The King of Queens


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.

“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.

“Those laws have been abysmal in terms of destruction of neighborhoods, especially the vacancy decontrol” says Kenny Schaeffer of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. “It just gave landlords a bigger profit and drives the middle class out.”

Vallone spokesman Mattis Goldman says the luxury decontrol law followed news stories about celebrities, including Mia Farrow and Carly Simon, whose rent was well below their means and the market rate. “There was a real fear that these cases would ruin rent regulation for everyone, so the council acted to take steps to end most egregious cases.” Vallone himself invokes rent issues “as an example of the kinds of things I’m criticized for, but if you’re in government, you must work towards a consensus to preserve the best, and you must make compromises that are not unconscionable. That’s the principle of how I try to govern.”

Vallone has an Affordable Housing Trust Fund plan that would use revenue from the sale of the World Trade Center—a scheme that his opponents mimic. But Vallone’s use of affordable housing as a campaign plank can’t disguise his role in eroding the existing affordable stock.

Vallone is banking on support from middle-class voters concerned about expensive housing and inferior schools. He’s made a play to poorer parents with a plan to cover health care premiums for children. And he is counting on support from an old reliable core, seniors. Central also are Giuliani Democrats—white, outer-borough voters who liked the mayor’s crime policies and conservatism. While Vallone says he wants to continue many of Giuliani’s “gains,” he’s quick to say, “I really do think, contrary to this administration, that if money is your problem, you save money if we treat people with compassion.”

Can Vallone win? He harks back to his 1998 gubernatorial run against incumbent George Pataki. That race, too, turned this ultimate insider into an outcast in upstate counties, where the city and its politicians are loathed.

“What people don’t know is that in spite of the fact that Pataki spent 40 million bucks and I spent 7 million, I still carried the city better than 2-1 against this guy. . . . I think that’s a fairly good analysis of why I believe I’m going to win this Democratic primary. Unfortunately, after that I won’t be facing Governor Pataki and $40 million in the state of New York,” he chuckles. “I’ll be facing Mike Bloomberg and $100 million in the city of New York.”

Research assistance: Taron Flood