2005-09-07 / Book Review

Former Council Speaker Recalls Life In NYC Politics

Book Review

Learning To Govern: My Life in New York Politics From Hell Gate to City Hall, Peter F. Vallone, Richard Altschuler & Associates, Inc./Chaucer Press, 278 pp.; $20.

‘Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it” had to be running though Peter Vallone’s mind the day after Labor Day 1990. Since he was first elected to the New York City Council in 1974,Vallone had fought to abolish the Board of Estimate and have its powers taken over by the council where, he felt and was sure the City Charter specified, they belonged. On Aug. 27, 1990 the battle he had waged for 16 years had ended with the abolishing of the Board of Estimate and now the Council, with the mayor, truly ran the city. It was a mixed blessing. “For several months my top staff and I had been struggling to reconcile the pressing social and safety needs of the city with the dismal economic facts of life,” Vallone said in the Prologue of Learning to Govern: My Life in New York Politics From Hell Gate To City Hall . The needs and the facts collided on the uptown platform of the 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue station of the E line subway train on the Sunday evening of Labor Day Weekend 1990 when a family from Utah, in New York City to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament, was attacked by a gang of muggers. Brian Watkins, 22 years old, came to his mother’s defense and was stabbed several times. He bled to death on the platform while his family waited for aid.

The Watkins family—and the rest of New York City, which would record 2,262 homicides in 1990—wondered why you could never find a cop when you needed one. Vallone and his staff knew: the New York city police force, hailed as the best in the world, had been so decimated by budget cuts that many streets and a good part of the subways were not safe for ordinary citizens. (Police, firefighters and sanitation workers were usually cut while social service work forces were funded because federal money for social service workers was guaranteed by Washington, D.C.; police had no such support.) Vallone knew, too, that perception is just as important as reality, and the perception of New York City for too many people was of a place where ordinary, law-abiding citizens were afraid to walk down a street in broad daylight, much less after dark. “To most of us at the strategic meeting that began on September 4 and carried over into the next day, it was clear that nothing less than a full restoration of New York City’s traditional level of police staffing—five thousand additional cop on the streets—would send the necessary signal to the city, national and international community that New York City was going to crack down on the apparent wave of lawlessness.” But Mayor Edward Koch had called for 5,000 more police on the streets of New York City and hadn’t been able to provide them, even during the affluent 1980s. How could the City Council do it in a recession?

Vallone did it with his Safe Streets, Safe City plan that mandated the hiring of enough new police officers to raise the minimum troop strength of the police force to pre-fiscal crisis levels. It was funded by a dedicated source of revenue, a surcharge on the city personal income tax and a slight increase in the real estate tax. The bill that allowed New York City to tax itself in order to reestablish its criminal justice system was amended in June 1993 and in January 1997, and the council returned the income tax surcharge in 1998, when the magic number of 38,310 police officers was reached. By 2001, New York City was the safest big city in the United States.

Safe Streets, Safe City illustrates the principles by which Vallone, a master politician, approached his work as a lawyer, a legislator and a true citizen of New York City. He acquired the tenets that guide every element of his life through his DNA. His mother, Leah Vallone, was a teacher, an assistant dean at Julia Richman H.S. in Manhattan and a Democratic District Leader. His father, Charles Vallone, was a lawyer, a judge and, among other things, the driving force behind the founding of the Astoria Civic Association and the organization that became the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens. Both gave young Peter and his brother, Charles Jr., a firm grounding in the principles of belief and faith in God, love of country and devotion to family and community.

The story of young Peter’s growing up in the apartment building known as The Tips, a block from the two-family house where he now lives, his father’s marching in the Brotherhood Day parades that brought about Peter and his brother being excluded from Immaculate Conception Catholic School and the resulting “eight of the best years of my life attending P.S. 122” at Ditmars Boulevard and 21st Street, have been recounted in other journals but are documented in Learning To Govern. One story some other accounts of the Vallone family’s devotion to public service omit is Charles Sr.’s fight during the late 1940s to get a stop sign installed at the intersection of 29th Street and 23rd Avenue after a child was run over and killed. “Do I have to move my desk into the street and block all the traffic?” the community activist asked his friend, George Douris, then a reporter for the Long Island Star-Journal , who would later found the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee (HANAC). “Sounds good to me, Charlie,” Douris replied.

“The next thing I knew Dad got together a few members of the Astoria Civic Association to help him move his desk right into the middle of the 29th Street intersection,” Peter recalled. “I’ll never forget it, because I was terribly worried that Dad would either be run over or be arrested, leaving me, my brother and Mom out on the streets, too.” His worries proved groundless—hundreds of people joined in the protest and soon a stop sign was installed at the busy intersection, where it still stands. The publicity didn’t hurt Charles Sr.’s image or his standing in the community, either.

Peter’s meeting with his future wife, Tena Marie, their marriage and the births of their three living children (the eldest, Christopher Peter, was stillborn, which Vallone attributes in part to the 80-year-old obstetrician attending the birth) are also recounted. Even given the tragedy of the loss of their first child, Vallone and his wife succeeded in giving their children—Peter Jr., Paul and Perry—a childhood as happy as young Peter’s had been. The family weathered a number of rough patches, including the firebombing of Vallone’s office and the death in a car accident of Peter’s brother, Charles Jr., which hastened the death of Leah Vallone shortly after Judge Charles Sr. died in his chambers after resolving a family feud.

Family crises aside, Vallone’s career took him and the city through some of the most tumultuous years in its history. Vallone recalls the Parking Violations Bureau scandal that led to the suicide of Queens Borough President Donald Manes and Claire Shulman’s succeeding to the office as Queens’ first female chief executive, the Crown Heights riots that followed the automobile accident in which young Gavin Cato was killed by the driver of a car in a caravan of Lubavicher Jews, the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo incidents and much more.

Throughout crises that would have daunted others, Vallone has held fast to his faith and his belief, reinforced by a passage in the book of the Prophet Micah in the Old Testament that maintains that all God wants is for humans to “do the right thing.” He has made it his credo and guide.

Besides his lively recounting of working with three dynamic mayors—Edward I. Koch, whom Vallone calls the spirit of New York City, David Dinkins, per Vallone the heart of the city, and Rudy Giuliani, unquestionably the brain of the city, Vallone offers a clear-eyed look at the metropolis he loves and takes unwavering aim at some of the factors that, he says, are preventing it from reaching even greater heights. One of the most outstanding of these is the Term Limits law. Term limits, Vallone maintains, are crippling legislative bodies all across America and should be consigned to the dust heap of history as soon as possible..

Learning to Govern also contains an Appendix, “How to Run for Office” that any aspiring politician will find invaluable. Vallone emphasizes the need to start small—join a political club, do some of the grunt work and let people know that you’re available and willing—success will come your way.

Learning to Govern has one or two minor flaws. Former Assemblymember Denis Butler’s name is consistently misspelled and Vallone recounts a diary entry in which he continually refers to the Li’l Abner comic strip character Joe Bfsptzpx as Dondi. Aside from these minor points, Learning to Govern is the story of a man of character, faith and conviction who in the course of his 35-year career in public office served the people of New York City well and faithfully. Vallone’s book makes clear that public service is truly a calling worthy of the best and the brightest. We trust that this book will inspire future generations to seek public office as an honorable, even inspired career, guided by that Creator on whom Vallone calls so often and follows so well.

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