Peter Vallone has become one of the most visible politicians in New York in recent weeks as he locks horns with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over the city budget and presses his campaign to unseat Gov. George Pataki.
Although he faces an uphill battle against a popular incumbent Republican at a time of economic prosperity, the Democrat from Astoria, Queens, insists important issues are being overlooked.
“There are serious problems as far as I’m concerned: jobs, health care and education and in general a lack of leadership,” Vallone said in a wide-ranging interview with reporters and editors of The Jewish Week.
Vallone’s platform calls for cutting tuition at state universities for students who maintain a B average in high school; strengthening laws in favor of patients and against insurance-company interference in doctor-patient relationships; and an economic development plan that favors New York companies that bid for government programs to spur job creation.
Following are excerpts from the one-hour interview at The Jewish Week’s offices. The Jewish Week: Why does New York need a new governor?
Vallone: I really think this governor is the accidental governor. He’s there only because there was a very clever campaign. It was anybody but Cuomo, and it was the death penalty; if you got rid of Cuomo and you killed everybody else, we’ve got no problems in this state. …
JW: Bronx schoolteacher Mildred Rosario was recently fired for conducting prayer in her classroom. Your opinion?
I sent a letter immediately, without fanfare, to William Thompson, president of the Board of Education, saying how could you fire her? We don’t want religion in public schools. She made a mistake. Bring her in, talk to her. The [teacher] that was throwing around chairs, hitting kids, you didn’t fire … you only suspended her. … It seems to me they were much too hasty.
JW: Do you support some form of prayer in public schools?
Prayer in public schools is something I grew up with. It was handled delicately then. I don’t have a problem with a moment of silence and people utilizing it any way they want, but obviously there is a national problem on that, a constitutional problem.
JW: What about tax vouchers for private education?
Again, I don’t have any problem with vouchers or charter schools or private schools, providing it’s not at the expense of public schools. As long as it’s not taken out of the public school budget.
JW: Your recent trip to Israel caused some controversy. How did you choose the sites you visited?
This was not my first trip. Last time I was there I went to see Soroka Hospital [in Beersheva]. I was very impressed with it because [they are ] treating Jews and Arabs. Even on a short trip I definitely wanted to go back. There I met a Mr. Yehosephat Tur who comes from New York. [Tur was injured in a clash with Arabs in Hebron]. I wanted to see for myself what the situation was in Hebron. Also, my mother’s name is Leah and I wanted to see Jacob and Leah’s tomb. So I went to Hebron over everyone’s objection. It wasn’t a political trip, I just wanted to see it and I saw where [Tur] was shot defending his own land.
JW: What was your opinion of the Jewish community in Hebron?
I felt that they were victimized by the press, which was hostile to them, and I didn’t think that was fair.
JW: What were your discussions with Arab groups like when you returned?
Well, they were very annoyed. But I reminded them that when I was there last time I met with Arab groups. I wasn’t going there as an ambassador … I was just going there to see for myself the changes that had taken place since the last time I went … I also wanted to go to the Western Wall, to see for myself, because I thought they were putting the [Hasmonean Tunnel] under the Tomb [Dome] of the Rock. I went through the tunnel, I wanted to know where the heck it was going. It wasn’t under the Tomb of the Rock.
JW: Who are some of the people you consult on Jewish issues here?
I have a lot of Jewish friends, I really do. [Presidents Conference executive vice president] Malcolm Hoenlein was the first one to bring me [to Israel] in 1983, … [former JCRC president] Judah Gribetz is a longtime friend. I probably wouldn’t be a Council member if not for Judah, who was very helpful. … Bruce Bender is my chief of staff. The list is endless. My father used to lead Brotherhood Day parades with a rabbi and a minister at a time when it wasn’t considered popular by the Catholic Church. That was why I couldn’t get into Catholic school. But I’ve had long history of relations with Jewish colleagues and friends.
JW: Last week an Orthodox group demonstrated against your Domestic Partnership bill. Will this hurt your campaign?
I just felt very bad for them because they obviously didn’t know what we were doing. What we did was probably the best protection the Orthodox, or people concerned about gay marriages, could have. What we did was take an executive order which could be changed by a mayor at any time and codify it and give benefits only to city employees who are living together. It has nothing to do with sex. … It wasn’t an amendment of the human rights law that affects private people or groups or religious observance. This was the right time to do it because something else could have been done which could have been far worse…
JW: Are you concerned that your budget battle with the mayor will harm funding for nonprofit groups?
The Council has been very, very careful with the money we have allocated. None of this is going to nonsensical things that you hear go on around the country. All of our stuff affects human beings. We have now overridden the veto; the mayor must now obey the law like anyone else. So if he attempts not to fund any of these groups, we’ll have him in court in two seconds.
JW: How, as governor, would you win passage of the anti-bias crime bill?
I would use reason and friendly persuasion. I would tell [the state Senate] we’ve got the damn thing in New York City, it works well, what are you afraid of?
JW: Would you support a bill banning partial-birth abortions?
I’m pro-choice because I don’t believe I should put myself between a woman and her conscience. I think we all have to account to God someday. However there are limitations. I would never, ever kill a living fetus. I oppose late-term abortions. [I would support a bill] if partial birth is defined. The bill I saw by [state Sen.] Serph Maltese [R-Queens] just said partial birth. No one is going to tell me that my wife has to be killed in order to preserve a fetus.
JW: Do you support campaign finance reform?
New York City has the best [plan] in the world; New York State has none. Take a look at Pataki’s campaign finance filing. How many people, husbands and wives, gave him $41,500 [the maximum]? If you don’t adopt meaningful campaign finance law you … turn it over to the aristocrats, which is absurd. I’m closing in on $4 million. That’s nothing. [Sen.] Al D’Amato turned over a check for $3.5 million to Pataki three weeks ago. They have $10 million to $15 million, why not $100 million? Why not a billion? There is no limitation.