Joe DioGuardi is a man on a mission. Not simply to win the Republican senatorial nomination in New York or unseat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). He says he is running “to save America from bankruptcy.”
Those aren’t the ambitions of a mild-mannered accountant — and though DioGuardi is obviously not the former, he is quick to remind you he is the latter: an accountant. “I was the first CPA elected to Congress, either House or Senate,” the former Arthur Anderson partner told TAS. “That’s what this country needs to bring back some fiscal integrity to the process.”
DioGuardi was elected to Congress in 1984 in an overwhelmingly Democratic House district. “I had one of the highest minority percentages of any Republican in Congress,” he says. “I know how to build bridges.” DioGuardi replaced the retiring Richard Ottinger and defeated Bella Abzug in 1986 before falling to Nita Lowey two years later. “If they had known I was going to win, the party bosses would have never let me be nominated,” he says.
His crowning legislative achievement was the Chief Financial Officer and Federal Financial Reform (CFO) Act. Although the CFO Act didn’t become law until 1990, DioGuardi was credited as its original author. “Now, Joe, your hard work has been vindicated by passage of the CFO Act by the House and Senate, and by its being signed into law,” then President George H.W. Bush wrote to him at the time. “I regret only that you were not in the House to take part first hand in the ultimate passage of this important piece of legislation.”
DioGuardi continued to worry about the country’s fiscal future after leaving Congress. He became president of Truth in Government, Inc. and published a book Unaccountable Congress: It Doesn’t Add Up, which has just been reissued for his Senate race. Unaccountable Congress was praised by J. Peter Grace, former Reagan budget director James Miller, and former treasury secretary William Simon.
“I have been saying for years that we need to cut up Congress’s credit card and get spending under control,” he told me. “Jimmy, the country has caught up with my message.” DioGuardi reminds anyone who will listen, “We are spending money we don’t have and borrowing from countries that don’t like us and don’t share our values.”
Will voters be receptive to this flinty message? Fellow apostle of economic doom Peter Schiff was rewarded for his prescience with a third-place finish in neighboring Connecticut’s Republican primary. Both national and state Republican leaders lost interest in finding a challenger for the seemingly vulnerable Gillibrand after George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, and Peter King all took a pass on the race.
But unlike Schiff, DioGuardi leads in polls of Republican primary voters. A Sienna Research Institute survey showed him with 21 percent, former state comptroller candidate Bruce Blakeman at 7 percent, and former Bear Stearns chief economist David Malpass — a respected fiscal conservative in his own right — at 3 percent. (Although a sizable 65 percent majority remains undecided.)
Some observers believe DioGuardi’s surname gives him a boost: not only does its ethnic flavor resonate with New York’s large Italian-American community, but DioGuardi’s daughter Kara DioGuardi is a judge on the hit show American Idol. DioGuardi polls at 25 percent among Catholics and a stunning 45 percent among voters between the ages of 18 and 34.
Yet DioGuardi had the toughest path to the Republican primary ballot. Blakeman and Malpass both qualified for automatic ballot access at the New York Republican State Convention. DioGuardi had to collect over 15,000 signatures to force his way into the Sept. 14 primary. He was certified by the New York Board of Elections on August 9. DioGuardi has already secured the Conservative Party ballot line, which would give him a leg up over his GOP opponents in the general.
DioGuardi isn’t interested exclusively in economics. He is also a pro-life social conservative who has been active in human rights campaigns. While in Congress, he helped pass legislation conferring the Congressional Medal of Honor upon black veterans of World Wars I and II who had been unfairly denied. DioGuardi also worked with the late Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA) on issues ranging from apartheid in South Africa, the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, and the status of Tibet in China. A co-founder of the Albanian American Civic League, DioGuardi advocated military action against Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s.
DioGuardi does occasionally deviate from the party line. He was the only GOP candidate at a recent debate to say that in retrospect the United States should not have invaded Iraq. He has criticized the Gramm-Leach-Bliley law that repealed provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act. And he doesn’t flinch from naming the Medicare prescription drug benefit, signed into law by President George W. Bush, as a contributor to the country’s fiscal crisis.
While Gillibrand remains the favorite to win re-election, the appointed senator’s numbers are anemic and she’s stuck below 50 percent in some hypothetical match-ups against her potential Republican challengers (DioGuardi performs the best against her, although they all still trail at this point). But polls aren’t the source of his confidence. “When I set out to accomplish something,” DioGuardi says, “I make it happen.”