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Queens Chronicle

2019 CELEBRATION OF QUEENS ‘You get to make a difference’

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

The Hon. Charles Vallone Sr. took to public service gradually as a young attorney looking to provide for his family in the Great Depression and one whose civic involvement — particularly for youth and education — eventually led to his being appointed a judge by Mayor Robert Wagner in 1955.

His son, former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., came by it more naturally.

“I caught the bug from him,” Vallone said last week, sitting at his desk at the Astoria law firm his father founded in 1932.

Charles Vallone Sr. would help found the Astoria Civic Association in 1933, and what is now the Boys and Girls Club in Astoria in 1950. Peter Sr. recently attended the annual awarding of the Charles J. Vallone Scholarship awards, which have given away an estimated $700,000 for students seeking higher education. He died in his chambers in 1967. A school in Astoria and a civil courthouse on Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica bear his name.

Peter Vallone Sr. represented Astoria in the City Council from 1974 to 2002, and was its first speaker, from 1986 through 2001.

Peter Jr. followed his father to the Council in 2002 and remained there until being term-limited out in 2013. In 2015 he followed his grandfather to the Civil Court bench.

His brother Paul Vallone has represented the 19th Council District including Bayside since 2014.

Son Perry works with his father in the Manhattan consulting firm Constantinople and Vallone.

“The smartest one of all of us,” his father said.

“The Vallone family is one of those political families that have left an indelible mark on Queens County politics,” Brian Browne, assistant vice president for government relations and a political science professor at St. John’s University, told the Chronicle in an email. Browne said the Vallones benefited from the fact that their political home in Astoria was a growing enclave for immigrants looking to escape life in Manhattan.

“Many Irish, Italians and Greeks made their way to Western Queens, and the Vallone family and that shared immigrant experience was part of their political identity. Today, Astoria, like the rest of Queens County, is still a destination point for newly-arrived immigrants and that is reflected in the current politics and elected officials that represent the area.”

Browne said what also makes the Vallone family interesting is not just their longevity but how they moved their political influence beyond their original base in Astoria with Paul Vallone establishing himself in northeast Queens.

“The Vallones were always hard-working elected officials who were successful in the art of retail politics. They got things done.” Browne said voters can be influenced by a familiar name at a polling place — but only so far.

“The individual members of successful political family dynasties, like all elected officials, are judged on their outcomes,” he said.

But Peter Vallone Sr. doesn’t consider his family a political dynasty, or politics to be a family business.

“I think Vallone is a name people came to know,” he said. “When I started out I heard ‘You’re Charlie Vallone’s son.’ Now I get ‘You’re Peter’s father. You’re Paul’s father.’ And Paul made his name on his own — the first Democrat elected in a Republican district.” Paul Vallone concurred, eschewing the dynasty label. He also said he has not seen the name as a burden to live up to.

“It’s a badge of honor,” he said. “I think Pete may have had it harder, following Dad in Astoria. Those were big shoes to fill.”

Charles Vallone came with his mother from Sicily in 1905, his own father coming the year before to find work and get established. Charles was the first member of the family to go to college. In 1928 he joined a law firm that included, among others, future state Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz. The firm was in the famous Woolworth Building.

“Right across from City Hall,” he said.

But the Wall Street crash brought about the firm’s end. Charles worked temporarily in a bank. He took an interest in politics, forming a Democratic club in Manhattan before relocating to Astoria — right at the end of what is now the N-W elevated subway line, a few doors down from where the Vallone & Vallone sign hangs today.

In between the first and third generations, Peter Sr. also found his calling, and enjoyed it

“I loved it,” he said. “... Politics is okay. But nothing’s more fun than government. You get to help people, make a difference.”

He referred to a recent visit from a woman who years ago came to his office to discuss the fact that there was no place available in the area for breast cancer survivors to meet, talk, socialize and work on health advocacy.

“I found a place they could rent for $15,000 a year,” he said. “Every Council member has money they can allocate ...” Today, Shareing & Careing is 25 years old.

“That’s something real,” he said. “Any Council member can do that.”

The former speaker jokes about his early days in politics when he would attend gatherings with ministers, rabbis and others, sometimes to the disapproval of his Roman Catholic parish’s leaders. Paul Vallone remembers, and still doesn’t see the humor.

“His faith is very important to him,” the councilman said. “Family, faith, love of country. But he always did what was right. He was threatened with excommunication when he passed the first LGBT rights laws in the city ... That was a hard phone call for him to take. But he did what was right.”

Vallone Sr. says he could not have accomplished what he did under term limits.

“It weakens the legislative branch,” he said. “You don’t have that anywhere but the city. Do you want to limit the mayor to eight years so he doesn’t become an emperor or dictator? Then make the Council three terms.” He said in his time, he could turn to a promising new member with a promise that hard work is rewarded.

“It used to be if you worked hard you could hope to be speaker. You could hope to be the Land Use or Finance chair ... [Voters] did it because some people abused it. But they were always the exception. If you don’t work hard, if you don’t show up at hearings, you ought to be voted out. That’s a term limit.”

An example of missed opportunity, he said, is current Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan).

“I like him,” Vallone said. “He’s done some good things like restart the Investigations Committee, which I started and which the last speaker disbanded ... But he’s going to be gone in two years. What can he do? He’s running for mayor.”

He said a weakened Council gives a new mayor a tremendous advantage in the beginning weeks of a new term, and weakens the hand of the speaker.

“It makes every Council member a speaker,” he said. “Now any Council member can kill a project in his or her district. A member’s opinion is very important, but do you think I would have allowed that if I thought the project was good for the city?”

Vallone ran for governor in 1998, losing to George Pataki, and for mayor in 2001.

He regrets the partisan atmosphere in politics today, particularly in Congress.

“I love being a Democrat,” he said. “But when did we start becoming Democrats and Republicans and stop being Americans?”

Asked about his most important legacy, he mentions the former and existing Peter Vallone Sr. Scholarships.

During his speakership, Vallone established a fund to pay for half the college tuition to a city school for any resident earning a B average.

“On the last vote of my last day as speaker, Helen Marshall made a motion to name the fund after me.” Fast forward to 2011, he said Peter Vallone Jr. cast a vote unpopular with the speaker’s office.

“The decision was made that ‘we spend too much money in your district.’” The fund was ended. Then Paul Vallone got elected along with a new speaker. Funding was restored.

“Peter and I have enemies,” Vallone Sr. said. “We would cast unpopular votes and make enemies. But Paul has this big smile, casts unpopular votes and doesn’t have an enemy in the world.”

And a few days this week, Peter Vallone Sr. will be at his desk at Constantinople and Vallone — in the Woolworth Building, where it all started in 1928.

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