Who’s Hot? Lonely Pete Vallone!

“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

University Medical

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

last hurrah.

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

coalition.

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

election.)

“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.”

Colorless Competence

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

York 1

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

Avenue.

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,

Feroze Khan.

“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?”