The King of Queens

Will the Peter Principle Snag Peter Vallone?

"The leaders wanted someone who would let them do what they wanted but who wouldn't demand a piece of it," says one political reporter. "If you offered Peter a bribe, he'd probably deck you."

Council members elected Vallone leader by one vote. Once in power, he undertook what he calls "the core of my life—to change government," particularly the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which was ruled unconstitutional and disbanded in 1989. The council was given power over budget and land-use issues. Vallone used it to advocate for homeless shelters that offered treatment and to rewrite campaign finance laws.

"The council has passed some meaningful legislation, and Peter Vallone deserves genuine credit for it," says Gene Russianoff of the NYPIRG. "On some issues, like youth and tobacco, police misconduct, and campaign finance reform, his position is identical to progressive Democrats. And his hallmark is that he hires good staffers. It's a big mistake for progressives to paint Vallone as if he's an arch conservative. He's more complicated than that, more like the John McCain of New York."

Vallone himself quips he's "been the most progressive Speaker in the history of the city"—a joke for those who understand that he's been the only one to fill the job since it was created in 1989.

Progressives who have worked under Vallone find his leadership style less amusing. Sal Albanese, who represented Bay Ridge until 1997, lost his chair of the council's Youth Services Committee in 1991 when he bucked Vallone's plan to hire more cops. Ronnie Eldridge, who represents the Upper West Side, lost her chair of the Contracts Committee in 1994 for voting against Vallone's budget.

"It's all so ludicrous," says Eldridge. "He decides alone, he appoints chairs, he assigns the majority of members to committees, decides who's on the steering committee, what the stipends are" for committee chairs. Vallone also uses money that council members get to dole out in their district—a base of $80,000—as part of what he calls his "carrot-and-stick approach." Those who support Vallone can get even more.

Vallone insists that members are free to vote without consequence on anything but the budget."No one is ever punished," Vallone says. "They're just not rewarded." He also controls the fate of bills. For instance, Eldridge has for years sponsored a bill to stem the loss of single-room occupancy hotels, but it has idled in committee. "Any bill that's just sitting around means there's no consensus for it," says Vallone—even though Eldridge's bill has the backing of a dozen council members. Also stymied was a lead-paint bill from Manhattan's Stan Michels, cosponsored by 33 of 51 members.

Indeed, the lead-paint battle of 1999, when the council was under court order to rewrite the lead laws, was one of Vallone's most brutal loyalty tests. Michels, who chairs the Environmental Protection Committee, proposed a bill to strengthen the law. That peeved landlords, who had long complained that the existing law was cumbersome and that litigation from lead-poisoned children was bankrupting them.

For days, Vallone's staff met with landlord lobbyists, including Joe Strasburg, who in 1994 left his post as Vallone's chief of staff to head the city's largest landlord group. Together, they wrote another bill that greatly reduced landlord liability and proposed loose clean-up standards. Vallone sent that bill to the Housing and Buildings Committee, chaired by loyalist Archie Spigner. Vallone staffers made it clear to council members that the vote would be considered a "leadership issue." In the end, Vallone wrangled a "consensus" of 36 votes on a bill that critics, including the federal Environmental Protection Agency, say is detrimental to children's health and severely limits the ability of families of poisoned children to sue landlords.

Today, Vallone refers to the issue as "a completely misunderstood situation." He blames trial lawyers, who were "making a huge amount of money on lead-paint cases," and asks, "Who says [the new law is] not better? Hey, it's harder to sue," he says, his tone changing from explanation to contempt. "Well, you know, that's tough. That's really tough. Prove your case."

Matthew Chachère, an attorney who represents health groups that have sued the city over lead-paint laws, rebuts, "We're not talking about lawyers getting rich; we're talking about kids who are getting poisoned, and he's saying, 'Too bad.' Of course lawyers make money; that's not the point. The point is that if kids get poisoned because a landlord has an unsafe lead situation, they should have remedies."

At the root of the lead bill is perhaps Vallone's biggest liability, his allegiance to the real estate industry. In October 1999, Steve Spinola of the Real Estate Board of New York made an unprecedented plea for contributions to Vallone's campaign, calling the Speaker "a friend of the industry." When, by this spring, no clear winner emerged, the industry instead backed all the candidates equally. But Vallone's argument that "they gave me the same amount of money as everyone else" is specious, since throughout his career landlords and developers have been major contributors. In fact, Vallone's biggest campaign fundraisers are Spinola and Strasburg.

Vallone's most troubling landlord gift came in 1994, when he made permanent what had been two temporary state provisions. The first deregulated rent-stabilized "luxury" apartments occupied by tenants who earned more than $250,000 for two consecutive years and paid rent of $2000. The second allowed landlords to deregulate vacant apartments if they spent enough on improvements to bring the rent over $2000 a month.

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