Frank Padavan: A Legislator Who'll Buck Party Leadership

New York Times, June 8, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. -- He does not look the rebellious type, this stern-faced man with his coal black hair slicked neatly to the side, his blue suits and police-officer bearing, his coke-bottle glasses and penchant for wearing military uniforms at Memorial Day parades.

But in this city of politicians, where following orders is both a political necessity and a way of life, state Sen. Frank Padavan, Republican of Queens, is a misfit in one important way: He bucks his party's leadership now and again.

Twice this year, Padavan has fought Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno on high-profile issues. Earlier this year, he helped kill a measure to legalize casino gambling, which Bruno had championed. And now he has allied himself with Democrats in opposing Bruno's personal crusade to abolish state rent laws.

Although publicly fighting one's party leader might seem unremarkable to some, it is unusual in Albany, where the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader wield extraordinary power. On their own, they can determine a bill's fate, the amount of state funds a district will get, the flow of lobbyists' contributions and the quality of a committee assignment. Such things make or break political careers, and leaders use them to enforce their control.

Given the majority leader's clout, it is unclear whether Padavan -- who, with Sen. Roy Goodman, is one of the two Republicans to have broken the party's ranks in the rent fight -- can do much to influence Bruno.

But Padavan has clearly gotten under Bruno's skin. The majority leader, in an interview, called Padavan's position on rent "extreme" and "dead wrong," and suggested that some punishment might be in store, despite Padavan's 24 years in the Senate.

"Members know that when they take a position that isn't reflective of the leadership, that there is a down side," said Bruno, who is from Rensselaer County. "Frank knew that. He knows it might make his life less comfortable."

Padavan, 62, takes no special pride in standing apart from the Senate's most powerful member; indeed, he is uncomfortable with the role. "Maybe it's my military background," he said, referring to his service in the Army. "For 25 years, I've respected the need to support my leader. However, we're not in the Army. So there must be some divergence of views, particularly on issues of conscience. It does happen."

To those who know him well, Padavan is not so much a rebel as a curmudgeon who does what he thinks is right, sometimes without regard to the political consequences.

In 1994, when Republican leaders, led by the newly elected governor, George Pataki, state chairman William Powers and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, organized a coup against Senate majority leader Ralph Marino, Padavan remained loyal to his longtime colleague until the end, though he knew his side was losing.

The punishment was swift: Bruno stripped Padavan of his title as assistant majority leader and cut his pay by $7,000.

Like a good soldier, Padavan accepted his penalty without complaint. "I understand what he had to do," he said. "It was perfectly understandable and normal for the process."

Padavan also has a reputation as the Legislature's most ornery member. He has been known to stop talking to fellow Republicans for weeks after they opposed his bills. He can be dismissive, sarcastic and condescending, as when he turned to a newly elected Democrat, Assemblywoman Ann Margaret Carrozza, and asked her in front of the audience at a Queens community meeting: "Any questions?"

"He's not a politician who will try to soften the edges," said Assemblyman Mark Weprin, a Queens Democrat.

Padavan makes no excuses for his manner. "My background as an engineer taught me that you present the facts," he said. "There's no sugarcoating necessary."

Despite his standing in the Senate, Padavan remains influential, many Republicans say, partly because of the Senate's reverence for seniority -- only five Republican senators have served longer -- and partly because he manages to be independent without upstaging his colleagues, a cardinal rule of Albany etiquette.

Recently, for instance, he stood beside Bruno while the majority leader unveiled a rent plan that Padavan adamantly opposed, just to show that, politically, he still supported his leader.

"People really do view Padavan as effective," said Sen. Nicholas Spano, a Republican of Westchester. "And he remains effective because leadership respects him."

Padavan's independent streak has made it difficult to classify his politics. A champion of tough criminal penalties, he also endorses a ban on assault weapons. A self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, he has supported increased spending on mental health and preschool programs.

His northeastern Queens district, from the modest row houses of Queens Village to the waterfront mansions of Douglaston, is made up mostly of one- and two-family houses, but it also has more than 20,000 rent-regulated apartments, enough to have shaped his belief that the rent laws mainly protect middle-class families and the elderly, not just rich people.

On his home turf, Padavan is as popular as a politician can be, facing no opposition in recent years despite the Democrats' 3-to-1 registration edge. One reason: he has used state resources to place his stamp on the district.

Padavan was born in his grandparents' house on 11th Street near Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, and was raised in the Hollis section of Queens. His first involvement in politics came when his father, an electrical maintenance worker on the subways, started taking him to meetings of a local Republican club.

On his first try for elected office, in 1972, he defeated the Democratic incumbent in a Senate district where Democrats badly outnumbered Republicans.

"My wife said to me, 'You're not a lawyer. How can you be a politician?' " he recalled. "I said, 'Lawyers mess things up. Engineers fix them.' "

In 1995, his wife of 36 years, Johanne, 56, committed suicide, leaving Padavan and two children, Scott, now 28, and Allison, 23, behind. Friends say her death so stunned and grieved him that he thought about quitting politics.

But Padavan is clearly engaged again in his work, quietly urging Bruno to back off the precipice in the rent fight.

"He doesn't understand the issue," Padavan said, blunt as always. "But I think he's getting educated."