A Bronx Tale

The Incumbent Protection Society Musters Its Forces

For several years, Bronx state senator Guy Velella, a conservative Republican, has spoken to colleagues about his dream of becoming a justice of the state's Supreme Court, even stepping up to the appellate level if possible.

For several years, it has been a dream denied.

Velella's curse has been to represent a district that has two and a half times as many democrats as republicans and is becoming steadily more Democratic each year.

If he steps down to take a judgeship, leaders of his party reasonably fear, the seat could easily fall to a Democrat, thus endangering the Republicans' 11-seat majority in the senate. A presidential race traditionally brings many more voters to the polls, making the Republican hold on the district even shakier this year.

Insiders say Velella has quietly been asked to put his dream on hold one more time, to make sure Republicans have control of the senate when new district lines are drawn under next year's reapportionment.

"You owe it to the majority to stay through reapportionment," Velella told the Daily News' Tracey Tully last year. "You have to pay back your debts."

Velella has served in the senate since 1986, representing a district that begins in the north Bronx and meanders into Westchester County.

During that time, he has been the powerful chairman of the Bronx's Republican committee and of his party's senate campaign committee.

That partisanship, however, hasn't prevented him from achieving such a warm relationship with the borough's Democratic leaders that they have never launched an effective campaign to take his seat. Twice in the past decade, in fact, they have allowed him to run on the Democratic line.

Democrats regularly deplore the senate as the burying ground for progressive measures passed by the Democratic-controlled assembly, and as the launching pad for legislation that shortchanges New York City on everything from education funding to tenant protections. Without blushing, the same party leaders have largely accommodated downstate Republicans such as Velella.

It is the way things have worked in the Bronx, from the Democratic Party leadership of Patrick Cunningham in the 1970s through Stanley Friedman in the '80s and the current leader, Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez. It is a get-along-to-go-along, mutual nonaggression pact that has little to do with political philosophy and everything to do with practical considerations of patronage and power.

Neither Velella nor Ramirez chose to be interviewed about their recent dealings, but here's how this Bronx tale is playing out:

In early April, Lorraine Coyle Koppell, a liberal Democrat with name recognition and a substantial fundraising ability, stepped forward to say she wanted to challenge Velella.

Koppell, an Irish Catholic lawyer married to former state attorney general Oliver Koppell, said that she attempted to follow proper political etiquette by calling Ramirez to tell him of her interest. The call was not returned. Neither were two more, she said.

Martin Connor, the Democratic minority leader in the senate, said he warned Koppell not to expect encouragement from Ramirez. "I said, 'Be prepared; he is going to tell you don't do it.' Which he did," said Connor.

In April, Koppell spotted Ramirez in Albany stepping out of a statehouse elevator. "I grabbed him and said, 'We have to talk,' " said Koppell. They did.

"He wasn't happy with my running. He said he didn't want me to run," she said.

Those who encouraged her also incurred Ramirez's wrath.

"Ramirez is furious at me that I talked to Lorraine about running," said Democratic state senator Eric Schneiderman, whose district overlaps Manhattan's West Side and the Bronx. "I was told that my first name in his office has become 'Fuckhead.' "

A few weeks after Koppell's meeting with Ramirez, another Democrat, Mike Benedetto, entered the race and quickly received Ramirez's support. Koppell and her supporters assumed that Ramirez was using a "spoiler" candidate to force her into a costly primary that would soften her up for Velella in the general election in November. It wasn't an unreasonable conclusion.

But Benedetto, a Democratic Party leader in the East Bronx who last ran for the same senate seat 20 years ago, angrily denied that he is running at Ramirez's behest. "That seat has always been in the back of my mind," he said.

Benedetto has learned the hard way about bucking the organization. He first ran for the senate in 1978 against Velella's predecessor, the late John Calandra. The Democratic leadership refused to support him, but he came within a whisker of beating the Republican anyway. The following election, in 1980, the Democrats simply gave Calandra their line, just as they did later for Velella.

Benedetto said he watched and waited, hoping that Velella would get that long-rumored judgeship. "An open seat is a lot more attractive race than running against an incumbent," he said.

The idea had occurred to others as well. John Calvelli, a former aide to Congressman Eliot Engel, raised more than $120,000 in anticipation of Velella's departure but dropped out when the senator stayed put.

Benedetto said he realized after Koppell declared her candidacy that she might, in a presidential year, have a chance. "What if lightning strikes?" he said.

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