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Thanks to Republican power broker Guy Velella’s guilty plea to bribery charges last month, voters in his 34th Senatorial District in the Bronx and Westchester were denied the opportunity to hear the unguarded, innermost thoughts of their longtime elected official, as captured on bugs placed by state police investigators on the former senator’s phones.
But now that the race to succeed the eight-term senator is already hot and heavy, with candidates battling to claim ownership rights to the Velella legacy, a brief glimpse into some of the things that were weighing on the former senator’s mind in recent years might be enlightening.
In the early spring of 2000, for instance, Velella was up for re-election. Even though he doubled as chairman of the Bronx Republican Party, Velella had long been able to count on both overt and covert support from the regular Bronx Democratic machine. But word on the street was that a Democratic reformer was going to seek the Democratic nod to challenge Velella.
Initially, the rumor was that a former congressional aide named John Calvelli was going to make the run. But Calvelli bowed out after he landed a job with a large nonprofit organization, a decision that was reported in a local paper, the Bronx Press Review.
After that, reform Democrats turned to Lorraine Coyle, an attorney and wife of former state attorney general and current city councilmember Oliver Koppell. In a wonderful illustration of the cozy world of New York politics, Coyle got talked into the race while she and about 200 others were attending a wedding reception for political consultant Norman Adler, an old friend of her husband’s, as well as Velella’s chief campaign adviser.
That was the situation on March 17, 2000, when investigators overheard Velella talking it over with his dad and law partner, Vincent Velella.
VINCENT VELELLA: How was it last night? Did you go to the Kiwanis?
GUY VELELLA: No.
No, I had to go [to] the Pelham Bay Merchants.
I got a, I got an opponent now.
Oliver Koppell’s wife. Lorraine, uh, Coyle?
You, you, you know her.
I don’t know if I know—
Yeah, you’ve met her. Nasty little bitch.
She’s going to run for senate?
No more, uh, the other guy?
No, he’s out. He got a job.
Who told you that?
Oh, it’s in the newspaper.
Uh, uh, which paper?
The Bronx Press Review.
Oh, that’s a small paper.
Yeah. And, uh, she spoke with Norman Adler and said she’s going to do it. That they told her, even if she loses, that Hillary Clinton will see she gets a federal judgeship. [inaudible]—did something to them.
Well, we don’t get involved in that party at all. We stay in our own party—
That’s it. And all I’m doing is worrying about what happens in November. They do what they want. Um, the only problem I got now is, uh, that goddamn kid is going to run against, uh, [Bronx Demo-cratic state assemblyman] Jeff Klein again.
Well, somebody’s got to run against Jeff Klein.
Yeah, but that’s the one you don’t want. Because the kid really takes it serious and makes a lot of noise and runs around. Unless I could convince him to run against Engel?
That could be a good idea.
Maybe for Congress, I tell him—
Throw Selan and, uh, against, uh—
—Oh, wait, I don’t think he lives in Engel’s district.
You don’t have to live in the district for Congress.
Well, I’ll see. We’ll just see what we got to do.
I’ll see, I’ll see—so you’ll pick me up, uh, 5:45.
It’s likely that Papa Velella was talking about Beqir “Ben” Celaj, an activist in Bronx Republican circles, when he mentioned “Saland” and “Selan.”
Bronx Democratic assemblyman Jeff Klein, now one of two leading candidates for Velella’s old senate seat, remembered the challenger clearly.
“He ran a spirited campaign against me in 1998, he spent some money,” Klein said. As to why Velella might want to keep an eager would-be Republican candidate off the ballot, the assemblyman said Velella was “nothing else but cagey. His theory was, ‘Don’t wake up the Democrats.’ The more Democrats that come out to vote in a real race, the more may be likely to vote against him.”
A week later, the two men were heard griping about an expensive solicitation to a political event honoring Governor George Pataki being organized by a Westchester Republican lawyer named Guy Parisi. The Velellas didn’t sound too thrilled about attending.
VINCENT VELELLA: Uh, I got a letter from, uh, Parisi. Guy Parisi?
$500 a ticket for Pataki for the luncheon for one hour.
A thousand dollars to have a picture taken with Pataki.
No. Don’t worry.
What is he? Crazy?
Yeah. He’s not going to have nobody. Where does he got the, uh, the command to get those?
Well, I’m only telling you.