“Peter! We got another senior citizen for you!”
City Council Speaker Peter Vallone snapped his gaze across
three rows of gray heads. The small New York
Center auditorium was full; the
cameras were ready to roll; everyone was waiting for the Mayoral candidate to
begin a major policy speech on health care. But Mr. Vallone was bounding off
the stage toward Ray Frier, a bald, brash retired public-relations executive in
a seersucker suit.
Policy continued to cool its heels as Mr. Vallone leaned
over to kiss 71-year-old Irma Frier. Eventually he got to deliver his speech,
which called for a generous prescription-drug subsidy for older New Yorkers.
Needless to say, it went over well.
After nearly three decades as a City Council member from Astoria,
Queens, Peter Vallone knows his audience-and himself. He
knows that old folks vote. He also knows that if he’s going to get anywhere in
the four-candidate Democratic primary, he will have to be himself. And that
means being … well, nice.
Mr. Vallone is running for Mayor by being a mensch, the kind
of guy who likes having dinner with his family every night, gets a kick out of
doing the grunt work of constituent service and enjoys the company of
salt-of-the-earth, outer-borough voters. Never mind where nice guys are
supposed to finish; right now, with three weeks left to Primary Day (Sept. 11),
Peter Vallone is the hot candidate, the guy the pros think will finish second
and force a runoff with the front-runner, Public Advocate Mark Green.
Mr. Vallone’s surge toward the top of the campaign’s second
tier wasn’t expected even as recently as a few weeks
ago. By now, he was supposed to have wilted in the shadow of his fellow son of
Queens, Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who, many predicted, would lock up union
endorsements and assemble a coalition of liberal Jews and outer-borough
conservatives-the so-called Koch coalition. City Hall insiders detected little
passion for Mr. Vallone’s campaign. In the first six months of 2000, Mr.
Vallone raised just $625,000, far less than his competitors.
Worse still for a consummate back-room dealer with a
career’s worth of chits in his pocket, Mr. Vallone found himself deserted by
much of the political establishment. Queens
Democratic boss Thomas Manton decided to throw the weight of the county’s
machine behind Mr. Hevesi. The big unions wouldn’t be far behind, promised Mr.
Hevesi’s chief campaign strategist, Hank Morris. Many sized Mr. Vallone up as a
political orphan: a loyal party guy abandoned by the bosses; a lifetime
establishmentarian forsaken by the establishment.
But now, it’s Mr. Vallone who has secured the most important
union endorsement to date-from District Council 37, the public-employees’
union. It’s Mr. Vallone who seems most likely to win outer-borough white-ethnic
votes, in part because he’s made a tremendous effort to meet so many of these
voters where so many of them now live: retirement homes. (Mr. Vallone’s
schedule on Aug. 9 alone featured four such visits.) And, as Mr. Hevesi’s
campaign falters, it’s Mr. Vallone who seems prepared to assume the mantle of
the “establishment candidate.”
“People are taking a second look at Peter Vallone,” said
Queens City Councilman John Sabini, a supporter.
No one really thinks Mr. Vallone will overtake Mr. Green,
who is almost universally conceded a place in the runoff election that will
take place if no candidate secures 40 percent of the vote on Primary Day. But
Mr. Vallone, playing Eeyore to Mr. Green’s Tigger, is mounting a surprisingly
strong bid to make it into the second round, three years after running a
notably languid race for Governor that had all the hallmarks (and energy) of a
What’s different this time around probably has something to do
with geography and demography. In his speech and demeanor, Peter Vallone is
very much a city pol: an outer-borough Catholic from Astoria
with a Queens accent and a
record of pothole-fixing that would make Alfonse D’Amato proud. And, at 66,
he’s the oldest of the four candidates, a man who can relate to an important
voting bloc-senior citizens. So instead of tramping around aimlessly upstate
and talking about dairy-price supports, as he did in 1998 in a futile race
against George Pataki, Mr. Vallone is working close to home, among the people
and issues he understands. “He’ll bring out the seniors, have them at the polls
on Election Day, and probably he’ll be the guy to finish second,” assuring
himself a place in the runoff, predicted Fred Siegel, a historian at Cooper
Union and frequent commentator on urban affairs.
Mr. Vallone’s poll numbers, which stood close to single
digits this spring, have steadily increased. The latest Quinnipiac
College poll, released Aug. 14,
shows him at 17 percent, just two points behind Mr. Hevesi. His fund-raising
has picked up, too-he’s now raised close to $4.5 million.
It’s a measure of his recent success that his rivals no
longer ignore him. It used to be that Mr. Hevesi hardly acknowledged Mr.
Vallone’s existence. Now Mr. Hevesi attacks him almost daily. Among his
criticisms, the Comptroller has called Mr. Vallone’s promise to protect the
Parks Department-but not police and schools-from budget cuts “an error of the
first order.” In mid-August, a tenants’-rights
advocate who’s supporting Mr. Hevesi declared that “any tenant who voted for
Peter Vallone would need to have his or her head examined.”
Yet it’s Mr. Hevesi, not Mr. Vallone, who is struggling.
“[Vallone’s] run a steady campaign, and he hasn’t made
any mistakes,” Mr. Siegel said. If that sounds like faint praise, “steady”
certainly distinguishes Mr. Vallone from Mr. Hevesi, whose ideologically
muddled campaign has bogged down in a nasty spat with the city’s Campaign
Finance Board, and from Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who’s had
trouble finding an issue that speaks to an audience beyond his black-brown
Certainly Mr. Vallone goes about his business quietly, often
out of sight of the media. He hasn’t had any celebrity-filled fund-raisers, but
he’s been raising money the old-fashioned way, collecting contributions from
the real-estate and other business interests he’s served well on the Council.
“Everyone assumed Peter had already fallen off the face of
the earth,” said Joe Strasburg, a former aide to Mr. Vallone who is now the
head of the Rent Stabilization
Association, the landlords’ lobby, and a major fund-raiser for his campaign.
“There were people who said he didn’t have the fire in the belly. The reality is, those who said that did not really know Peter Vallone.”
Mr. Strasburg, like many Vallone loyalists, pointed to the
precedent of the 1998 race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, when
Mr. Vallone came from far back in the pack to win on Primary Day. (Not
mentioned quite as often is his less-than-inspiring campaign in the general
“Peter Vallone has always been underestimated,” said his
spokesman, Jordan Barowitz, “and he’s made a career of exceeding other people’s
expectations.” Kevin Wardally, another top aide, likes to call Mr. Vallone’s
candidacy “the little campaign that could.”
Mr. Vallone’s campaign is perhaps the best reflection,
however, of the candidate himself. Never flashy, ever practical, always exuding
an aura of colorless competence, Mr. Vallone is, one political observer
quipped, the candidate most likely to win the vote of those who follow the
Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”
His career is a study in the benefits of patience and
dues-paying. A party loyalist who rose through the ranks of the Queens
Democratic machine, Mr. Vallone made his name on the Council by heading a
distinctly unsexy initiative to reform the city’s administrative code. In 1986,
Queens party boss Donald Manes
picked Mr. Vallone from relative obscurity to be the City Council’s majority
leader, striking a deal with Bronx boss Stanley
Friedman. Shortly afterward, Manes committed suicide amid a bribery
investigation that sent Mr. Friedman to jail.
Luck intervened to make Mr. Vallone the city’s
second-most-powerful elected official. In the late 1980’s, the city’s Board of
Estimate was declared unconstitutional, leading to a move to strengthen the
City Council’s powers, particularly over the budget. In 1990, Mr. Vallone
ascended to the newly created post of City Council Speaker.
On the stump, he’s quick to embrace the Giuliani
administration’s successes in cutting crime and creating jobs-even to the
extent of taking some credit himself as Mr. Giuliani’s legislative partner. As
he spoke about his $400 million health-care package on Aug. 8, Mr. Vallone’s
voice rose as he departed from the prepared text: “Let others say it can’t be
done-like they’ve said about everything we’ve done for the last 12 years. We
know that it can be.” (Mr. Vallone’s chronology, interestingly, would include
the David Dinkins era.)
But on the campaign trail, Mr. Vallone sometimes can’t help
reverting to his accustomed role as a pragmatic legislative leader. Mr.
Vallone’s health-care speech called for programs to extend better health care
to children and senior citizens, groups with “particular needs that arise from
the unique vulnerabilities of age.” But when asked by a reporter why his plan
focused on the two age groups already protected by government health programs,
Mr. Vallone replied that helping other groups would simply be too expensive.
“What I’m talking about is what’s doable in the time we’re in,” he said.
That practical streak extends to the way he’s conducted his
campaign. While all three of his opponents-but particularly Mr. Hevesi-have
zigged and zagged between ideological poles in an attempt to build broad-based
coalitions, Mr. Vallone has concentrated on the areas where he’s strongest. The
strategy was fairly simple: spend a lot of time in the outer boroughs. Woo the
senior citizens, who like his style. Stockpile campaign cash for an advertising
blitz in the primary campaign’s final days. Make the runoff against Mr. Green,
and coalesce an anyone-but-Mark coalition of the
Public Advocate’s many enemies among union, business and political leaders.
“Vallone started saying to us months ago: ‘Get me into the
runoff and I can get to City Hall,'” said Chris Policano, spokesman for
District Council 37.
The union took a chance when it endorsed Mr. Vallone, a
loyal supporter on the Council. For months, Mr. Hevesi’s supporters had been
predicting that D.C. 37, along with the city’s teachers’ and hospital-workers’
unions, would ultimately go with the Comptroller. Now, Mr. Policano said, D.C.
37 leaders are trying to persuade others to join the Vallone camp.
“I know of two very prominent individuals, who will go
unnamed, who have looked at Peter as a result of getting D.C. 37,” said Queens
City Councilman Walter McCaffrey, a Vallone supporter.
Ironically, Mr. McCaffrey-who has had his own run-ins with
Mr. Manton-traced Mr. Vallone’s resurgence to the moment the Queens
party machine decided to go with Mr. Hevesi.
“I think, for Peter, it had to be recognized that people who
were saying to him that they were in fact uncommitted were not, in essence,
telling him the real story,” he said. “It took a little while for that to set
in for him, and [then], if anything, he became more invigorated.”
He’s Got Koch
Mr. Vallone has made particularly effective use of the
endorsements he has gotten. His television advertisements featuring former
Mayor Ed Koch have been some of the most effective of the campaign. And D.C. 37
has promised to send out mailings to its members, man phone banks and put a
veritable army of workers at Mr. Vallone’s disposal on Election Day.
John Podohertz, the New
York Post ‘s conservative columnist, extols Mr. Vallone on a regular basis.
“He’s probably going to get the endorsement of the Post , and he’ll possibly get the endorsement of the News ,” Mr. Siegel said.
Mr. Vallone has also benefited from some tacit support from
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who considers him the least objectionable of the
Democrats, and who has allowed Mr. Vallone to march at his side in parades.
Come to think of it, “Least Objectionable” might be a
fitting slogan for Mr. Vallone’s entire campaign to date. While this could be
enough to get him into a primary runoff, it’s doubtful that the wave of
relative inoffensiveness he’s riding now will carry him all the way to Gracie
Mansion. Mr. Vallone has yet to
make an issue his own, though he’s now beginning to air advertisements touting
his health-care plan, something his aides say will become an increasingly
important part of his campaign.
And there’s still Mr. Green, who holds a wide lead in the
polls over his competitors.
Mr. Vallone received an
unpleasant reminder of this just a few minutes after he’d finished his
health-care speech. Trailed by a phalanx of suited aides, a few sweaty
reporters, a New
camera crew and Agnes Maniace, 75, a retiree who said she spends $2,400 a year
on prescription drugs, Mr. Vallone strode through the front door of a Rite Aid
pharmacy on Second
The plan was to demonstrate the benefits of his prescription-drug plan. But
almost immediately, Mr. Vallone was cut off by the store’s worried-looking manager,
“Hello, Mr. Green,” Mr. Khan said.
Mr. Vallone politely introduced himself. “I’m the Speaker of
the city,” he said. Mr. Khan, who had obviously taken one look at the cameras
and thought “Local-news exposé,” told Mr. Vallone that he couldn’t allow the
group into the store without permission from his superiors.
“This is not a set-up,” Mr. Vallone reassured him.
After some negotiation, Mr. Khan gave in, and the group made
its way to the prescription counter. Ms. Maniace asked to have her prescription
for Mevacor, an anti-cholesterol drug, filled. As the cameras rolled, Mr.
Vallone picked up the receipt and did some calculating with his aides. “Under
my plan, it would cost her $7,” he concluded.
The camera stopped, and Mr. Vallone headed back to the front
of the store, where he quietly pulled Mr. Khan aside. The two talked privately
for a moment. Outside, Mr. Vallone announced: “We picked up two votes-the
manager and his wife are going to vote for us.” Then he slipped back into the
black S.U.V. that would take him to the next campaign stop.
Back inside the store, Mr. Khan, a Guyanese immigrant, said
that he had indeed been won over. Even before the Speaker visited, Mr. Khan
said, he’d seen the commercials featuring Mr. Koch. “I’m giving him me and my
wife’s and my in-laws’ vote,” he said.
Mr. Khan still had one question: “He’s a Democrat, right?”