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29th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 29, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

One of the most intriguing figures in New York’s recent political history showed that he could still bring out a crowd - and some key officials - nearly 20 years after his own political career ended in the worst possible circumstances.

Mario Biaggi celebrated his 90th birthday Saturday evening surrounded by hundreds of family, friends, and admirers. Among those present were Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and his wife Veronica, Congressmen Charles Rangel and Peter King, Ambassador Charles Gargano, who formerly headed the Empire State Development Corp., and the leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Long. Mayor Dinkins, who had an emergency appendectomy Friday, was scheduled to attend as well.

Mario Biaggi’s popularity was earned through hard work, bravery, loyalty, and charm. Early in his career it appeared that he was on the fast track to become the mayor that would save the city from the ravages of crime and dependency. His bid for mayor in 1973 collapsed in scandal over questions about his testimony before a grand jury some years earlier. While Mario Biaggi was not implicated in any wrongdoing then, his career was marred by the kind of whispers that have dogged many Italian-American politicians.

Mario Biaggi, the son of immigrants, was born in East Harlem and joined the New York City Police Department in 1942 after a stint as a postal worker. On the force he became a legendary figure, amassing more decorations than anyone before or since, was wounded several times, shot, and stabbed. He was even trampled by a runaway horse he was trying to subdue. He rose to the rank of lieutenant.

With matinee idol looks, the hero cop won the notice of the political elite, including Governor Rockefeller. Despite never having attended college, he was granted by the Bar Association a waiver to attend New York Law School. He graduated in two-and-a-half years, and was admitted to the bar. He retired from the police department and ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1968, winning a Bronx seat that had been in Republican hands for decades.

In the era of Great Society liberalism, Mario Biaggi was an unusual breed of New York politician, a conservative Democrat. Had there been then a Democratic Leadership Council, he would surely have been a member. He was a tireless provider of constituent services, eager to help with even the tiniest problem brought to his office, and was hypersensitive to the various community causes that mean so much to New Yorkers. The strategy paid off with enormous popularity.

I saw this back in 1977. I then lived in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx and helped spearhead the naming of a street after Jonathan Netanyahu, the Israeli soldier who died during the Entebbe rescue the previous year. All of the local politicians spoke at the dedication, but I was amazed to find that the largely Jewish crowd reserved its loudest cheers for Mario Biaggi. They knew they could count on him to stand with them in defense of the State of Israel and loved him for it.

Similarly, Mario Biaggi is a special hero in many Irish circles for his tireless efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland. This is the source of his friendship with Congressman King.

Although he has been out of the Police Department for more than 40 years, Mario Biaggi is still a legendary figure among officers. Commissioner Kelly recalled Mario Biaggi speaking at his graduating class at the Police Academy. In uniform, the handsome and articulate Mario Biaggi was an imposing figure and made an enormous impression on the cadets. The year after Mr. Kelly joined the department, Mario Biaggi was named the national Police Officer of the Year. When he arrived in Washington, Congressman Biaggi spearheaded the creation of the national Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in the nation’s capital, a legacy that still resonates today among police officers nationwide.

Despite this history, a police commissioner’s attendance at a party to honor Mario Biaggi might be called politically courageous. For his political career ended in scandal back in 1988, and he served over two years in federal prison. To this day he maintains his innocence. I can’t tell you where the truth lies, other than to note that many fellows saved their own skins by testifying against him. Mario Biaggi was the big fish that prosecutors love to target.

Mario Biaggi was released early due to ill health. He was treated medically, hired a personal trainer to whip himself into shape, and tried the following year to reclaim his old Congressional seat. This effort failed, but this sheer audaciousness demonstrated the kind of chutzpah that endears him to so many. He wakes up each morning with the healthy outlook that there is still work to be done, issues to discuss, opinions to share. He is much admired for his indomitable spirit. I fully expect to help him celebrate his 100th birthday 10 years from now.

When you enter a restaurant with Mario Biaggi, and it will surely be an Italian restaurant, be prepared for a constant stream of well-wishers wanting to shake his hand. He is still a great hero in the Italian-American community, but the love for him goes far beyond.

Congressman Rangel served with Mario Biaggi in Washington, political opposites within the same party who became close friends. He noted that among politicians, the respect for Mario Biaggi transcended cultural bounds. “He is more than Italian. He is loved by the Irish, by the Jews, by blacks, and by whites. He is a great New Yorker, and I love him.”

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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