Diving Into Dangerous Political Waters For His Constituents
I began a recent telephone interview with Councilmember Peter F. Vallone Jr. by asking him this admittedly oddly formulated question: Did he find the fierce eventually losing battle he had led earlier this year to prevent the City Council from renaming the Queensboro Bridge after former Mayor Ed Koch, which pitted him against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an overwhelming majority of his fellow city councilmembers (who in the end voted to rename the Queensboro Bridge the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge by a 38 to 12 margin), and (although publicly claiming neutrality) the former mayor himself, to be as dangerous to his political survival as scuba diving dozens of treacherous feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean is to his personal survival?
The analogy presented in this question was not intended to surprise or confuse Vallone, who I had learned while researching this piece, is an avid and highly trained scuba diver. And it didn’t, as Vallone quickly responded with a discernible trace of the sound of laughter in his voice, “Actually, your analogy, while imperfect, is not so off base. Scuba diving contains obvious dangers, but having the right training and using the proper equipment minimizes those risks…As for renaming the Queensboro Bridge, within my own council district (which covers Astoria, Long Island City, and portions of Jackson Heights, Riker’s, Randall’s and Wards Islands) and, in fact, throughout the entire borough [of Queens] my efforts to stop it had, based upon my own polling and my conversations with hundreds of residents, overwhelming public support… If what you refer to as danger, or what some have called ‘punishment’ came, it came from other places.”
The source of punishment, the other places which Vallone was referring [to], I immediately guessed, was in the formidable person of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a major proponent of the renaming of the bridge who, it had been widely reported at the time, viewed Vallone’s opposition as a direct attack against both her and Mayor Bloomberg. What had further intensified her anger with Vallone, many City Hall observers speculated at the time, was that she viewed this (as well as any other) alliance with Mayor Bloomberg as a major step towards securing Bloomberg’s support for what is all but her certain candidacy for mayor in 2013. Virtually all of these same observers have expressed little doubt that when Speaker Quinn slashed the discretionary funding to Vallone’s district from more [than] $1.4 million in 2010 to under $850,000 in the city’s 2011 budget that was implemented last month, it was a simple matter of punishing him for his opposition
to the renaming of the bridge. As one City Hall source told a reporter from another newspaper in what spiraled into a frequently reported quote, “They were sending a very clear message. You can be anti-establishment, you can go against me (Quinn), against the mayor, but there’s a price to pay.”
Based upon this history, I pointedly asked Vallone if he believed (what I had concluded he had just implied) that Quinn had withheld funding from his district as a political payback against him. “No I never accused her of that”, he quickly responded, and then added, “ I have always been an optimist about people and about the officials in government who were elected to serve them, so it’s hard to believe that a public official would take any action that would punish the people of Queens because I represented their will.”
I attempted to further question Vallone on this controversy, but he politely shifted the direction of my questions, stating, “There are many vital issues that affect the everyday lives of people of NYC that I have placed my attention upon and have become the focus of the legislation that I have sponsored and fought to have passed in the city council… And while these legislative initiatives have clearly received far less media coverage (than did his battle over the bridge’s renaming) they touch upon issues that directly impact upon the lives of New Yorkers.” It was these legislative initiatives that we discussed as the interview proceeded.
We discussed his work to provide safety for both public and non public school children. As his legislative record indicates, for Vallone the responsibility to assure safety for New York City children includes both while students are inside and while they are in transit to and from school. To address the former, Vallone wrote a law that provides for the placement of security cameras in all public schools and adds funds to pay for increased security measures for non public schools. To address the latter, Vallone sponsored another bill with a provision that allows children to carry cellular phones on their way to and their way home from school, thus enabling them to call the police in the event they encounter a threat to their safety. A father of two daughters who attended public school, Vallone emphasized that he has a personal understanding of the “fundamental responsibility of every school to provide a safe learning environment for every child...How can parents go to sleep at night without knowing with certainty that their child will be safe in school the next day”? As for the critics who complain that Vallone’s legislation takes public money to provide funds to supplement security measures for non public schools, he counters, “They (parents of non public school students) are taxpayers themselves...Their children, like all children are entitled to be provided with a safe learning environment.”
We moved on to discuss Vallone’s work as the chair of the city council’s Public Safety Committee, a role seemingly well suited for Vallone, a graduate of Fordham Law School, who had served six years as an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) in Manhattan. I informed Vallone that preparing for this interview I had studied his record as Public Safety Chair and learned that he had introduced legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations for cases of rape and child abuse, strengthen anti-graffiti laws and tighten gun control enforcement; I had also learned that he had led the fight to hire more police and secure funds from the state and federal governments to protect New Yorkers from another terrorist attack. Vallone explained that these became priority issues for him because “in my job as an ADA I witnessed the physical and psychological damage that violent domestic criminals had perpetrated against their victims...And on 9/11, I witnessed the murder and destruction that foreign born terrorists perpetrated against America … It is my core conviction that government’s primary responsibility is to provide for the safety of its citizens”.
I noted to Vallone, who has made no secret that he is seriously considering a run for Queens Borough President as his third, and final city council term ends in 2013, that the aforementioned relatively conservative positions he has taken on - the statute of limitations, graffiti and public funding for private education- might galvanize the disproportionately powerful leftist activists of his own party to attempt to destroy his candidacy. I added that some Queens political observers have conjectured that if his opponents on the left form an alliance with the enemies he had made over the bridge controversy, his political future could be in serious jeopardy.
Vallone made it clear to me that such potential dire political scenarios do not concern him, saying, “I have always and will continue to take positions based on what is in the best interests of the people I represent and not worry about how it might affect me politically.” Whether or not these words will come back to haunt him in two years, they were spoken, I was convinced after this lengthy interview, by an elected public official of whom it could be both literally and figuratively said -is unafraid to dive into dangerous waters.
Robert Golomb is currently an adjunct professor of graduate writing, education and school administration. His published articles have covered a range of educational, political, entertainment and cultural topics. He can be contacted via email: Mr.Bob347@aol.com.