Joseph DioGuardi gesticulates vivaciously — a habit perhaps inherited, if the stereotype is to be believed, from his Italian-born father. He speaks with an accent retained from childhood in the East Bronx, with rhotacisms laid over precise and racing speech about budget and austerity. DioGuardi has risen from busboy, to accountant, to congressman (NY-20 from 1984 to 1988), and, now, to Senate candidate. His favorite gimmick is to take out his old congressional voting card and do this spiel: “This is really a credit card, because every time you put it in, you raise the national debt. It’s the most expensive credit card in the world. . . . When you as a citizen get a call from your credit-card company and you’ve reached the limit, you know that you have to change your behavior. But not with this card. Congress just keeps raising the debt limit up, passing it on to the future.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why DioGuardi is running for Senate. We’d be hard pressed to find a more bona fide fiscal conservative. He graduated with honors from Fordham with straight A’s in accounting and a minor in philosophy and theology (“You want to talk tough, try philosophy with the Jesuits,” he says), all before becoming the youngest partner at Arthur Anderson & Co., “the Marines of accounting.” The author of Unaccountable Congress: It Doesn’t Add Up, the founder of truthingovernment.org (which tracks government waste and has a ticking National Debt Clock), DioGuardi identifies himself in public appearances as a CPA, rather than a former congressman. He’s measured the public mood well.
With that careful accounting for the public mood, DioGuardi muscled his way on to the ballot and gained a surprise victory in the Republican primary after being blackballed by the Republican establishment at the New York nominating convention. And it’s given him a real chance at unseating Kirsten Gillibrand — a feat that would be the first ousting of an incumbent Democratic senator ever in New York (the last time an open seat was won by a Republican was 1958).
That would be a fine cap for the man who describes his life as “the story of America, the promise of America.” The first high-school graduate in his family, DioGuardi rose up from a childhood spent in the back of his immigrant parents’ produce store in Harlem. But victory would make him only the second national celebrity in his family. Kara DioGuardi, the American Idol judge and sometime Maxim model, balances her work as executive vice president at Warner Bros. with brief appearances to make her father more attractive to New York voters. He’s proud and appreciative, but says, “I don’t want people to vote for me from a crush on my daughter. I want them to know the issues.”
But what immediately impresses about DioGaurdi is his speech. Over a half-hour interview, DioGuardi is almost frantic as he sprints through numbers, bills, regulations, statistics: dollars and cents and sense. No ums, no wells, no buts, no pulled punches or hedged commitments. The man is exhilarated by accounting and deficit slashing, and he averages — my recorder and transcript confirm — 190 words per minute, as precise in his syntax as he is in his calculations.
He’s upset, informed, zealous, and brilliant.
Though a former congressman, he thinks of himself as an insurgent against the New York political establishment, one that he considers corrupt: “At the Republican ballot-nomination convention, the political factions did the same old pay-to-play that killed this state. I had over 25 percent [of the vote] and I knew I should be nominated. Somehow they finagled and went to visit some people; somehow I’m kept below 25. But what did Joe DioGuardi do? As I walked out of that room and saw a humongous section of the press, I had a smile on, and I turned back and I faced the big ballroom and I said, ‘You just saw the inside game. You watch Joe DioGuardi now go back to the people, and watch what’s gonna happen.’ And that’s what I did. I didn’t get 15,000 signatures, I got 25,660, and then I got myself into the primary against the designated one, [Bruce] Blakeman, the nominated one, [David] Malpass. And who won? Joseph DioGuardi! Now don’t you think I’m going to do that against Gillibrand?”
This isn’t just wishful thinking, or politicking intended to produce reality instead of reflect it. He has the numbers, Dick Morris’s endorsement, and momentum: “Are you reading the polls? She hasn’t been over 50 percent [approval] since she’s been in. She hasn’t even been elected yet. She was appointed. She’s at 38 percent now. You get apoplectic around 40.”
Like most Republicans in New York, DioGuardi thinks (and is probably right) that the press is biased against him. Kirsten Gillibrand has a sketchy, but unpublicized past. “She’s hiding herself. She’s not talking about her ten years with the tobacco companies. She was their chief adviser when they were purging themselves in front of Congress. She advised tobacco companies on hiding their health impacts. We lose 25,000 people a year in New York from tobacco-related illnesses. And is she finished? No. She got $20,000 plus from Philip Morris last year. Then she went to work for HUD. What was her first product? Subprime mortgages, which led to the greatest financial disaster we’ve had since the Great Depression. And her husband likes to trade stocks. Guess what he did? He made $40,000 selling Countrywide short: That’s the one that really fueled the subprime disaster, and she — or her husband did, but they file a joint return, so they must talk about it — made money on the way down.”
This may be why Gillibrand refuses to debate DioGuardi. “I want to have twelve debates. She talks about transparency, but she won’t do it. She knows that I’m a CPA and I live transparency.” He also wants her to talk about her flip-flops. When running for Congress in upstate New York (before she was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat) she advertised herself as a gun owner and Second Amendment supporter. “She said ‘I sleep with a gun under my bed.’” Her voting record has since suggested otherwise.
DioGuardi is usually friendly. But there’s one class of people he loathes: lawyers. For him, the problems with health care go back to them. “If Democrats wanted Republicans to go along with Obamacare all they needed to do was put tort reform on the table. What’s killing health care is the frivolous-lawsuit culture. Just watch the advertisements for trial lawyers on TV at night. Doctors are forced into defensive medicine. We’ve got to put a cap on this — $250,000 for pain and suffering. And why isn’t this simple problem fixed? There are 57 attorneys out of 100 in the Senate. Guess who’s one of them? Kirsten Gillibrand. When you take those 57 lawyers and combine them with the 250 lawyers in the House, they start carrying water for the legal profession. And they get tremendous money for it. Lawyers are the biggest special-interest group in Washington. And when I get there, I’m gonna yell and scream about it.”
But that anger doesn’t compare to his hatred for the national debt, which he calls “congressional child abuse, sending our kids the bill.” He says, over and over again, “We’re spending money we don’t have. We’re borrowing from countries that don’t share our values.” His expertise as an accountant makes him think the national debt is being erroneously accounted — he calls the current budget “Enron accounting” — and that’s the first block to reform. “I’m dropping the $63 trillion bomb in this race. The national debt is not $14 trillion like Gillibrand and Obama want you to believe. That’s just the bonded debt. And guess where 40 percent of that is? The Social Security Trust Fund. But there has never been a trust fund or a lock-box. That’s all political rhetoric. If we want to be serious about the debt, we gotta add liabilities, which actuaries compute every day for companies, otherwise they’d be indicted. The federal government has not funded it; it took it out and put it in the general fund.” He accounts the $63 trillion as follows: “Take the $14 trillion, then add $8 trillion for Social Security, $37 trillion for Medicare, and then add Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and all the Government Sponsored Enterprises, which can borrow with the faith of the federal government. $63 trillion.”
He described Rep. Paul Ryan, known for his roadmap to a sane budget, as “bold and articulate.” But, “he’s not a Certified Public Accountant. I’d be the first practicing CPA in the Senate. You see, the problem is even his plan is dealing with the wrong numbers. He’s going to learn from me that we need to change the budget process, accounting principles, the financial-reporting rules, and the financial-management process. It’s got to be the same rules that the SEC imposes upon publicly traded companies to protect shareholders. Why our current double standards?”
Still, throwing Democrats out is the first step. He excoriated Gillibrand and Obama for supporting tax hikes on the “wealthy” when they themselves don’t understand how business works. “How would Gillibrand know? She spent her whole life in a law firm and in government. How would Obama know? He’s an activist and community organizer who went to Harvard Law School.” Gillibrand’s votes are disturbing, too. “Gillibrand voted to increase the debt ceiling twice. She voted to increase it by $1.9 trillion.” She also voted to “punish Wall Street,” when its revenues are keeping New York solvent.
DioGuardi has a prediction. “Are you ready for this? The Republicans will not take back the Senate and put a real check on the mindless spending of Barack Obama without winning New York State. A lot of these races you think they’re gonna win — they’re gonna fade. I never fade. That’s what my daughter said the other day. She said, ‘When my father’s working he’s like Superman.’ You got that?”
But if he does win, I ask him, how will he overcome the structural problems in Congress that break so many high-minded freshmen? He’s confident in his reply: “You see, the problem is, Republicans, just like Democrats, want someone they can control. You can’t control me.”
– Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.