Curds For Lazio Upstate

Rick Lazio opted for bucolic over the Big Apple Sunday - but that didn't stop him from being dogged by a New York tabloid, which linked a Long Island nursing home Lazio pushed for to heavy campaign contributions.

Skipping a gay pride parade in New York City that attracted his Senate rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lazio chose instead to visit with dairy farmers Sunday in upstate Saratoga County.

While at the farm, the congressman from Long Island also faced new questions about his dealings with major campaign contributors, denying he had done anything special to help them in their fight for federal assistance for a nursing home project.

Meanwhile, In Manhattan

Drag queens and dignitaries shared Fifth Avenue in the always-colorful annual Gay Pride parade known as much for its politics as its revelry.

Gays also marched Sunday in parades in San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton marched in Sunday's event in New York.

Political victories were celebrated as activists pointed to passage of a hate-crimes bill in Albany and a Vermont law that allows civil unions between homosexuals.

Supporters of Mrs. Clinton shouted "You look gorgeous" and "We love you" as the first lady joined the parade accompanied by state and local officials.

Mrs. Clinton marched 20 paces behind a man in a pink tutu and a Rollerblader wearing nothing but a thong. She gave the thumbs-up sign and clapped her hands to the disco music.

"This year, because of the hate crimes bill In New York and the civil union law in Vermont, it's a year we can look back on and say there's been some progress," she told reporters."I'm pleased to be here on behalf of equal rights for gays and lesbians." (AP)

"I wish I could do 20 things at once," Lazio said when asked about missing the annual gay pride parade. "You just have to make choices between a lot of different invitations that you get."

Lazio said he had "a very good relationship with a number of folks in the gay community and advocates," and that he had worked hard on help for AIDS victims and other issues of importance to the gay community.

It was clear, however, that Lazio was more interested in working the Empire State's conservative base than in marching in any more parades with the first lady. Lazio expects his rival to heavily outpace him in New York City, and is working to offset that with wide margins of his own upstate.

"When you get into a race five months before Election Day, you've got to make choices among a lot of stops that you would like to make, and upstate communities are very important both to the campaign and to me personally," he said.

Accordingly, Lazio spent a ood chunk of the day Sunday visiting the 700-acre Eildon Tweed Farm of Dave and Connie Wood in West Charlton, N.Y. Her family has been farming in the area since 1794.

While Lazio didn't milk any of the 375 cows, he did pet one tolerant calf and helped served up sausage at an annual dairy farmers' breakfast, which drew more than 3,000 people.

"You've got my vote for sure," Kay Holbrook, working the food line with Lazio, told the congressman.

While Lazio sought to keep the mood upbeat, he faced questions about a report in Sunday's New York Daily News that he had lobbied the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development hard for financial assistance for a $32.9 million nursing home project on Long Island.

The newspaper said executives involved in the project had given Lazio's campaign committee more than $35,000 and that contact with HUD officials by Lazio in at least one instance came just two days after the congressman got $13,000 from executives of Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street firm financing the project.

The newspaper said that lobbying by Lazio and his aides became so intense that one top HUD official asked for an investigation of it by the HUD inspector general's office.

The Daily News noted that HUD is headed by Andrew Cuomo, a major booster of the first lady's Senate campaign, and that Clinton's campaign manager is Bill de Blasio, who until November was HUD's New York regional director.

"We can neither confirm nor deny that there's any investigation," said Michael Zerega, a spokesman for HUD Inspector General Susan Gaffney.

Lazio said he went to bat for the Oakwood Care Center in Islip not because of campaign contributions, but because of a shortage of nursing home beds and what he thought were lengthy delays on the part of HUD in dealing with the matter.

"The next thing you know, I'm going to be accused of coming down to hard on the VA (Veterans Administration) for medals for veterans," he said.

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