By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Ive been waiting to find a candidate for Mayor. Ive been
Id love it to be a guy from Queens weve got two and
certainly neither is bad. The whole field isnt bad. But is it good?
Vallone and Schenkler.
photo: Dee Richard
Sadly, the talk of the
pundits this year is that the field of Democratic candidates consists of four competent,
experienced individuals . . . but not one star. Im sitting and waiting for one to
emerge a star at least to me. New York City deserves a star. New York City
needs a star.
If that star came from Queens, it would
glow even brighter.
So, when Council Speaker Peter
Vallones office called and wanted to set up a sit down (I like that phrasing), I was
I had interviewed the Speaker previously.
He came to our office a number of years ago not election time, no great issues at
stake and it was a large group sit down. I had invited a handful of reporters and editors
and we all got to know the Speaker.
Now he was candidate for Mayor. And
although Ive watched him steer the council for fifteen years, I was never bowled
over. He didnt seem like a star. When he ran for Governor, although he spins it
differently talking about an impressive victory in the City, I wasnt impressed.
Now, Im not knocking Peter Vallone or
his lifetime of public service. He is a fine dedicated champion of the people. He is a
skilled politician with more experience than Sid Davidoff at getting things done in
government. He just never impressed me as being a star. Sorry!
But maybe I missed the twinkle, the glow.
Now, Im not looking for all sex and charisma. Im not looking for superhuman
qualities. Im looking for the top the Citys most able, brightest,
compassionate leader to come forward and take on the second toughest job in the country.
There certainly is one guy up to the task.
But I dont think hes going to leave his Harlem office to run for Gracie
Mansion. But stars do exist.
Maybe "star" is the wrong word.
"Exceptional Individual" might describe it better.
Rudy Giuliani is an exceptional individual
. . . too bad compassion and understanding dont complement his drive, intelligence
and determination. The Mayor is bright and able. But, hes sadly lacking the humanity
to elevate his outstanding talents to star quality.
Well, maybe there is no "star" in
this race and I have to settle for the best. But I am ready to give each a look. Remember,
none of the four seems bad. Any of them could be my candidate.
Then a month ago, I lunched with Peter
Vallone, Jr. the forty-something year-old son of the Speaker who is running to
replace his father as Councilman from Astoria.
On April 5, I wrote about Pete Jr.s
image of his father:
"The young Vallone (actually the
oldest of three sons Peter, Perry and Paul of Tina and Peter Vallone) was
not selling himself for the Council seat. He was pitching his father for Mayor. He was
convincing, compassionate and honestly showed the love and respect he had for his father.
There is no doubt that Pete, Jr. came from a household filled with love and respect where
basic values were the focus of raising kids. The affection and respect of a son for his
father that I witnessed is all too rare in kids today, no matter how old.
"Hes a much nicer person
than I am, Pete said of his father. I can tell you hed never make
backroom deals, he just doesnt do those things, he related without doubt.
"I came away from the lunch with a new
take on the powerful, seemingly autocratic Council Speaker. Although Peter, Sr. has always
been portrayed as a good man of deep religious conviction, to me, he was still the leader
of a shoddy Council that he ruled with iron fist except on term limit repeal.
"But a sons compassion has made
this writer rethink his position. There are no political conclusions yet. But it seems
that Peter Vallone Sr. is a remarkable man no judgment yet on his ability to run
Calendar forward one month to Friday
afternoon. Peter, Sr. was coming to the Trib and I wanted to find out if he
really was that remarkable. Was he a star? Could he be my candidate?
Unlike most interviews, I didnt ask
the editorial staff to sit in. I wanted to have the opportunity to control the interview,
meet the candidate, get inside his head and find out how exceptional he was. I invited Trib
editor Tamara Hartman, who was going to take notes and possibly write a story of
the interview. Associate Publisher Mike Nussbaum who knows Vallone better than I
was nice enough to uninvite himself to let me "have a go" at the Speaker.
A day or two before the interview, I
received an email from my new friend, Peter, Jr., he said: So I hear youre
speaking to the Speaker soon. Ask him some tough questions about details.
Then see the difference between ability and rhetoric. Have fun.
I intended to. To me politics is having
fun. And since picking up the weekly responsibility of writing a political column, I knew
it was the tough questions and the tough columns that make readers want to read you.
And this column is a real tough one to
Bernice Spitzer (Council Public Information Officer Press
liaison), Pat Reilly (Council Director of State Affairs lobbyist) and James S.
Vobis (Administrative Manager advance man) arrived first. After the Speaker came
and our interview started, Mike Regan (Chief Information Officer press secretary)
joined us. Other Council staffers arrived later, but they remained outside. I assume they
were preparing for the next stop.
Well, Peter showed up pretty close to our 4 PM Friday afternoon
appointed time. He, Tamara, Spitzer, Reilly, and Vobis joined me in my office. Our
photographer, Dee Richard, took a couple of shots and left the six of us in my office.
After coffee was offered, we got down to business.
"Peter," I asked, "Are you here as Speaker or Mayoral
"Im here as a candidate," he quickly responded.
"Then why," I replied, "Are there four members of the
Council staff here?"
"This is okay," the Speaker replied, "weve gotten
a ruling from counsel."
I spent the next ten minutes trying to poke holes in Peters
"Im not talking letter of the law, I insisted,
"Its just wrong. Isnt it?"
I gave him every opportunity to recant his defense of having Council
staff actively involved in a Mayoral campaign interview. He didnt.
"In this race it is all [the four Democratic mayoral candidates]
city employees" with public staffs, he claimed.
"And what about Bloomberg (the millionaire media mogul seeking the
Republican nomination)," I asked?
"He can afford to pay for his staff," Vallone retorted in an
attempt to lighten the moment.
Peter held his ground. There is nothing wrong with using the City
Council employees (apparently while theyre on City time) to assist him in his race
"I cant use my office for campaign meetings or make
fundraising calls on the City phone," he explained, "but Counsel has issued an
opinion that this is all right."
We danced through other instances where I alleged abuse of City Council
funds for campaign purposes.
Vallone agreed that Jeff Gottliebs use of Morty Povmans
Council office was wrong and questioned some other gray area actions. "The Speaker
will speak to Morton Povman. I have to see about this . . . what action is taken. It sure
as hell better not happen again."
I told Vallone about his friend and colleague Herb Berman, a Brooklyn
Councilmember since 1975. For the first quarter of a century of his service on the Council
including more than a decade as Finance chair, Berman never sent the Trib a
press release. We assumed his Brooklyn constituency was the target of his public outreach.
We receive only rare contact from non-Queens or citywide officials. Bermans first 25
years were normal. His Council office didnt contact us.
Then Berman decided to run for City Comptroller and he discovered the Trib.
He sends us stuff at City expense. We assume he sends it to other papers in other
boroughs papers that never heard from Herb Berman until he decided to run for
"Why Mr. Speaker," I asked, "should this be
"Hes the second most important person in the council and is
doing his job as finance chair, " Vallone responded. "Its perfectly legal.
You cant stop being what you are [when youre an elected official] . . .
weve done this every single year and I believe it is perfectly alright to do, or I
wouldnt do it. Less than 30 percent of the people vote. If it is an advantage [to
have a staff, mailings, etc.] then it should be an advantage. We didnt just fall out
of the sky. They [voters] dont know what we do now."
"But Bill Thompson resigned as Board of Education president to run
for Comptroller," I commented.
"That was a wrong decision," Vallone observed.
The adventure continued.
We moved off the topic of abuse of Council funds for campaign purposes.
I then discover the compassionate man who is running on his experience and his record. I
saw a man who cares deeply about the people of this City and thinks he can make a
I also saw a skilled politician who wasnt making waves.
"Yes, Board of Education members are supposed to be independent
according to the City Charter, but that doesnt mean they cant have another
type of arrangement with the Borough President who appointed them," Vallone spun in
order to avoid criticism of Claire Shulmans call for Terri Thomsons
Peter Vallone came across as an old fashioned politician with old
I found the two incompatible.
The old fashioned values, ethics and morality that Pete Jr. spoke of at
the lunch table may have been there but they didnt seem to prevent the Speaker from
justifying activities that were considered wrong when I first played in Queens politics
some 25 years ago. Today, I consider them outrageous.
In fairness, I extend an offer to the Speaker, to provide us with the
opinion of counsel stating that it is acceptable for Council staff members to work on
campaigns while they are on public time and payroll and to also prepare a written
statement for publication explaining to us and our readers why it is an acceptable
I enjoyed the two hour session with the Speaker.
I like Peter Vallone.
This was one tough column to write.
But a quarter of a centuy ago, I learned that when elected officials
use staffers for campaigns they do so on lunch hours, after hours or they take leaves.
Those are the rules as we know them. At times, weve seen officials tap dancing,
claiming campaign activities were really official activities.
That was not the case with Vallone. "This is a campaign interview
and I can use City Council staff and I have opinion of Counsel that says so," was his
Sorry Peter, youre wrong. Dead wrong!