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  • Nasir Muhammad
    Velella s revenge left Republicans out in cold Guy Velella and the Bronx Democratic old guard are said to have had a non-aggression pact that state Sen.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 8 11:43 AM

      Velella's revenge left Republicans out in cold

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      Guy Velella and the Bronx Democratic old guard are said to have had a non-aggression pact that state Sen. Schneiderman broke. But Mr. Velella's revenge backfired.
      By N. Clark Judd

      Like many tales of revenge, this one begins at a wedding.
      The groom was a top political consultant for Guy Velella, a powerful Republican state senator. Riverdale political power couple Oliver Koppell and Lorraine Coyle Koppell, friends of the groom, Norman Adler, were there. So was Eric Schneiderman, a precocious freshman lawmaker in his second year in Albany, determined to engineer an overthrow of the state's Republican hierarchy.
      Many Bronx politicians crack a wistful grin when they talk about that day in 2000, when Mr. Schneiderman, who also represents parts of Riverdale, walked up to the Koppells at the reception. With Mr. Velella in the room, he suggested that Ms. Koppell challenge the Republican in an upcoming election.
      The entire city stretched out below the newlyweds as they were feted at Windows on the World, atop the World Trade Center. Maybe it was the rarefied air that spoke of infinite possibilities, maybe it was that the Democrats perceived political opportunities - but whatever the cause, Ms. Koppell agreed to take on Mr. Velella.
      Mr. Velella and the Bronx Democratic old guard allegedly had a sort of non-aggression pact. By actively recruiting a candidate like Ms. Koppell, Mr. Schneiderman had violated the unspoken compact.
      Although Ms. Koppell's bid failed, the attempt prompted a campaign of revenge that dramatically tipped the scales of power - not only in the borough, but throughout the state. The violent corrective swings back and forth would stretch over nearly a decade; only now has the beam come to a precarious equilibrium.
      Nearly 10 years later, Mr. Velella has served time in jail on briberyrelated charges, Mr. Schneiderman has gone from a footnote in the state Senate minutes to the chairman of a powerful committee, and Riverdale has gone from having two Senators to three, all of whom hold considerable clout. This March, as the corridors of power in Albany swarm with lawmakers and lobbyists rushing to pass a budget, those three will have a weighty say in the final product.
      Ask Pedro Espada Jr., one of those three, what day is slow for him. He'll laugh.
      Jeff Klein, another, is the deputy majority leader. On a recent Wednesday in Albany, the phone in his office was almost never on the hook. His new office has a door to a gallery that overlooks the ornate mahogany seats, with their red leather upholstery, of the Senate floor he now manages daily.
      "All of a sudden I'm very popular," says Mr. Schneiderman, chairman of the Codes Committee, which handles civil and criminal penalties. Dramatic changes to the Rockefeller drug laws (among the strictest in the nation), which he has worked for almost since he first took office, will come before his committee.
      Velella's revenge
      And at least some of their good fortune comes out of Mr. Velella's desire for revenge, say many Bronx Democrats.
      When Bronx Democratic party boss Roberto Ramirez heard that Mr. Schneiderman had tapped Ms. Koppell to challenge Mr. Velella in the 2000 elections, he was furious.
      "He didn't want a candidate against Guy," Mr. Schneiderman said.
      Mr. Ramirez did not return calls requesting comment for this article.
      Mr. Ramirez backed a third politician to try and head Ms. Koppell off in a primary election.
      Ms. Koppell won the primary, though she lost to Mr. Velella.
      Two years later, when the Republican- controlled Senate redrew its own districts - the deal with the Democratic-controlled Assembly was that each house would make its own changes, and its opposite number would not object - Mr. Schneiderman found himself representing Central Riverdale and Washington Heights in the state Senate, instead of the Upper West Side. The district Mr. Espada came to represent last year crept into Kingsbridge, Fieldston, and Norwood; Mr. Velella didn't want the Koppells in his district anymore, the story goes, so he gave up the census block in which they lived.
      "If you look at it [on a map], it looks like a finger," one Bronx Democrat said of the resulting shape of the district. "So we always said Velella gave the Koppells the finger."
      Mr. Velella, now a private citizen who still lives in the Bronx, could not be reached for comment.
      Redistricting in 2002 also reinforced Mr. Velella's position by taking strongly Republican Eastchester into his district from his northern neighbor, fellow Republican Nick Spano.
      "The main thing was Velella," said another Bronx Democrat. "They drew a district to strengthen Velella."
      The way they did that, this Democrat said, "was by screwing Nick Spano."
      In 2004, without his Eastchester voting base, Mr. Spano nearly lost his seat to a Democrat, Andrea Stewart- Cousins.
      The same year, Mr. Velella pled guilty to bribery charges. He joined other non-voters on Riker's Island in his district, and served six months of a one-year sentence. Mr. Schneiderman and others tapped Jeff Klein, then a 10-year veteran of the Assembly, to wage a successful campaign for the vacant seat.
      Republican defeat
      In 2006, Ms. Stewart-Cousins challenged Mr. Spano again and won. The Democrats walked away with two formerly Republican seats in as many elections - thanks, in part, to the redistricting said to have been Mr. Velella's revenge.
      "What they did in part contributed to the downfall of the Republican Party," one Bronx Democrat said.
      Mr. Schneiderman kept his seat, although the redistricting placed a city councilman in his district's borders who was gunning for Albany. The ethnic disconnect with his new Latino constituents could have made him a political lemon.
      "It's the lemonade story, you know," said Bruce Feld, a Democratic district leader for Jeffrey Dinowitz's Assembly district. "He learned Spanish."
      Where Waldo Avenue meets West 246th Street, the three Senators' districts converge. This intersection was intended to weaken the hand of New York Democrats, especially Riverdale's reform Democrats, said Mr. Feld.
      "Now," Mr. Feld said of Riverdale, "you've got a poker hand with three of a kind."

      This is part of the March 12, 2009 online edition of The Riverdale Press.

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