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17th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 17, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The fall from grace of Guy Velella, the now-resigned state senator who is expected to plead guilty to corruption charges in court today, is a Bronx tale of great talent and enormous achievement undone by hubris. 

    I have rarely met a more natural politician. But Guy Velella never learned where the ethical lines are because there was no one willing to place those limits on him.No matter what he did,the voters turned a blind eye to his indiscretions.The more trouble he was able to finesse his way out of, the further he would venture into the ethical morass. He was always dancing on the edge. 
    The district attorney of New York County, Robert Morgenthau, has been Mr. Velella’s Javert, pursuing him for more than a decade.Today Mr. Morgenthau nets his Jean Valjean, but in this case there was a great deal more than a loaf of bread involved. It is even more 
than just the nearly $200,000 in legal fees and campaign contributions that Mr. Morgenthau charges were a reward to Mr.Velella for steering bridge painting work to certain contractors. It is the price Mr. Velella was willing to pay for challenging ethical limits. 

    Even if convicted, if the law allowed Mr.Velella to retain his seat, he would still have been reelected in November, even if he were sitting in jail. 

    First elected to the Assembly in 1974, Mr.Velella lost his seat in 1982, when he was reapportioned into an impossible race with a Democratic assemblyman, John Dearie. Mr.Velella ran a negative campaign. When he lost, his political career was considered dead. But in early 1986, the powerful and young Republican state senator and G.O.P. leader in Bronx County, John D. Calandra, died. Mr. Velella won a special election against not just a popular Democratic opponent, Michael J. Durso, a businessman, but also the late senator’s wife, Joanne Calandra. 

    A year later, the new senator, a married father of four children, admitted that he fathered a daughter in an Albany liaison with a state employee. The indiscretion made no dent in his popularity. Giving new meaning to the term “child support,” Mr.Velella sponsored a bill that would have sweetened the state pension of just one person, the grandmother of his Albany daughter. The girl’s mother surfaced in a $101,000 a year job in a state agency. 

    In 2000, as he was facing a race against Lorraine Coyle Koppell, wife of the councilman and former state attorney general, his offices and home, as well as his father’s office and home, were raided as part of the investigation that concludes with the guilty plea today. Some $5,440 in marked bills were found in the elder Mr.Velella’s home, evidence of the payoffs had this case gone to trial today. These highly publicized raids did nothing to diminish Mr. Velella’s standing with the voters. Nor did the disclosures that he had been receiving legal fees from the insurance companies he regulated as chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee. He still beat Ms. Koppell handily. 

    But Javert has gotten his man, and now politicians in the Bronx and Westchester are looking toward filling Mr.Velella’s seat, if not his shoes. 

    Most promising of the candidates to succeed Mr.Velella is a Democratic assemblyman, Stephen B. Kaufman. Mr. Kaufman is Mayor Bloomberg’s favorite Bronx Democrat. He accompanied the mayor on a trip to Israel and Albania, a reward for having delivered his conservative Democratic district to Mr. Bloomberg in 2001. 

    The proposed scenario has Mr. Kaufman switching parties, much as Mr. Bloomberg did. The conservative Mr. Kaufman would be more comfortable in Republican shoes than the mayor, having compiled a moderate record during the eight years he spent in the City Council, and fifteen in the State Assembly. 

    Mr. Kaufman is known as a hard worker, a cerebral law maker unafraid to take stands on moral issues. He lost his City Council seat in 1981 for bucking the Bronx Democratic machine. His seat was literally cut out from under him in a reapportionment orchestrated by the then-Bronx Democratic boss, Stanley Friedman, later convicted in the parking violations bureau scandals. 

    Mr. Kaufman returned to public life by winning the assembly seat vacated in 1988 by Eliot Engel. In the Assembly, he has had a chilly relationship with the speaker, Sheldon Silver. Mr. Kaufman broke with the speaker over the repeal of the commuter tax, and he supported the failed coup by Michael Bragman to oust Mr. Silver in 2000. Mr. Kaufman also refused to support the Nassau County bailout later that year, linking that vote to the repeal of the commuter tax. He again bucked wishes of the Bronx machine, then led by Roberto Ramirez. 

    In a bid for the Senate, Mr. Kaufman might also win the Conservative party endorsement, which he has regularly received in his assembly races. Even when targeted by a strong Republican challenger, John J. Calandra (son of the aforementioned Senator), in 1996, Mr. Kaufman ran with Conservative Party support. This could scare off a Republican primary challenge. No Republican can win this seat without the backing of the Conservative Party. 

    Perhaps even Bronx Democrats will back a Kaufman bid on the G.O.P. line. This might seem traitorous, but there is little chance the Democrats will regain control of the Senate, where they now have 12 fewer members than the Republicans. A Kaufman unity campaign might allow the Bronx contingent to keep the close relations Democrats enjoyed with Mr.Velella, who could be counted on to support their priorities with the Senate majority. To the poorest of the state’s 62 counties, having a member in the majority is an asset that outweighs party. 

    Mr. Kaufman has already scheduled a fund-raiser for next week that his friend the mayor is expected to attend.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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