me in Washington standing up to. And this is absolutely obscene, to have the Republicans combined between the national Republican effort and my own opponent that was going to raise and spend $2 1/2 million, most of it not telling voters anything about my opponent but lying about me.
ERIC VITALIANO: (going door to door) Mr. Friziolo, how are you?
MR. FRIZIOLO: I'm fine. How are you?
ERIC VITALIANO: Good.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Monday afternoon, just hours before the polls opened, we found Vitaliano, his wife, Helen, and a group of young volunteers still knocking on doors in the Dongan Hill section of Staten Island, Vitaliano's neighborhood.
WOMAN: I'm going to vote for you.
ERIC VITALIANO: I know, but I got to remind you, tomorrow is the magic day.
KWAME HOLMAN: Vitaliano said this kind of retail politicking is the most effective way to campaign. It's also the least expensive.
ERIC VITALIANO: Bye-bye.
KWAME HOLMAN: Like his Republican opponent, Vitaliano managed to raise several hundred thousand dollars in direct contributions to help run his campaign, but the Democratic National Committee didn't buy television time, as the Republican National Committee did, and Vitaliano said he never was able to respond effectively to the attacks on his record.
ERIC VITALIANO: The party is in debt. We've--as much money as could be found has been found and channeled our way and frankly, they're hard dollars; they're not soft money. But we don't have that kind of resource in our party.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Democrat Martin Frost of Texas is chairman of the party's Congressional Campaign Committee.
REP. MARTIN FROST, Chair, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did everything we could. We raised money for the candidates; we put money directly in the race.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even the President came to Staten Island for a rally.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: This is not about New York City politics, New York State politics. This is about what this man can do for you to set the right course for this country that will help the children of Staten Island and Brooklyn to have a brighter future.
REP. MARTIN FROST: But our national committee could not match the money that the Republican National Committee put in.
KWAME HOLMAN: Which left Vitaliano's best hope on election day in the hands of New York City's 2.5 million-member labor unions. Over the past several weeks thousands of union members from all five city boroughs volunteered their time to walk the neighborhoods of Staten Island on Eric Vitaliano's behalf. Amy Ritchie, from the state AFL-CIO, dispatched the volunteers from one of seven district staging areas.
AMY RITCHIE, New York AFL-CIO: We don't tell them, you know, vote for Eric. We say Eric's been great on these issues. Fossella has been--this is what he's done. You make the decision when you go into the voting booth.
AMY RITCHIE: (talking to volunteers) If you do get somebody home, and you say have you voted yet, no, I haven't voted yet, circle "no" so we know we have to get back to that home to make sure that they've voted, just a reminder call.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ritchie estimated there were 1,000 labor volunteers on the ground throughout the district on election day. Some got out early enough to remind Manhattan-bound commuters to vote when they returned home.
VOLUNTEER: Vitaliano for Congress. Good morning.
KWAME HOLMAN: The union volunteers gave potential voters flyers to read, but union support in this race did not include the television ads the AFL-CIO spent millions on during the last election, ads that criticized Republican candidates in dozens of close congressional races. And so on election day many of the voters we talked to couldn't recall television ads that criticized Republican Vito Fossella but everyone remembered the RNC ads targeting Democrat Eric Vitaliano.
KWAME HOLMAN: Do you think that had an impact in this, in the voting that's occurring today? Do you think people were swayed by it?
GAIL ROMANDETTI: I'm sure it does. Whether you believe it or not, it's already been planted in your head, and when you go to vote, you may say, hmm, I wonder if, and you may vote for the other guy.
KWAME HOLMAN: Factors other than the RNC ads clearly affected the outcome of this special election. One was the broad support Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had among all voters. But soon after the television ads targeting the record of Democrat Eric Vitaliano began to air, a race that had been considered too close to call just two weeks earlier became a route on election day.
SPOKESMAN: In the only congressional race fought anywhere tonight Vito Fossella, the Republican, is the apparent winner, 32 percent of the precincts reporting in.
JIM NICHOLSON: Television is an effective medium, no question about it, though be it very expensive, so I would assume that that did have some impact, indeed.