2001-06-27 / Front Page

From P.S. 122 To Second Most

From P.S. 122 To Second Most

Powerful In City Government

by john toscano

At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, the 28-year career of Speaker Peter F. Vallone as a City Councilmember will come to a close.

By that time we will know whether his quest to become the mayor of the city of New York has succeeded or failed, or whether he will be turning to other pursuits.

But whatever the fates have in store for this 66-year-old lifelong Astorian and City Council representative for the past quarter century, he can walk away proudly from the hallowed City Council chambers in City Hall, taking with him a highly distinguished record of achievements, some of which have reached historic proportions.

It is that exemplary record that the Gazette celebrates today in this special edition saluting the City Council career of the man who has risen to become Astoria’s most prominent citizen ever, as well as one of New York City’s most accomplished public officials.

Only Vallone, among his contemporaries, was involved over the past 15 years in every important issue of the city government.

During that period he emerged as the second most powerful official in the city government, after the mayor, when in an historic event, he became the city’s first Council Speaker in 1986.

In this important role, Vallone set the pattern for other Speakers who will follow. He took the new powers conferred on that body by the City Charter changes enacted in 1989 and made it an equal partner with the mayor in the governing of New York City.

Moving into uncharted waters, Vallone established the Council’s authority in framing the annual budget by successfully challenging the three mayors who held that office after the Council took on the new powers and became a true legislative body.

The perception, "The City Council is worse than a rubber stamp—at least a stamp leaves an impression," as expressed by former Councilmember Henry Stern, was changed markedly under Vallone’s leadership.

Going toe-to-toe-with Mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani, Vallone and the Council were no longer an object of ridicule and derision. There could be no better indication of the imposing presence the Council has become than the almost 30 overrides of Giuliani’s vetoes during his two terms in office.

But it didn’t stop with the budget. Vallone also led the Council in addressing the major issues of the day by taking bold actions such as enacting:

•the $1.4 billion program to rebuild the schools,

•the Safe Streets/Safe City program, which put thousands more cops on the street to spark the phenomenal drop in crime that continues to this day,

•the toughest anti-smoking ban in the nation,

•a model campaign financing program and

•improved senior citizen programs.

We’ll take a more in-depth look at the legislative accomplishments achieved under Vallone’s leadership elsewhere in this issue.

Although totally immersed in dealing with citywide problems, Vallone never neglected the needs of his constituents in the 22nd Council District, covering Astoria, Long Island City and Jackson Heights. Acting through a dedicated district office staff, Vallone assured delivery of city services and dealt with the serious ongoing issues emanating from LaGuardia Airport, the heavy concentration of power generating facilities, the special problems impacting the business community and the full range of quality-of-life issues. More complete stories on many of these issues will be found in this special issue.

Peter Fortunate Vallone was born in Astoria on Dec. 13, 1934 to Charles and Leah Vallone, both very civic- and politically minded, active people. Charles J. Vallone founded the Astoria Civic Association in 1933 and later became a Queens Civil Court judge. Leah Vallone, a school teacher, also served as a local Democratic Party official.

After attending P.S. 122, just a few blocks from his home, Vallone went on to Power Memorial Academy and then Fordham College of Arts and Sciences in the Bronx, graduating in 1956. Three years later, he graduated from Fordham Law School and received the prestigious Francis Bacon Award.

While still at Fordham, Vallone married the former Tena Buttigheri, also a school teacher. They have three sons, Peter Jr., Perry and Paul, and six grandchildren.

All three sons followed the family tradition started by their grandfather, who earned a law degree at Fordham in 1928, and became attorneys. With their father, they operate the family law firm in Astoria founded by their grandfather in 1932.

The influence of his parents’ political and community activities virtually assured that Vallone would follow in their footsteps. He was particularly close to his dad, accompanying him much of the time at political club meetings and other events before he was 10 years old.

He once told an interviewer, "I was born into that and I loved it."

Many years later, Peter Vallone would succeed his father as president of the Astoria Civic Association (ACA) following his father’s death in 1967. He later described this as "my birth into politics."

One of his first major actions as a civic and community leader, one which gave him standing as a civic leader in his own right, came a year after he had assumed the leadership of the ACA. Then Mayor John V. Lindsay had proposed converting fossil-fuel electric generating plants in Astoria to coal-burning facilities.

There was immediate opposition in the area, where many power plants were located. In short order, Vallone organized a march on City Hall by about a thousand of his neighbors and residents and Lindsay dropped the plan.

It gave Vallone his first taste of leading a major community protest and making a difference in government. "I loved it," he would say later.

It’s ironic that almost 35 years later, Astorians are still involved in controlling power plant operations and Vallone is still leading the fight.

A few years before the march on City Hall, Vallone had followed his parents into the Taminent Regular Democratic Club, one of the most powerful political organizations in Queens. His mother was part of the club’s leadership team, which was headed by the renowned Ralph DeMarco, who later would become a major influence on Vallone’s political career.

Among those whom Vallone joined when he became a member were the late Nicholas Ferraro, later to become a state senator and then Queens District Attorney, Gloria D’Amico, who would later become DeMarco’s co-leader and is now Queens County Clerk, and George Onorato, who succeeded DeMarco as district leader and has been a state senator since the early 1980s.

Vallone was then in his early 30s, raising a family and practicing law after having worked in the State Attorney General’s office and as a schoolteacher with the New York City Youth Board.

In a recent interview, D’Amico remembered Vallone as bright and ambitious. She had known him for several years through his parents’ involvement in local politics, "so I knew he was a bright person and well educated."

"He took an active role in the club," she recalled, "speaking up and joining discussions at our meetings. He also was helpful during elections, helping candidates and helping out in the things that go on in a political club at those times. He was a hands-on sort of person. He liked to be involved. He also showed some ability to bring people together, to get them involved in work that had to be done."

Onorato had joined the Taminent Club in the post-World War II years when DeMarco, not yet the district leader, recruited about 20 young men, including some ex-GIs, to join. Onorato recalled that Frank McGlynn and Leah Vallone were then the club’s leaders, but presently DeMarco took over the leadership with the help of the recruits he had brought in.

Like D’Amico, Onorato said Vallone was "very active and supportive and was involved in all the club’s activities."

Onorato also recalls, "When an opening for the state senate seat came up, Pete wanted to make a move to get the nomination and run for it, but his dad said no because Nicky Ferraro wanted it. He had more years than Pete in the club, and Nick got it and Pete worked in his election."

Vallone got his first chance to run for public office not long after that, in 1970.

"There was a reapportionment and new lines were drawn for the 1970 elections," D’Amico said, and she became DeMarco’s co-leader.

The reapportionment set up a district containing Astoria and parts of Manhattan and The Bronx which got to be called the Triborough district.

Backed by Demarco and D’Amico, Vallone became the Queens entrant in the race. It the Bronx, Herman Badillo and the Rev. Louis Gigante sought the Democratic nomination.

In a very close election, Badillo won the primary, defeating Vallone by 497 votes, D’Amico said.

Vallone recalls, "That was my baptism in politics, but I swallowed my wounds and ran for the Council in 1973."

That proved to be another tough election for Vallone. As his main opponent for the Democratic nomination he drew a former Assemblyman, the late Jules Sabbatino, who had the reputation of being the most effective orator in the state legislature.

But Sabbatino had had a falling out with DeMarco and the regular Democratic organization in Astoria/Long Island City, so instead of being favored over Vallone because of his wider experience and name recognition, he was actually the underdog and Vallone defeated him in the primary to notch his first victory and launch his Council career.

The election was for a one-year term and was contested on the basis of altered districts. It had been ordered by the courts to reflect major changes that had taken place in the city’s population. It brought in 17 new Councilmembers, including Vallone, Archie Spigner, and Thomas Manton.

Recalling the election as the most important event in his political career at that time, doubly significant because of the large influx of new, young members, Vallone recalled with a smile:

"We came in with new ideas and very enthusiastic and the first thing we were confronted with was proxy voting, being able to vote without being there. What we did, people like me and Henry Stern, was require mandatory attendance (to vote)."

Other changes were also made, auguring the new, more powerful and effective Council that would emerge in a few years. Until 1973, both the full Council and its committees met at the whim of the Majority Leader. This provision was changed so that the Council would have two regular meetings a month and the same would apply for the standing committees.

The election had also brought in a new mayor, Abraham D. Beame, and indirectly, a new Queens Democratic leader, Donald K. Manes.

Manes, with Mayor-elect Beame’s support, ousted Matthew J. Troy, who had backed then-Congressmember Mario Biaggi in the Democratic primary against Beame.

During his early years in the Council, Vallone devoted most of his time to re-codifying the Administrative Code, eliminating obsolete city laws and listing the remaining ones in orderly fashion. It turned out to be a 10-year effort, finally passed by the Council in 1985, by which time Vallone was in his fifth year as chairman of the Government Operations Committee. Vallone considered the re-codification one of the most important bills he had worked on up to that time.

In 1988, when Vallone was in his fourth term, and his third year as Speaker, the buzz around City Hall was that then long-time Majority Leader Thomas Cuite of Brooklyn was ready to retire.

Vallone immediately became a contender to succeed Cuite. He made his interest in taking over the post known to all the other Councilmembers and tried to nail down their votes in anticipation of Cuite’s leaving.

All the hard campaigning paid off when Cuite retired and Vallone was elected Majority Leader when the Council convened for an organizational meeting early in January 1989.

While this was a very important step for Vallone, it was equally important that action to abolish the Board of Estimate also be taken. He had advocated strongly for this historical change in the structure of the city government, and when it finally came, he then plunged into the Charter Revision matter, arguing before the Charter Revision Commission: "I have always believed that our city needs a fully empowered legislature that will truly represent the people and provide a strong counterbalance to the mayor."

The stage was set for the Charter Revision when the United States Supreme Court ruled in March 1989 that the Board of Estimate was an illegal body, that its voting powers, giving a sparsely populated borough like Staten Island the same voting strength as heavily populated Queens, was a violation of the one-man, one-vote principle.

Accordingly, the Charter Revision abolished the Board of Estimate, called for redrawing the Council lines to expand it from 36 to 51 districts, and gave the board’s powers to the Council.

Charter Revision gave the City Council equal partner status with the mayor, sole responsibility for approving the city’s budget and spending priorities and decision-making powers over major land use issues.

One columnist wrote when the new Charter was in place:

"The Council was thus transformed into an administrative heavyweight, and Peter Vallone of Astoria, Queens, became the new Council’s first Speaker and a dominant player in the life of the city."

The first mayor to feel the sting of the Council’s new budget powers was Dinkins. When negotiations between the administration and Council reached an impasse, the Council for the first time introduced its own budget. A compromise was then reached.

But, one City Hall reporter wrote, "The very fact that the Council woke up at budget time at all was astonishing."

At various times, Koch and Giuliani have also been pushed into corners and left frustrated. Vallone doesn’t hesitate to play hardball when Council priorities are being ignored.

During his 15-year tenure as Majority Leader/Speaker, Vallone has led the Council in enacting significant legislation across the board on issues that presented themselves.

Vallone’s top priority has always been education, providing sufficient funding to give students, teachers and administrators the tools to assure a quality education.

First and foremost in this area was this proposal in his 1994 State of the City address to allocate $1.4 billion over a period of years to build more schools and renovate others to provide more classrooms and reduce class sizes and mount an attack on the overcrowding problem.

In the proposal, which later became part of the budget, he also called for replacement of coal-burning furnaces (the last of which became history earlier this year), updating textbooks and installing computers in every classroom.

Vallone also conceived the "Lessons In Values Education" program, designed to instill students with the basic values of respect, honesty, kindness, responsibility, freedom and non-violence.

Seeking to encourage students to enroll in the CUNY system by making tuition more affordable, Vallone created the city university tuition scholarship program that pays 50 percent of the CUNY tuition if a student graduates from high school with a B average.

He has seen to it that the program gets funded each year, fighting Giuliani’s efforts to keep it out of the budget.

Another Vallone educational initiative is called "Teach-er’s Choice" and provides incentives to keep teachers in the New York City school system.

His latest educational thrust is the Smart Kids/Smart City program that will deliver more funds to city schools by dedicating a portion of city real estate tax revenues.

Another major Vallone priority has been public safety. His Safe Streets/Safe City program made possible the hiring of 6,000 additional police officers, most of whom were assigned to street patrols. This program decreased crime in New York City to its lowest level since the 1960s.

The program was funded by a surcharge on city income tax payments which was lifted in the most recent budget, thus giving taxpayers one of the biggest tax cuts in the city’s history.

Vallone has continually advocated creation of an independent Civilian Complaint Review Board to monitor excessive force and unwarranted abuse of authority by cops.

Recently he proposed a series of measures to prevent and detect racial profiling. He also passed a bill establishing a board to which police officers can report misconduct and brutality within their precincts.

HOUSING

One of the city’s most serious problems is lack of affordable housing. Evidence of this is the prevalence of illegal two- and three-family homes and so many families doubling up in small apartments.

In a recently released plan, he called for taking the taxes generated by the sale of the World Trade Center and using them to build 20,000 affordable new homes in five years.

In the past, Vallone has attacked proposals to outlaw "warehousing ," the legal practice by landlords of keeping rental units vacant to buy time to renovate and convert them to co-op or condominium apartments. He opposed a bill as far back as 1989 to force landlords to rent vacant apartments within 30 days or face stiff fines.

"The only thing this law would do," he said at that time, "is virtually halt the co-op and condo conversion process in New York. It would put a stop to one of the few positive developments in our city’s housing stock."

EXPAND

MIDDLE CLASS

Reading through Vallone’s State of the City addresses and other policy statements, many passages frequently refer to rebuilding the city’s middle class. Typical of the materials on this topic was the report he released in 1997 entitled "Hollow In the Middle."

The study called attention to slow-paced job growth, high unemployment, and increasing costs for a college education. In short, said Vallone, these factors were interrelated and he explained why the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Since the emergence of "Hollow In the Middle," Vallone has annually proposed ways to shore up the middle class with new or improved jobs programs, promoted first-time home ownership and other housing programs and sought ways to make higher education careers more accessible.

One job-creating vehicle introduced by Vallone was the Emerging Industries Development Fund, which provides $30 million in low-interest loans for small businesses in emerging industries related to the high tech and biotech booms. It was a step which recognized the future of economic development for New York City.

TAXES, EFFICIENT

GOVERNMENT

Vallone has always used his Speaker’s position to promote less costly, more efficient government, making possible a freeze on real estate taxes for middle class homeowners, fair taxes for co-op and condo owners and elimination of many business taxes. Such programs also make possible realistic funding levels for other city service areas such as education, public safety, health care, cultural institutions and senior services. Vallone was able to do this within the confines of on-time, balanced budgets for eight consecutive years.

SMOKING BAN

New York City has become known as the smoke-free capital of the world because of Vallone’s tough legislation restricting smoking in restaurants, public places and the workplace, and lately in some parks. He also undertook efforts to discourage children and young people from taking up smoking.

Vallone faced some strong opposition to his smoking bans, but he persevered in the belief that in the long run such a ban would create a more healthful environment and would save lives.

Recently, Vallone announced a $5 million HIV/AIDS initiative focused on the African–American and Latino communities. The Speaker noted that although the proportion of whites diagnosed with AIDS has decreased by 14 percent since 1997, by 1998 African–Americans accounted for 50 percent of all AIDS cases and increases were also recorded in the Latino community.

LAND USE

Seeking to protect the city’s residential neighborhoods from proliferating adult entertainment establishments and book stores, Vallone provided solid Council support for legislation keeping these establishments a safe distance from schools and houses of worship, thus preserving the quality of life of many city neighborhoods.

SENIORS

Almost every year Vallone has fought to get respectable sums of money into the budget for seniors’ activities and budget. Chief among these achievements were programs to feed the homebound on weekends, programs to transport seniors to their doctor visits, capital funds for maintenance of senior centers, real estate tax savings for homeowners and rent increase exemptions for renters. Vallone also supported construction of senior housing developments and the NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Centers) program, under which city funds were appropriated to help set up senior centers within apartment buildings where tenants had lived for a long period and on into their retirement years.

In 1998, Vallone fought Koch to win reimbursement of Medicare Part B premiums for retired city workers; this year he’s battling Giuliani over the same issue, with the expectation that the Council will again override Giuliani’s veto.

Recently, Vallone’s PROMISE prescription drug aid for seniors was funded in the proposed 2001 budget

PARKS, CULTURAL

Over the years, Vallone led the Council in allocating over $60 million in public monies for the arts, even in severely limited budgetary periods. He made funding library operations six days a week a priority as well, and always found funding for parks maintenance.

CAMPAIGN FINANCING

Among Vallone’s most forward-looking pieces of landmark legislation was the establishment of the city’s campaign financing program, an accomplishment highlighted by the federal and New York state governments’ failures to take even an initial, meaningful step in this direction, despite ongoing major abuses.


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