The King of Queens

Will the Peter Principle Snag Peter Vallone?

It was early morning at the Brooklyn Bridge subway stop near City hall-so early the coffee vendors were still stacking their cups, the bagels and donuts were in ample supply, and newspapers were piled chest-high on the stands. And it was hot, one of the first days of a sweltering spell that would grip the city. But Peter Vallone looked crisp in his gray suit, pale blue shirt, maroon tie, and black polished wing tips. By 7:30 the 66-year-old City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful had already finished his daily treadmill-and-yoga workout and attended Mass.

Vallone spent nearly an hour greeting subway riders, whose reactions ranged from enthusiasm to disinterest. He shook hands with all takers, gently squeezing the shoulders of those who stopped to chat. Vallone was joined by Lee Saunders of District Council 37, which represents 125,000 city workers. In the four-way race for the Democratic mayoral nomination, the union's July 19 endorsement was a major coup, although Vallone won it by only a fraction of the vote. Even DC 37 members who are committed to him are unsure about their candidate's future.

"I'm voting for him because he stands for most of the issues I stand for," says George Echebiri, who works at the city's Department for the Aging. "I doubt if he has a chance, but even so, voting makes sense."

The September 11 Democratic primary will probably require a runoff. Public Advocate Mark Green has consistently garnered about 30 percent in the polls, and his three competitors—Vallone, Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and Bronx Borough President Freddie Ferrer—trail with 16, 17, and 18 percent respectively. In some ways, Vallone's last-place status is baffling: Why is it so hard for a man with a 15-year stint as City Council majority leader, a three-decade career as an elected official, and lifelong entrenchment in the city's best-oiled political machine to make the step from being the city's second most powerful politician to its first?

At the root of the lead bill is perhaps Vallone's biggest liability, his allegiance to the real estate industry.

"Peter Vallone has made the City Council effective, but it's a job that by its nature requires compromise and making deals," says pollster Mickey Carroll. "It's hard to be dramatic about compromise. It's not the kind of thing that you can put your jaw forward, clench your fist, and make a poster about, or fashion into a vigorous campaign theme."

A lack of pizzazz is not Vallone's only dilemma. For as often as he is called dedicated, compassionate, and politically savvy, he is also regarded as bullying, conservative, and short on innovation. "He's very old-fashioned, very much out of clubhouse politics, and very provincial," says one City Hall source. "He's not a sophisticated man."

Vallone, who professes his faith in political machines because "otherwise, it would only be the Michael Bloombergs of the world who could run for office," was dealt his most stunning blow when Queens Democratic leader Tom Manton backed Queens-based Hevesi instead. Vallone attributes the rebuff to his refusal to undo voter-approved term limits. Others say that Manton was simply picking a winner. Bereft of the party's blessing and its get-out-the-vote operation, Vallone sees himself as an insurgent.

"I like it," Vallone told the Voice. "I love it because nobody can accuse me any more of being the pawn of the political leaders, which used to be one of the mantras."

But there are other mantras that Vallone can't seem to hush. Despite some progressive policies, most notably campaign finance reform and smoking bans, Vallone is essentially a traditional outer-borough pol whose pragmatism is more highly developed than his ideology. He is regularly labeled as a beneficiary and tool of the real estate lobby, and his 1994 rent law giveaway let landlords deregulate thousands of apartments. Vallone can be a frustrating contradiction: an autocrat who badgers council members of his own party into "consensus" while failing to fully use his powers to consistently challenge a Republican mayor. "I wish he had taken on both David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani more on budget issues and oversight," says Chris Meyer of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). "That would have strengthened his qualifications for mayor."

Vallone's campaign theme is that he has far more experience than his opponents. But in driving home the point, he turns remarks about his larger agenda into arcane digressions outlining what he understands about government that his competitors do not. In the end, Vallone gives the impression that perhaps his long years in government have dulled him, leaving him with less vision and too much of a "been there, done that" attitude.

"There's an insularity to him and his operation," says one source who has worked for years with Vallone on many citywide issues. "For him, there's really just this world, this Astoria, and he knows that, and everything else that he doesn't want to know, he just doesn't deal with. He doesn't have a lawyer's perspective of seeing the other side."

In fact, Vallone is a lawyer, practicing for years from an Astoria office. His life is marked by routine—church in the morning, dinner at home every evening—that he says keeps him "rooted." He attended a Catholic high school and went to Fordham for law. Like his politically active parents—his father was a judge and his mother a district leader—Vallone came up through the Queens Democratic organization, and in 1974 was elected to the City Council. In 1986, with the city on the brink of a bid-rigging scandal that would end with the suicide of the Queens Borough President and the conviction of several politicians, party leaders scrambled to install a friend at the council's helm. They chose Vallone. But while he was immersed in the machine, Vallone appears not to have taken to its venality. That may have been his appeal.

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