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Queens Chronicle

2019 CELEBRATION OF QUEENS The steady Addabbos of South Queens

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Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2019 10:30 am

State Sen. Joe Addabo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) remembers being a teenager, lying on the floor in his den watching TV and overhearing his father talking on the phone, very seriously.

“You could hear it in his voice,” Addabbo said. “He was talking to someone — I didn’t know who— about getting money for a health center in the Rockaways.”

For 24 years, Addabbo’s father, Joseph Sr., was the congressman for South Queens, representing half a million people or so from Ridgewood to Jamaica Bay.

For most of those years, Joe Jr. admits, he had only a teenager’s vague interest of what his father did for a living.

“President Carter would call our house. I mean, wow!” he told the Chronicle. “But I still can’t say I had any idea who my father was.”

Young Joe was on the verge of graduating from St. John’s University when the congressman collapsed at a retirement luncheon for a colleague in Washington, D.C., lapsed into a coma and died four weeks later without regaining consciousness.

Addabbo Sr. had kept his cancer-related kidney ailment quiet for years, so his death was a shock to all but a few. The congressman was just 61.

A couple of weeks after the funeral, at his graduation ceremonies at St. John’s, the college president asked for a moment of silence to honor Joe’s father, a longtime supporter of the school.

Joe can still remember the hush that came over the crowd of several thousand. “It felt like an eternity,” he said.

Such is the plight of kids who lose a parent when they’re young. At some point, they eventually start looking for the missing one.

Addabbo confesses that he had to go back to books and newspaper clipping years later to read about his father’s political career and what he’d done for Queens — and in perhaps a more lasting way, for the country as well.

Because Joe Sr. was viewed as a retail politician from a largely working-class congressional district, it was a shock to his powerful political allies when, in the early 1970s, he came out against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

He was exactly the type of lawmaker Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had been able to count on to back ever-widening conflict in Southeast Asia.

But as the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Addabbo had heard too much about how the war was being mismanaged and seen too many young men killed for no clear or lasting purpose.

In 1973, he sponsored the first antiwar legislation to pass the House, cutting off funding for the bombing of Cambodia. It was a highly principled stance that cost him much of the political capital he’d carefully accumulated over 13 terms in Congress,

He got the bill through precisely because he was not an Ivy League liberal or a West Coast waffler. It was the beginning of the end of Capitol Hill’s blind support for the war.

“A lot of the foundation of what I do was from watching him,” said the state senator. “Little things — like, you need to look at people’s problems through their eyes, not yours.

“‘If you want to see yourself up in lights,’ my father said, ‘change your name to EXIT. Don’t be a politician.’”

Joe Sr. did not live long enough to see it, but his name is, in fact, up in lights all over South Queens.

The phone conversation young Joe had overheard was his father rounding up the support needed to establish a clinic on the Rockaway peninsula.

“The Rockaways back then was a very isolated area with poor healthcare. He was able to argue that putting a federal clinic there would, in effect, keep people out of the hospital and save money,” said Addabbo.

“He’d just arranged for funding for the first clinic when he passed away,” he said.

Naming the clinic on Beach Channel Drive in Arverne after him was not a long debate.

There are now six Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Centers in all, including one in Ozone Park, where the congressman was born and lived his entire life.

Naming the six-lane bridge that jumps from Howard Beach to Broad Channel after him was actually semicontroversial, it turns out.

Walter Ward, the city councilman for Howard Beach at the time, “wanted to rename Cross Bay Boulevard for him after he died,” said Addabbo. The city had done it for Guy Brewer, the powerful assemblyman from Jamaica who had died a decade earlier, and there was plenty of sentiment to do the same for Addabbo.

But the businesses along Cross Bay politely protested. A name change would require them to change all their letterheads, business cards and advertising.

“My father was not about upsetting local business,” Addabbo said. “He’d been that way his whole political career.

“So Walter said, ‘OK, let’s look at the bridge.’”

When young Joe was sworn in as city councilman on New Year’s Day 2004, his first full elected term, he picked the foot of the bridge as the site for the ceremony.

Seemed like a good idea at the time, said Addabbo. But the morning of January 1 that year was bitter cold and everyone who came to see him take the oath “nearly froze,” he recalled.

“This job is not for everybody,” Addabbo likes to say.

“You’re never going to make everybody happy. But you take that risk,” said Dawn Addabbo, his wife of 21 years and the person he describes as his “best friend in politics.”

After three terms in the City Council and nearly as many in the state Senate, Dawn said his finest moment may have been last January.

That’s when Addabbi took his own principled stand against Gov. Cuomo’s controversial reproductive rights law.

Despite a long record as a pro-choice politician, he was the only Democrat in the state Senate to vote against the new law that skeptics claim permits a doctor and a woman, under certain circumstances, to end a pregnancy even when the fetus is viable.

“He just kept saying, ‘This is insane. I can’t do it,’” said his wife.

Pro-choice groups who’d seen him as a dependable ally were flabbergasted that he’d voted against the bill, which passed nonetheless.

Some threatened to find a candidate to run against him in 2022, when his term is up. A storm was brewing.

“He was very upset for days.” she said.

Then, Addabbo did something unusual. He posted his office phone number on Twitter and invited anyone — not just constituents, anyone — who objected to his vote to call.

“Read the bill again and you may understand my vote,” he tweeted. “More than willing to explain vote to those who call me.”

He stayed on his phone for several days fielding, he estimated, about 300 calls and emails.

“That took character,” said Dawn. “I was very proud of him.”

Welcome to the discussion.