The Astoria Line

Print More

In Astoria, Queens, the passage of time is measured by constant movement. Jets fly in and out of LaGuardia, traffic flows off the Triboro Bridge, and the N train rolls back and forth over 31st Street. Underneath the N trestle there are other signals of change. While Greeks and Italians remain from the old days, Indians, Bangladeshis, Serbs and Albanians have also settled here in numbers. Yuppies too.

Amid this flux there is one constant: Astoria is Vallone country. It is the home of City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, and before him his father, Judge Charles Vallone, for whom the local elementary school is named. Charles, son of Sicilian immigrants, helped start the Astoria Civic Association and Variety Boys and Girls Club, and the Speaker still supports them; Peter even coached the Civic Association’s football team to a city championship in 1996.

Judge Charles also started Vallone & Vallone on 31st Street near Ditmars, an old-fashioned family law firm that operates today with three attorneys–Peter and two of his three sons–who handle wills and estates, and the occasional personal injury case. Vallone & Vallone is a neighborhood firm, and this is Peter Vallone’s neighborhood. Despite all the changes in northern Queens in the past 26 years, Peter Vallone is today–as he was in 1973–the councilman from Astoria.

But come 2002, he won’t be–can’t be. Term limits will force him out, along with 35 City Council colleagues, at the end of 2001. Many of the incumbents are hunting for other offices–comptroller, public advocate, state assembly, even Congress. The Speaker will likely try to stay in power by running for mayor. And his Astoria council seat? He’ll try to keep it in the family by putting his son, Peter Vallone Jr., in it.

“I haven’t decided yet what office, but I am leaning heavily–if I do run–towards my father’s seat,” says Vallone Jr. His hesitation underscores rumors that he might instead vie for Queens District Attorney. At 38, Vallone Jr. has already developed the politician’s skill of playing his cards close, even when his aims are obvious. On the one hand, his father supports incumbent D.A. Richard Brown. On that same hand, this council seat has been a Vallone possession forever. Vallone Jr. cannot conceal his affection for the office.

“I’ve seen what my father has been able to do with it,” he says. Then he motions out his Vallone & Vallone office window as the sun falls on Astoria, gesturing north toward old Immaculate Conception grammar school and west toward his high school alma mater, St. John’s. “I’ve just been involved in the community for so long.”

_______

It makes quite a stump speech, but it’s not premature. Even though it’s more than 18 months before the 2001 race, dozens of City Council hopefuls are already on the move across the city. The stakes are high, and the terrain is ill-defined. Some districts haven’t seen a real contest for council in eons–Councilmember Morton Povman of Queens, for example, was first elected in 1971, when a guy named Nixon was president and U.S. troops were still in Vietnam. In all that time, he has never even faced a primary.

Now, many districts already have a roster of four or five candidates making a run. With a host of political variables, the future is particularly hard to predict. The mayoral race is a wild card. Insurgent candidates say the city’s hundreds of political clubs won’t be a factor, but hopefuls with club ties say they’ll play a big role. Citywide coalitions are forming to influence the race, backed by labor or business; a group called NYC Women 2001 is pulling for women. Into the void, many candidates are talking up their ties to departing incumbents–everyone wants to be the favorite son.

Vallone Jr.’s advantage is that he actually is. Indeed, his good looks, disarming manner and years of experience as a criminal prosecutor with the Manhattan D.A. will be mere extras once he decides to run. His name will be his best asset.

“A quarter of the people who are going to vote will think the father is running,” jokes veteran political consultant Joseph Mercurio. He keeps a close eye on local races, and says he sees no reason why Vallone Jr. shouldn’t breeze to victory if he runs. “I don’t see any problems [for Vallone Jr.],” he adds. “He’ll just have more organization and more name recognition.”

Astoria isn’t the only place where politics could be a family affair in 2001. Council aides say Brooklyn’s Una Clarke and Rev. Wendell Foster of the Bronx have daughters who might seek their seats and will also enjoy name power. Noach Dear of Borough Park has floated the idea of handing his power off to his brother or his wife. And council staff–essentially family–are planning runs in many districts, including Povman’s, Foster’s and Lloyd Henry’s in Brooklyn.

It’s obvious what these second-generation candidates possess. Voters are likely to support them because they are known quantities. Lame-duck incumbents will endorse staff for the same reason–and to cling to some of their old power. “It’s just a matter of maintaining some sort of control,” says Vaughan Toney, a Henry aide who is also a candidate for his seat. Asked why it matters who succeeds him, Dear says it’s “because I’ve built up a constituent service par excellence. We get involved in so many things, even personal matters. I don’t want to let that go.”

It also won’t hurt to have a friendly body in a seat, a person who might be willing to step aside if a current, term-limited councilmember wants to run again. New York City’s term limit law doesn’t prevent a member whose eight-year clock has run out from running again someday. In fact, waiting out a single term is enough–and the 2001 winners, because of redistricting that will follow the 2000 census, will be getting terms lasting just two years. One councilmember believes that many departing officeholders will issue a barrage of mailings in the waning days of this term, just to remind voters who the real incumbents are.

Seated behind a cluttered desk, with a new toy for his daughter in a bag at his feet, Vallone Jr. talks quietly–and, he claims, reluctantly–about his nascent campaign. “I haven’t given much thought into entering politics myself until just recently,” he says. “But term limits have forced decisions on all of us.”

Still, politics can’t have ever been far from Peter Jr.’s mind, because the son has never walked far from the father’s footsteps. Junior attended Fordham University and Fordham Law, just like his dad and granddad did. He’s legal counsel for the Civic Association. He belongs to the Taminent Club, where his father and grandfather were also members.

The Vallones are close. Peter Jr., his brothers Paul and Perry, their wives, and their six children gather with Peter Sr. and mom every Sunday at someone’s house for spaghetti. When Speaker Vallone coached the Civic Association football team to the championship in 1996, all three boys were on the team. They played defense and were nicknamed the Killer Vs.

Within the tight-knit clan, Peter Jr. appears to be dad’s closest defender. A devoted son, he talks about how much he hates fundraising for himself–then mentions that it was easy to do it for Peter Sr.’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign, because “on his behalf, I could ask for anything.” He advises his father on political matters, often heading down to City Hall to have lunch and shoot the poop with pops. And although eyeing a candidacy of his own, Peter Vallone Jr. says dad comes first. “I want to make sure that in no way will I hurt my father’s chances to become mayor,” says Vallone Jr., “because that’s the most important thing for me right now.”

His office has a door that leads to the Speaker’s office and features a picture of Peter Jr. meeting the Pope on a trip to Rome with the Speaker. Like dad, Vallone Jr. is a devout Catholic. In fact, Vallone Jr. admits that one of his very few disagreements with his father came last fall when the Brooklyn Museum displayed a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary garnished with elephant dung and tagged with pornographic photos. Speaker Vallone stood up to the mayor’s effort to close the exhibit. Vallone Jr. says he sympathized with Giuliani, because “I was just so happy to hear someone speak out.”

But he also says that in opposing Giuliani’s efforts to close the museum, his father did what he had to do as Speaker. On this and other issues–including homelessness, workfare and fiscal policy–Peter Jr. is comfortable posturing himself safely betwixt opposing viewpoints. He calls his politics middle of the road. But some would say that Vallone Jr.’s ability to equivocate is what truly makes him his father’s son.

_______

In his 27 years on the council and 14 as Speaker, Peter Vallone Sr. has acquired a reputation in some quarters as a master manipulator, a politician with few strong beliefs but a remarkable skill for keeping his council in line on a vote that Vallone’s powerful allies in real estate or other sectors want the council to make.

Accurate or not, this is a portrait Speaker Vallone helped paint himself. Critics say he has rarely broken publicly or passionately with mayors, recent tiffs over Yankee Stadium and access to City Hall steps notwithstanding. He has done little to quash charges that he is in the pocket of the real estate industry, in recent years forcing through a law that exempts high-rent apartments from rent stabilization laws and a lead paint bill that protects landlords from liability. Now, the Real Estate Board of New York has volunteered its services as fundraiser for Vallone’s 2001 mayoral bid–a thank-you gesture that infuriates tenant advocates.

The suggestion that Vallone lacks ethics has shadowed him since he ascended to the council leadership in 1986 as a result of the final deal between Bronx boss Stanley Friedman and Queens party chief Donald Manes. Soon after, Friedman went to jail for racketeering and Manes committed suicide. Vallone was never implicated in the bosses’ influence peddling scandal, but he was stained by association.

To this day, the Speaker’s style hurts his chances of shedding the stigma of small-time political boss that clings to him. During council meetings, he sometimes roams the chambers casually holding the microphone, lounge-act style. Recently, the Speaker closed his State of the City address with an inspiring call for leadership, and applause erupted. Then Vallone returned to the mike to remind the audience that “we have food.” A campaign manager would have winced: With a chance to look like a visionary leader, Vallone is such a regular guy that he couldn’t help mentioning the sandwiches outside.

These critiques deeply offend Peter Vallone Jr., as they would any devoted son. But Peter Jr.’s intense loyalty has led to friction with the Speaker’s staff at times, as well as a physical scuffle with an anti-Vallone protester during the Speaker’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign. “He has never gotten a fair shake,” he says of dad. “He is the most honest, trustworthy, capable and goodly man ever to be in public service and to overcome that notion that he was part of the whole party system, and he’s done that.”

Such hyperbole is standard stuff when friends describe the Speaker; they feel his reputation has gotten a raw deal. Even people with whom the Speaker has disagreed get testy when his honor is questioned. One former associate stiffens at the idea that Vallone is just a neighborhood political hack. “Peter Vallone,” he says, “ain’t some white-patent-leather-belt-wearin’ motherfucker from Queens.”

It’s easy to see where this intense allegiance springs from. If you’re a friend, word is, Speaker Vallone will bend over backwards to take care of you. When political advisers suggest he fire an aide, the Speaker often resists stubbornly, especially if the staffer has a family. He attends church every day and strives to make it home nightly to eat dinner with his wife. He carries a piece of paper in his pocket with a list of people to pray for. The Speaker’s career, too, has been marked by some acts of real vision and dedication. Witness his support of gay rights legislation, the stance he took on the Brooklyn Museum flap and, the most thankless job of all, his 10-year-long revision of the city’s archaic administrative code.

As heir, Peter Vallone Jr. steps into this breach between the two faces of his father: a party hack versus the picture of decency. Peter Jr.’s own best traits mirror his father’s. Junior accompanies the church choir on bass or piano at folk masses. He volunteers at a home for people with cerebral palsy and is on the board of trustees for his high school and the Variety Boys and Girls Club.

Yet the negatives are there as well, and some of them are Vallone Jr.’s own making. Opponents charge he doesn’t live in the district. Indeed, he is registered to his father’s Astoria address. According to Vallone Jr., “I live there [at his parents’ house] sometimes, like one day a week. And I own a condo in the district.” But he does not claim to live in the district full time.

_______

People who might oppose Vallone Jr. for the Astoria seat are already pitching the residency issue, but it’s not exactly a secret to begin with. Astoria is in many respects a small town with a nice view of Manhattan. All the players know each other, and rivalries and alliances play out within a few bustling blocks.

Four doors down from Vallone & Vallone is Mike’s Diner, a favorite Vallone hangout. The Speaker stops in for lunch every now and then. It’s things like their patronage of Mike’s, where $5.05 gets you three pancakes, two eggs and ham or sausage, that have earned the Vallones fierce loyalty in Astoria. The family has fans aplenty; at a party in the area, a bad word about Speaker Vallone gets you dirty looks and a firm reminder that “he’s the man around here.”

But enemies walk the streets as well. Across the street from the diner is Mike Zapiti’s driving school. Zapiti is rumored to be one of three men who might challenge Vallone Jr. for the family seat. Lawyer Kimon Thermos, who has run against Taminent-backed State Senator Denis Butler three times, might also oppose the Speaker’s son. The district manager of the community board, George Delis, a player in the neighborhood for decades, could also run.

Opponents will paint Peter Jr.’s proposed candidacy as an arrogant gesture by the Taminent club. “Out here in this community there is a political club that has controlled the politics of this area for 60 years, and Vallone naming his son to the seat is another indication of that,” argues Delis. But in Astoria’s close confines it’s hard for any pol to keep clear of stains. Delis says he is currently subject to a Department of Investigation probe for using his community board office for political advocacy in a local school board race. DOI would neither confirm nor deny that there is a probe, but a letter calling for such an investigation was written to DOI by a former Vallone aide and Taminent Club member, Theodore Kasapis. Kasapis himself was thrown off the school board for trying to pressure another board member to vote the board president, a Taminent opponent, out of office. Kasapis did not return calls for comment from City Limits.

Whoever opposes Vallone will also play up evidence that surfaced in Newsday in 1998 that Peter Jr. and his brother Paul were both named to dozens of court guardianships–assignments to oversee the affairs of widows, orphans and the disabled–by Queens judges who are active in the county Democratic organization, and who need the support of people like the Speaker to stay in office. Vallone Jr. acknowledges that he probably has benefitted from his name. He’s not ashamed of it; he says it makes him work even harder.

When it comes to campaign contributions, the family name appears to be working hard, too. Vallone Jr. has over $20,000 already, one of the biggest war chests among non-incumbent City-Council hopefuls. Among the givers are veteran politicos Norman Adler and Marty McLaughlin–both close associates of Speaker Vallone. Power broker attorney Sid Davidoff and current Manhattan councilman A. Gifford Miller–a possible candidate for Speaker in the City Council that Junior would be elected to–also gave. So did the campaign committees of Councilmembers Archie Spigner and Karen Koslowitz, as well as dozens of high-power law firms and consultants.

Term limits were supposed to break that kind of hold the Vallones seem to have, and infuse city politics with new blood. Peter Vallone Jr. can’t claim to be that, and he says he won’t even try to. “I am not going to try to distinguish myself from my father,” he says. “I am going to try to continue in my father’s tradition…. I’m proud of the name and I’m willing to deal with Vallone son thing.”