There are political families that have had a profound history in American politics, just ask the Adams, Kennedys and Bushes.
Well, in New York City there is another family committed to political servitude, no, the surname is not Cuomo, but Vallone. Peter Vallone Sr. and his son Peter Jr. have been involved in the city’s local government legislation for several decades.
Peter Sr. was a Council Member elected to office from 1974 to 2001 until his son replaced him in 2002.
I recently had the privilege to interview Peter Vallone Jr. and we discussed his political experiences as a Democratic Party member representing District 22 in Astoria, Queens, New York City, as well as being an Italian American. As one of his staff members, Michael Pantelidis, escorted me to his office and was gracious enough to make the arrangements for the interview in the councilman’s hectic schedule, I thought the only thing that remains constant and predictable for any public official is that the pendulum rapidly shifts day to day, minute to minute– just ask President Obama or Mitt Romney.
My thoughts drifted back to the task of interviewing Mr. Vallone. As I entered his small but quaint office adorned with pictures of family/friends, he was reading a local newspaper and was dressed in a neatly pressed white collar shirt (with almost military style creases) and dark navy blue slacks. Our arrival distracted him from reading and he immediately stood up from behind his desk to outstretch his arm to shake my hand.
While exchanging pleasantries and sitting down simultaneously, the Council Member who chairs the Public Safety Division, quickly reminded Michael to prepare a brief statement for the local news stations about a news article that was published about “pervs grinding against women on trains.” This was the article that held Mr. Vallone’s attention as we walked in, and he wanted to reiterate his claim that Albany must pass a law that would make these lewd acts a felony if these individuals were caught.
Almost immediately, there was an aura of silence as Mr. Vallone’s expression changed from being very serious to focusing on our interview. However, before his staff member closed the door to his office leaving just the two of us to chat, he again repeated to Michael that he needed to read the statement before it was released. For me, I saw this moment as an opportunity to ask him why he entered politics. He admitted that originally he was not interested in politics. In fact he said, “I wanted to become a police officer” but later on he decided his calling was to be a prosecutor and follow into his father’s footsteps, by attending Fordham University Law School.
While prosecuting “bad guys”, his ambitions changed from lawyer to government leader. He saw his father lead as a NYC Council Member and believed as he declared, “one man can make a difference, so I decided to enter this noble profession.” As his father ran unsuccessfully, for Mayor of New York City in 2001( and also lost a run to become Governor of NYS in 1998), Peter Jr. had his own ideas of continuing his family legacy in politics and campaigned to win his father’s seat in the city council.
Perhaps one reason why Peter Vallone Jr. won the election in 2002 was because the Vallone family has had a long history of serving their community in Astoria, Queens. His grandfather, Civic Court Judge Charles Vallone, was a community leader in the 1950s and 1960s and was extremely involved in the neighborhood’s growth, so much so that a school is named after him.
His grandfather’s family came from a small town near Palermo, called Prizzi, and known for its annual Devil Dance that was created to ward off evil spirits. Apparently, the Vallone dynasty extends to Italy as well. On a recent visit to Sicily and much to his surprise, he was introduced to two distant cousins who are also serving in city government. Furthermore, not only do the Vallone men get involved in public office, but even his grandmother Leah Vallone was a teacher and a Democratic State Committeewoman.
From the 1930s to the 1950s many Italian families residing in Lower Manhattan or East Harlem, decided that the city life was getting too chaotic and they wanted something more suburban. One of those families to move from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Astoria in the 1930s was the Vallones. This small district within the borough of Queens was a growing enclave of Italian American families who wanted to escape a city that was growing rapidly. Today like most gentrified communities in New York City, Astoria is a bastion for Central and South Americans, North Africans, Middle Eastern, and known to have a large Greek American population.
For Peter Vallone Jr. it is because of this array of races, religions and ethnicities that he believes he has the best job in the world. It has been said that the borough of Queens has at least two-hundred and fifty different languages and dialects spoken on any given day. And in Astoria Italian and its regional dialects are part of the many vernaculars spoken there. In fact, in some areas in Astoria, several churches still conduct Sunday Mass in Italian.
Before getting back to tackling the issues of his community and reading over the statement that he requested to see, I concluded my thirty minute interview with Mr. Vallone by asking him, “What message would you like to give to future Italian-American generations”? He inhaled and exhaled slowly while pushing his chair back and pensively looked up at the ceiling then with confidence said, “Never forget the struggles of past generations and the values that make up our people—God, family and country.”
His parents raised him to value these Italian traditions while growing up, and he has carried these cultural norms in public office.