Q&A: State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle Reflects On 44 Years In Albany

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Kenneth P. LaValle

At 80, Kenneth P. LaValle has spent more than half his life as the state senator representing a district that includes the South Fork. This week, he announced that he will not seek reelection when his 44th year in office ends in 2020.

Just prior to the official announcement on Friday, Mr. LaValle agreed to a conversation covering his time in office, his most important friendship and what’s next in his professional life.

Q: How do you sum up a 44-year career in the State Senate?

It’s a long time. I’ve enjoyed every moment. I’ve loved representing the 1st Senate District and its people, and interacting with the people. And issues that I really love: the environment, health care, education. Who wouldn’t?

Q: Why now? Why is this the year to step away?

Well, believe it or not, I think I still have some opportunities I would like to explore.

Q: Can you talk about what they are? Are they in education?

No, not really … I enjoy working with other people and making things happen.

Q: And that’s something you may have an opportunity to continue to do, in another capacity?

Yeah.

Q: When you look back on your career, there’s a lot to choose from, but what’s the one accomplishment …

I think the Pine Barrens Preservation Act, and other preservation efforts. But I’ll answer this question and many others: I had an opportunity to work with Fred Thiele, whom I just love. Such a great guy, great heart, great mind. And we’ve done a lot of things together, you know, he and I. On the environmental front, representing the 1st District, and particularly the South Fork.

Q: Fred Thiele has been the South Fork’s assemblyman for 28 years. That’s kind of unusual to have two legislators in Albany representing an area for nearly three decades, together, and having such a good working relationship, even though you weren’t always from the same party.

That’s right. That is absolutely right.

Q: Why do you think that was? Did the two of you just have a good connection personally?

Yes. Yes. Don’t look any further than that. I think a good personal relationship, and also energetic, wanting to do things dealing with land preservation, environment. And we could really gel together.

Q: And got a lot done.

Yeah, I think Fred and I have done a lot. I mean, I can’t even begin to … yes, we’ve done a lot. And, you know, a lot of it is solving problems of people or groups, and both of us getting great satisfaction out of that. He’s been a terrific, terrific legislative partner.

Q: Is there anything you didn’t get done that you wish you had?

Not really. Not really. I said to a colleague one day, he said, “My God, you’re really charging into this issue.” And I said, “The reason is, you don’t know if there’s going to be a tomorrow.”

Q: So that was your strategy?

It’s been my philosophy — you don’t know what’s going to happen. And I don’t mean it in a way of “death” or something like that. But, you know, in politics, government, things change very rapidly, very rapidly.

Q: How has Albany changed in 44 years?

Oh, my goodness! I would say that people are embracing things that are not consistent with the values and the concerns of the people of the 1st Senate District. For instance, today the governor gave the State of the State message. He mentions the word “progressive” between six and 10 times. My focus is 315,000 people who happen to live in the environs of the 1st District. Very simple — what their needs are. …

For instance, I have an annual — and will continue to have it — environmental forum. And out of that environmental forum, we forge three, four, five policy issues: things we’re going to deal with, whether it be through legislation, or town action, village action. …

Q: A lot of people would equate “progressive” and “environmental” — but you’re a conservative, and environmental issues have been a big part of your agenda from the beginning.

My grandfather from Messina, Italy, Pasquale LaValle — one day, I reached up and took a pear off a pear tree. And he said to me — I thought he figured he would give me a lecture — and he said, “I want you to remember: You’ve got to leave things better than when you found them.”

You should play golf with me. When I’m in the sand trap, I’m raking the hell out of the damn sand trap, till it’s almost perfect!

The environment nourishes us in so many ways. And we need to be vigilant and take care of the environment, where we live. It’s been very, very important to me.
Fred and I passed the Community Preservation Act, which fuels funds, money, to preserve properties. The Good Lord is not making any more land, any more property. So whatever we can preserve, we should do now.

Q: Let’s talk about education, since it’s been a big part of your career. What will be the challenges moving forward in Albany after you leave? What still needs to be done?

It’s always money. It’s always having enough money to give to school districts. The challenge will be, because of the Assembly being Democratic-controlled, and now the Senate being Democratic-controlled, is that the urban centers, and its people and its lobbyists, will be on line first to grab as much money as they can to deal with the education needs in the urban centers.

Q: Is one reason that now is the time for you to leave the Senate because of the changeover, with the Democrats taking control? I imagine that’s a significant change to your role.

Well, I would say it’s a little factor, but not a major factor.

It’s funny how these things …You wake up one day … I don’t know why we make the decisions we do, but I think …

Q: Was it really just a bolt out of the blue?

It wasn’t contemplated for a long, long time. I think I would like to do some other things, in higher education, whether it be at Stony Brook or someplace else. I think I have a lot of knowledge, having been chairman of the Higher Education Committee in the Senate for so many years. Yeah, I think I need challenges.

Q: Newsday reported in December that your wife was leaving Suffolk County government. Was that a factor?

No. Absolutely not.

Q: They sort of speculated that it might move you toward retirement. Did it play a role?

Not at all. Not at all.

Q: More free time? Your wife will have more free time, and now you will too …

Maybe. Maybe. First of all, I’m going to be where I am for the rest of the year, for the rest of 2020. That’s when my term expires. It’s a lot of time to do a lot of things, to get involved, to start new challenges.

Q: Is there anybody you have in mind as a successor?

No. I am from the old school, that that should be a political leader’s decision.

Q: So you won’t play any role in helping to choose that person?

No.

Q: What advice would you give whoever wins the seat?

It’s a very challenging seat. People are very energized. You are expected to work very hard, listen to people and accomplish things. You can’t be a talker — you gotta be a doer, get things done.

If you look at succeeding me, look at my record. I would just say that you’ve got to work hard to do things, because people expect that from their state senator.

Q: Do you think you set the bar high for whoever comes after you?

I don’t know if I did, but I think the bar is a high bar. I think it’s a good record — at least that’s what people have been telling me in the last few days.

… I had a lot of opportunities, and I went at it to do something about those challenges or opportunities, and working with people to get it done. I love working with other people. I have a good personality to work with other people to accomplish stuff. So whoever follows can’t be a talker — they gotta be a doer.

Q: What’s one thing about your job you won’t miss?

The trip in winter to Albany. I love the people here in Albany, but …
You know, I adopted the mentality from day one that I had to leave my home and I had to go to meetings, and that might be inconvenient at times. There might be conflicts with family events and so forth. But I’m of a generation that, if you sign up for something, then you see it through, and you do as good a job as you can do.

Once in a while, there would be conflicts — a family barbecue, and I gotta go to a parade in Oshkosh …

Q: Your time’s going to be your own now — probably in a way it hasn’t been for a long time.

I don’t know. I will spend, certainly, more time with my bride. I’ve got grandchildren — a princess and three princes, four grandchildren.

But, I will tell you, I’m already thinking ahead, of challenges that I want to get involved in. So …

Q: So it’s going to be an active retirement.

Well, I don’t … You know, it’s funny — I almost find, when you say that, I find it offensive. Because I will be doing different kinds of things, whether it be at the university or wherever.

Q: You’re not done.

No. I hope so. I hope I’m not done.

Q: You will be there when they cut the ribbon on the new hospital?

You can count on it, since that was one of my babies. There are some things that I put in place that will deliver health care for Southampton and East Hampton, and that will be, as one of the local officials said, “Ken, that’s quite a legacy piece.” And it is.

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