The Most Powerful Man in Westchester?
The Chair is very busy. The Chair has a lot on his plate. The Chair is spinning lots of plates at once. The Chair has many balls in the air, is wearing many hats, and has a lot of irons in the fire.
The Chair is simply swamped.
The Chair is Dr. Giulio Cavallo, chairman of the Westchester County Independence Party. I know The Chair, 52 and a Yonkers resident, is busy because his spokesman, Vice Chair Richard Rhoades, often tells me so. From early February through early May, I spoke only with Rhoades, a retired businessman who lives in northeast Westchester County. I was scheduled to meet The Chair in February, but, due to The Chair being totally snowed under, it was postponed twice. Then, Rhoades wrote me a very apologetic email: The Chair could not attend. “Moreover,” he wrote, “after looking over his schedule in detail, he will not have any time to do an interview with you.”
Rhoades rarely refers to Dr. Cavallo by his name; he usually talks about “The Chair.” (Sometimes I picture a chaise longue; other times, a director’s chair or a Barcalounger.)
Cavallo is the son of Italian immigrants—his father came to America in the 1950s and worked as a truck mechanic—and grew up in the Bronx. He later went to Bologna, Italy, to study internal medicine and worked at Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center and New York Hospital in Queens. Dr. Cavallo became interested in politics after Henry Spallone, a councilman in Yonkers he had asked to resolve a dispute with a neighbor, convinced him to throw a fundraiser. His political career gained momentum in the late 1980s when he joined Spallone’s mayoral campaign. Inspired by Ross Perot’s Reform Party, Cavallo became involved with the Independence Party in New York State and eventually organized the first Westchester County Independence Party committee.
Today, in addition to chairing the Westchester County Independence Party, he serves on the Independence Party State Executive Committee and recently helped start a national branch. The county party has 16,525 active registered voters, and the first organizational meeting of the national party in September 2007 drew delegates from 33 states. Cavallo also sits on the Westchester County Labs & Research Board of Managers and the Police Advisory Board, works part-time for Republican State Senator Seraphin Maltese as a liaison on ethnic issues, and sits on various bank and nonprofit boards.
Three years ago, Journal News columnist Phil Reisman called The Chair “the most powerful man in Westchester County politics.”
Maybe that’s why The Chair is so busy. But what exactly is he busy doing?
The Chair is busy helping politicians win elections. You wouldn’t think a third party would have much success winning elections, and if you lived outside of New York, you’d probably be right. But New York is one of a handful of states that allows cross-endorsement. The Conservative Party, the Working Families Party, and the Independence Party rarely run their own candidates. Instead, they list a candidate from a major party on their own ballot line.
The Democrats and Republicans have the first two rows on the ballot. In local elections, the Conservative Party usually endorses the Republican candidate, and Working Families usually endorses the Democrat.
The Independence Party is the wild card, supporting Democrats and Republicans just about equally. With Democratic voter regis-tration rising in this one-time Republican stronghold—in 2008, Westchester County had 223,309 registered Democrats, compared with 135,285 Republicans—the GOP needs the Independence Party line.
In the 2005 District Attorney election, Janet DiFiore ran on the Republican and Conservative lines, and Tony Castro ran on the Democrat and Working Families lines. Castro met with the Independence Party Executive Committee, and he claims several people on the committee told him he won their endorsement unanimously, but they gave the line to DiFiore. She got 89,198 votes on the Republican and Conservative lines, and Castro got 90,923 from the Democrat and Working Families lines. The 8,251 votes DiFiore received on the Independence line put her into office.
In 2004, the Independence Party had 12 wins and two losses in the races for state legislature and county judgeships, helping the GOP to three close wins along the way. In 2006, the party was 10-2, helping the GOP win two of four close races. In both years, the party endorsed Democrats in most of that party’s blowout wins and uncontested races.
The Chair knows how to pick a winner.
I didn’t think I’d ever find The Chair. And I didn’t think it was just because he was busy. Let’s go back to the first time I spoke to Richard Rhoades—when he called me. Why, he wanted to know, was I talking to Tony Castro, DiFiore’s opponent in the 2005 District Attorney race? It would be an uphill battle, Rhoades said, trying to get a meeting with The Chair. Not just because he was very, very busy, which he certainly was. (“As County Vice Chairperson and Vice Chair of the National Party,” Rhoades said, “he has a heavy plate to deal with.”)
He also wanted to make sure I wasn’t affiliated with The Chair’s crafty political enemies. Three times, Rhoades said, he had received calls from a “freelance reporter.” Each time, the story did not check out with the “editor.” The Chair was, understandably, “respectfully cautious” about meeting with me.
“I know where you went to school,” Rhoades said. “You’d be surprised what I know. We go out of our way to be sure, simply because of the history. A FedEx package will be here on Monday.”
As the head of the Westchester County Independence Party Executive Committee, The Chair has a lot of pull regarding which candidates end up on the slate. When he delivers those votes, major party candidates realize he’s a good person to keep in touch with. Therein lies The Chair’s power (and his astronomical phone bills), and it’s often the GOP making the calls.
And the donations. Individual Republican campaigns have contributed as much as $7,500 each to the Westchester Independence Club. (The Club is much more financially active than The Westchester County Independence Party.) On October 8, 2004, in the midst of a heated campaign between Republican Nick Spano and Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins for the 35th Senatorial District seat, the Westchester Independence Club received a $32,000 donation from the New York State Republican Campaign Committee. The Club, which endorsed Spano, bought a television ad the same day. In 2006, the NYSRCC made two large donations to the Club totaling $31,250. The Independence Party sometimes supports Democrats, so the checks come from them, too. Democrat Nancy Rabin, for instance, donated $10,000 in May 2007.
As talented as The Chair may be at picking winners, his power is largely a function of the cross-endorsement system. If the Working Families and Conservative parties remain reliably partisan, and if Democratic registration keeps rising, any fickle third party with votes to deliver can expect ring-kissing and a slew of campaign donations. In other words, there was already a place in the system awaiting someone like The Chair. Not surprisingly, there has been a messy battle for the chairmanship.
Several years ago, Nader Sayegh, a Yonkers elementary school principal, formed the Westchester Integrity Committee, hoping to take back the Executive Committee from Cavallo’s faction. Sayegh and Cavallo were allies 10 years ago, but by 2000 Cavallo had pushed him off the Executive Committee. By the spring of 2006, Sayegh had become frustrated enough with the party to hold a public news conference accusing Cavallo of election law violations and questionable practices with the party’s campaign finances.
In September 2006, the Westchester County Independence Party held its biennial reorganization. The party rank and file elected Cavallo as chairman and his close allies, Dhyalma Vazquez and Irma Drace, as secretary and treasurer. Sayegh’s faction challenged the reorganization in court, claiming that many district leaders were not properly notified of the meeting. In late November, a judge ruled in favor of the Westchester Integrity Committee, forcing a new reorganization with a court-appointed monitor. Cavallo and his executive committee would have to shoulder $25,000 in costs.
Cavallo appealed. In the meantime, the Integrity Committee launched a public assault on what they called “Cavallo and Team Corruption.” They issued press releases stating that The Chair was a “con artist,” that the party was “for sale” under his leadership, and that his process of giving out ballot lines was “tantamount to extortion.”
In August 2007, Sayegh entered the Yonkers mayoral race against Republican Phil Amicone and collected enough designating petitions to force a primary for the Independence Party endorsement. Cavallo and John Ciampoli went to court to challenge the legitimacy of Sayegh’s petitions. That same day, they challenged petitions filed by Lewis Gjelaj, a Westchester Integrity Committee member running for 9th District judicial delegate. That filing accused Gjelaj of more than 50 technicalities, such as illegible signatures and using pencil instead of ink.
The judge ruled for Cavallo’s team on both challenges, in Sayegh’s case asserting that he had clearly committed fraud on the petitions. And in September 2007, the Westchester Integrity Committee received more bad news from the courts: their challenge to the party reorganization had been totally overturned on appeal.
The battle between the Cavallo and Sayegh camps spilled onto the Internet. The Westchester Guardian, an audacious print and online publication with ties to the Westchester Integrity Committee, called Cavallo a “pimp” and accused him of selling endorsements and soliciting bribes. Cavallo filed a defamation lawsuit against the Guardian, but withdrew it after his legal fees moved into the five figures.
The most vicious attacks appear in the comment sections of local blogs. At Journal News website LoHud.com and political blog Yonkers Tribune, readers launch accusations of every sort, imply insider knowledge of impending federal indictments, and drop the occasional ethnic slur, often in capital letters, with spelling and grammar that would make any elementary school teacher cry. (They are arch, they are snide, they are vulgar; they are the very portrait of the crap-flinging territoriality that mischievous children thrill to see at the zoo. But at least they care about their local government.)
Cavallo sued the Yonkers Tribune for the identity of the commenters intending to then sue them for libel. State Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Colabella, who had the Independence Party endorsement when he was re-elected to the State Supreme Court in 2001, heard the case. Cavallo won, but he dropped the suit after the Tribune appealed.
The Supreme and County Courthouse in White Plains is a small world. Administrative Judge Francis Nicolai, a political enemy of Cavallo, sued the Conservative, Working Families, and Independence parties after failing to receive their endorsement for election to the State Supreme Court in 2007. Steven Sacripanti, who recently retired from his position as Nicolai’s principal court reporter, is a Westchester Integrity Committee ally. Irma Drace, secretary to State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Alessandro, was the plaintiff in the suit that knocked Nader Sayegh out of the Yonkers mayoral race. She also is the Westchester County Independence Party treasurer. Over 13 months in 2006 and 2007, the Westchester Independence Club paid Drace, who works full time for Alessandro, $18,000 for petition work.
In November 2006, the Westchester Independence Club received a $3,000 donation from “1 Funding Center.” No address was given, but two months later, Shelly Cao, owner of “#1 Funding Center” at 136-31 Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, was charged with defrauding real estate investors out of over $1.5 million. District Attorney Richard A. Brown said in a press release that Cao told her investors that “many influential and political figures were involved in the venture.” The case ultimately was dismissed before trial and then sealed.
Sayegh’s Westchester Integrity Committee often draws attention to supposed campaign-funding irregularities by the Westchester Independence Club. They highlight a $27,286 payment in 2005 to North Fork Bank, and frequent monthly payments of up to $8,000 to American Express with no explanation of why the credit card was used.
Payments to banks and credit cards, however, are not unique to the Independence Party; other parties’ filings reveal the same red flags. Finances for the Working Families Party in Westchester, for example, are difficult even to track because they file everything through their state party.
And while the Westchester Integrity Committee may see patronage when Cavallo goes to work for a GOP state senator, that, too, is common across parties. Conservative Party Chairwoman Gail Burns spent 15 years working for Nick Spano and became a liaison for Yonkers Mayor Phil Amicone when Spano left office. The chair of the Westchester Democratic Party, Reginald Lafayette, also is a Board of Elections commissioner.
In a tangled political world like this, it’s hard to prove accusations of corruption. Some criticize the Independence Party for lacking a substantial platform and always going with a likely winner just to improve their clout, but it could be that the Executive Committee truly is independent and makes their choices because they get to know the candidates well, regardless of party affiliation.
In other words, it’s entirely possible that all the controversy swirling around The Chair can be explained quite simply: he picks a lot of winners, and there are a lot of sore losers. The best way to figure it out is to talk to The Chair himself.
State Senator Seraphin “Serf” Maltese’s office sits next to the Glendale Diner on a typical commercial stretch of Myrtle Avenue in Queens. My hunch: if I’m going to find The Chair, I’ll find him at his job.
Inside, a scheduler says Cavallo works out of the office, but he’s not actually in it much. She also says he is very busy.
Next up: 519 Waverly Avenue in Mamaroneck, home of Enzo’s Auto Body. This address was listed through 2007 as the headquarters of the Westchester County Independence Party.
I see a man kneeling to check the air pressure on the tires of a minivan. I ask him if Mario Castaldo is around. He stands up—a middle-aged man with a thick mustache, blue cap, and jeans. “I’m Mario Castaldo,” he says.
Mario Castaldo used to be The Chair. Well, the chairman of the party, at least; Cavallo was still running the show. On this particular day, Castaldo isn’t very eager to talk. He’s tired of the zoo that is Westchester County politics. Last year, he shut down party headquarters and bowed out of the game.
“Fourteen years of politics,” he says, “is enough.”
It’s the idea of what goes on in third parties’ headquarters—the proverbial smoke-filled room—that animates critics of cross-endorsement. They believe too much power resides in party executive committees, and that parties can easily descend into simple patronage mills, doling out endorsements just for the thrill of the game or campaign contributions. Even worse, they say, is the potential for selling endorsements.
But there is plenty of corruption in states without cross-endorsement. Why shouldn’t a political party be allowed to endorse anyone it wants, even if another party supports that person, too? Under cross-endorsement, citizens dissatisfied with the major parties can use third-party leverage to push neglected issues into Republican and Democratic platforms.
In the 2004 35th Senatorial District race, for example, the Working Families Party made a rare swing to the right to support Spano over Stewart-Cousins after Spano promised to push a hike in the minimum wage. Westchester County Working Families chair Patrick Welsh would have been happy to endorse a Democrat, but Stewart-Cousins would have been a freshman in a Republican-dominated Senate. “Nick Spano was probably the third most powerful representative,” Welsh said. “Andrea Stewart-Cousins couldn’t even put a bill on the floor.”
Spano won, and the minimum wage hike came through. “He won by eighteen votes, and we delivered one thousand eight hundred of them,” Welsh said. “We put him over the top.” In 2006, Working Families withheld their endorsement, and Stewart-Cousins beat Spano in a rematch.
Even if a third party were to devolve from pushing issues to simply pulling in campaign contributions, an engaged electorate could check corruption through the election of district leaders. The most fundamental battle for control of the Independence Party, for instance, is waged at the district leader level.
There are 1,029 election districts in Westchester County, and each one is entitled to two district leaders for each party. The election districts are miniscule; Independence Party enrollment within them ranges from zero to 63. Within a party, district leaders elect the executive committee that dishes out the endorsements. Usually, the executive committee influences the nomination of potential district leaders, who then often run unopposed. However, if another party member collects enough petitions, the candidate with the executive committee’s blessing will be forced into a contested primary election.
When citizens aren’t paying attention to district leader elections—as tiny and inconsequential as they may seem—executive committees can run wild.
One day before my deadline, I gave it one more shot. I called John Ciampoli, Cavallo’s lawyer, hoping he’d put me in touch with someone from the party. Ciampoli said he’d ask someone to get back to me. Fifteen minutes later, my phone rang. The display said “Restricted” where a number should have been. On the other end was a smooth, slightly high-pitched voice with a hint of the Bronx.
“This is Dr. Cavallo,” said The Chair.
The Chair apologized for it taking so long for us to get in touch. “I’m just all over the place,” he said ruefully. “The people that take messages, they don’t make it sound important.”
I told him my deadline—24 hours—and he agreed to meet me for lunch the next day at the Park Side Restaurant in Corona, Queens.
I expected The Chair to arrive in a whirlwind, the very living embodiment of multitasking, with a Blackberry surgically attached to his ear and his mind already having arrived at the next destination. But he walked in coolly. “Mr. Lanahan,” he said, “Dr. Cavallo.” The maître d’ seated us. A photo of Sid Caesar and an engraving of his name hung above the table. “I like him,” said Cavallo.
Cavallo is a hefty man, with tight waves of salt-and-pepper hair and a dark goatee that becomes wider as it moves down his chin. He wore a yellow button-down shirt and a tie of gold paisley and diagonal powder-blue stripes. He was amiable, at ease. I suppose that’s not surprising for someone who says three-quarters of his job is socializing.
“This political bull,” he said. “It’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.” He patted his protruding belly. “I’ve gained sixty pounds.” At meals, he says, he always pays. It’s expensive running a party. “I wake up in the morning and I’m paying for something.”
Cavallo ordered spinach ravioli and a plate of shellfish and tucked his napkin into the top of his shirt. I asked if it was really just his schedule that kept us from meeting for over three months. He insisted it was.
“I haven’t taken a vacation in eleven years,” he said. “In one day, I get fifteen to thirty calls.” And the traveling: Albany, Queens, Long Island; boards, medical conventions, interviews. Then, at the end of 2007, there was a death in his family. “I was in bad shape for a while after that,” he said.
Cavallo claims to be completely bewildered by the perception that he is so powerful. In Westchester County, he says, the Independence Party plays a minor role compared to the major parties. But he is firmly in control of his own party. “I need six-hundred district leaders,” he said. “If I don’t have them, I’m not really in charge.” He claims to have 860.
He says he ignores his opponents’ criticism, and, should they knock him out of power, he has a nice cushion to help him back on his feet. The Westchester Independence Club, he says, raises money not exactly for the party, but for his faction of the party. “It doesn’t matter what you call it,” he says. “You could call it the ‘Cavallo Club.’”
As for the major donors to the club, Cavallo says they are personal friends. “Rabin is a Democrat from Harrison,” Cavallo says, noting that he supported the Republican candidate for Harrison town supervisor despite Nancy Rabin’s donation.
Cavallo remembers paying only $10,000, not $18,000, to Alessandro’s secretary—and party treasurer—Irma Drace. With petition work, Cavallo says, sometimes he’ll pay one person, and she’ll hire more petition workers with that money.
I told Cavallo about a corporation that looked like it was owned by Shelly Cao that had donated $3,000. “I know Shelly from Queens,” he said. “I though she wrote a thousand-dollar check at a fundraiser.” I told him about the fraud charges and he said he can’t possibly keep track of every check that comes in.
When we finished eating, I asked Cavallo how I could contact him for any follow-up questions.
“You don’t have my cellphone number?” he asked.
No, I told him. It had been pretty difficult getting in touch.
He looked shocked. “You mean no one gave you my cell?”
In 2008, the Independence Party may be losing its clout. The Westchester Integrity Committee has become inactive, despite an upcoming Independence Party reorganization meeting. The rise in Democratic registration may have originally been responsible for some of the Independence Party’s power, but here’s the catch: if it goes too high—and if the national political climate this fall punishes Republicans at the local level—even a third-party endorsement can’t prevent a string of Democratic blowouts. In 2006, Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins defeated GOP kingmaker Nick Spano. In 2007, Democrat Francis Nicolai was elected to the State Supreme Court without any third-party endorsements. Will the same system that created a powerful place for The Chair now squeeze him back out?
The Chair isn’t going anywhere. “Once it gets under your skin,” he says about politics, “you’re hooked.” (In fact, when he found himself choosing between medical practice and politics nine years ago, he left medicine behind. “I wanted to spend more time with my family,” he says. “My mother got sick and I wanted to stay close to home.”) But is The Chair the most powerful person in Westchester County politics? Not really, even if Republicans keep running tight races. Actually, you—the voter—are the most powerful person in Westchester County politics. You can get to know your district leader, vote for a challenger if you dislike the incumbent, or even get the petitions together and run yourself.
Westchester County primary elections take place on September 9, 2008.
Lawrence Lanahan is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and musician from Baltimore. He enjoys sitting in an upholstered barrel chair that was passed down from his great aunt.