‘Uncle Vinnie’ brings home the bacon for his district
By Cara Matthews
The Journal News
As he begins his sixth term in office, state Sen. Vincent Leibell’s web of influence stretches into nearly every corner of Putnam County.
Leibell can count friends and allies in positions of authority throughout county and local governments, quasi-public agencies such as the Putnam County Industrial Development Agency, and nonprofits like the Putnam Hospital Center board of directors. A few of many examples:
– County Executive Robert Bondi’s wife, Marylou Bondi, holds a more than $50,000-a-year job in Leibell’s Senate office.
– Old friends from his days as a Westchester County prosecutor run the Putnam County Attorney’s Office and head the White Plains law firm that does a major piece of Putnam’s outside legal work.
– One of his closest allies mans the helm of both the Putnam IDA and the Economic Development Corp., key players in the county’s growth.
Those ties plus the amount of state money that Leibell brings to the district – a bounty that has earned him the moniker “Uncle Vinnie” – have cemented his position as the go-to man in Putnam politics. And if fellow Republican Nicholas Spano of Yonkers should lose his still-undecided Senate race with Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Leibell’s reach would be even greater, as he would be the only Republican senator in the Westchester-Putnam delegation.
“Two things I can say about Vinnie Leibell: The positive would be that he is the most powerful and influential politician in this county. The negative would be that he is the most powerful and influential politician in this county,” said William Sayegh, a longtime friend of Leibell’s who has clashed with him politically as chairman of the Putnam Independence Party.
Leibell, whose district covers all of Putnam and parts of northern Westchester and eastern Dutchess, said he doesn’t see himself as hugely influential. He says he’s a hard worker, regularly putting in seven-day workweeks in his part-time, $79,500-a-year job, and likes to visit every town in his district each week.
“I never think of myself in terms of having any power,” Leibell said. “I do think of myself as having been sent to the Capitol by my constituents to influence events, and that’s hopefully what I will do and hopefully for the better. You wouldn’t be able to compare this area to maybe some areas of the state. If you were to look at some other state senators, you would say, `Those are real powerhouses.’ I’m not.”
So many people with ties to him are involved with running the county because they are the ones who volunteer, Leibell said, and they are the ones in whom he has confidence. “These are people I’ve worked with before and know they can handle the job.”
Marylou Bondi said her job for Leibell is to do constituent service, and her presence on his payroll does not win Leibell any greater influence or access to the County Executive’s Office.
Leibell’s sway in Putnam is distinct because he represents all of it. The county’s population of 99,550 is dwarfed by Westchester’s nearly 1 million residents and Dutchess’ approximately 300,000, and Republicans occupy virtually every countywide office and four of the six town supervisor posts.
“He controls all of the political power base, and everybody knows that. He is the top of the food chain,” said Democrat Joseph D’Ambrosio, a Kent councilman who unsuccessfully challenged Leibell last year. “It’s just too much power centrally located in one man, in one person.”
D’Ambrosio, an adjunct professor of public administration at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, called Leibell a “shrewd retail politician” who is well-schooled in the ways of machine politics and knows how to secure money for his district.
Southeast town Supervisor John Dunford, a Republican, said much of Leibell’s influence comes from the state funding he obtains, known officially as “member items” and in political slang as “pork.” Distributing money begets goodwill and popularity, Dunford said.
“And that makes them more friends, especially in the political circles of the people he’s delivering to,” he said.
As a member of the Senate majority party, Leibell benefits from the pork-barrel system more than a Democrat would. The list of grants and member items he has secured for his district is extensive.
– An example from 2004 is $8,000 to the Dutchess Land Conservancy to protect 58 acres.
– In 2003, he secured $100,000 for Mount Kisco’s Northern Westchester Hospital to buy a decontamination trailer.
– Two years ago, he helped obtain $137,500 from the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for the Mahopac Chamber of Commerce Park.
“Vinnie Leibell is absolutely good for Putnam County,” said Sayegh, a Carmel attorney. “He brings a tremendous amount of influence from this small county to Albany, and he’s able to fund projects that this county needs.”
Ken Marsolais, artistic director of the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts in Mount Kisco, said Leibell was responsive and attentive to the cultural organization, which reaches about 20,000 people a year through its galleries, recitals, camps and other programs. In the fall, Leibell delivered $100,000 – $20,000 for catalogs and $80,000 for operating expenses.
“We’ve always found him very much a gentleman and very concerned about issues that we deal with, and I’m sure that he’s spread thin with requests,” Marsolais said.
Watchdog groups criticize the state Legislature’s member-item system because it is deeply political. Legislators have a lot of discretion over which community groups get money. There is no accounting information available to the public as to where the money goes or how it’s ultimately spent.
E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow for tax and budgetary studies at the Center for Civic Innovation at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said many of the projects are not necessarily worthy of state taxpayers’ dollars.
“If Kent needs a new town hall, Kent should build a new town hall for itself. It’s not a state priority to build a new town hall for Kent,” he said, referring to $1.4 million that Leibell provided for the construction of a new town center, which also includes a library and police station.
Leibell can also be counted among the growing number of elected officials still in office whose names have been attached to the public landscape, a practice McMahon finds objectionable. There is the Sen. Vincent Leibell III Veterans Retirement Home in Carmel, for which he obtained almost $300,000 in state funding; Leibell Place, the road next to the new Patterson Town Hall, for which he secured $700,000; and a sheriff’s substation in Putnam Valley that is dedicated to the senator.
Ken Harper, a Patterson resident and Putnam’s Democratic chairman, said Leibell looks good when he appears in a newspaper with a blown-up copy of a check, but “in reality, it’s our money.”
In Southeast, where Leibell’s relationship with the local officials has not always been so warm, the money has not been as forthcoming. Republican Lois Zutell, former town supervisor, said she and others have sent letters to Leibell asking for his help obtaining money for local initiatives, only to be disappointed.
“Despite all of the money that he’s been able to procure for member items for various municipalities, unfortunately, Southeast has not seen his generosity, and we would very much like to see some assistance in the future,” she said.
Leibell said there is a lot of legwork involved in obtaining money for worthy local initiatives. Many times, he’ll contact the Senate Finance Committee or Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. His office vets requests and tries to match different types of funding with appropriate projects.
“If you don’t do it, you won’t get it,” he said. “If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.”
While the money wins friends and favorable reviews, Leibell’s critics say any opposition to the senator has been quashed by a reluctance to openly cross him.
In D’Ambrosio, Leibell faced his first major-party opponent since 1996, but the Democrat said some in his own party were unwilling to back him publicly for fear of offending Leibell.
Several community and political leaders declined to give interviews for this article, saying it could hurt their political careers or livelihoods. Harper, the Democratic chairman, said Leibell’s modus operandi is, “It’s my way or the highway.” Even if there are no repercussions for not going along with Leibell, that is the perception, Harper said.
Leibell disputes such comments.
“I don’t have the sort of power that I can impact anybody that way,” Leibell said. He said that such characterizations were unfair and that he is more than happy to discuss issues with people who have opposing viewpoints. But, when circumstances warrant it, he said, he can be unyielding.
“When you’re in office a long period of time, obviously not everybody’s going to be happy with you. That is the reality of it. And sometimes that is more difficult to understand. And I do understand this: that there are projects that have to, that in my opinion, need to be accomplished, and I can at times be forceful.” He cited the Kent town center as an example.
Dunford said Leibell could be more receptive to others’ ideas.
“I just wish he would see another side, that supporters of his can have a difference of opinion and still be his supporters. I’ve not seen him be able to accept that,” he said.
But Leibell contends that he works well with others, regardless of party, and can have a disagreement with someone and then move on. Leibell has mended fences with Putnam Sheriff Donald Smith, whom he didn’t support when Smith successfully challenged longtime Sheriff Robert Thoubboron four years ago. Smith honored Leibell at the sheriff’s 2004 golf outing.
Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, said she has known and worked with Leibell since she was a Westchester County legislator and he a state assemblyman. Galef said she and Leibell have collaborated on state legislation, such as a long sought-after new law that requires the state to pay property taxes on land it owns in Putnam. The two hold joint town meetings and have spoken about a blueprint for ensuring that the state would pass a budget on time each year.
“The bottom line is, we both run on partisan lines, but once we are elected, we are nonpartisan
and we work together cooperatively for the people,” Galef said.
Some say Leibell crushes any political opposition swiftly and has been known to use the phrase “kill them in the cradle” when talking about budding challengers. Leibell said the phrase is not one he favors, although he remembers Senate Democrats saying it about him when he first ran for office.
Leibell is aware he is the object of criticism from some fronts, but said he would rather it be for being too active and too intent on accomplishing his goals than for doing nothing.
“If they say he’s involved in too many things well, yeah, that happens when you work seven days a week,” he said. “If you take long vacations to Hawaii, it doesn’t happen. But when you’re in your district seven days a week and you’re working full time, then you’ll see results occurring.”