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Candidates squabble in Astoria

Last week’s debate for Speaker Peter Vallone’s (D-Astoria) city council seat rapidly degenerated into a spectacle not unlike the mud-slinging on daytime talk shows as two of the contenders exchanged verbal blows that left little time for discussion of the issues.

On the left was Peter Vallone Jr., 40-year-old son of the incumbent who received the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Organization, among many others.

On the right was John Ciafone, 30, a lawyer in private practice and member of School Board 30 whose local Democratic club has engaged in a longstanding rivalry with Vallone’s.

In the center, serving as a buffer between the two, sat 74-year-old Mike Zapiti, the charismatic owner of an Astoria driving school, insurance agency and real estate firm who emigrated from Greece more than 50 years ago and proudly boasts of liking everybody.

Republican candidate Sandra Vassos, Green Party candidate Jerry Kann, and Independence Party candidate Michael Mascitti were not invited to participate.

The debate on Aug. 29 brought into public view a deep-rooted hostility between Vallone and Ciafone, whose steady volley of insults against one another was received with loud shouts, hoots and jeers from a packed audience at Riccardo’s catering hall in Astoria.

All three candidates are vying to win the Sept. 11 Democratic primary in the 22nd Council District, which covers Astoria and parts of Long Island City and Jackson Heights.

Peter Vallone Sr., who has held the seat for more than 25 years, is barred by term limits from seeking re-election and is currently running for mayor.

The bad blood between Vallone Jr. and Ciafone can be traced to the elder Vallone’s 1998 gubernatorial bid, when Ciafone’s Aldos Democratic Club endorsed Republican Gov. George Pataki, a move the younger Vallone decried as a betrayal of the neighborhood and the Democratic Party.

Although Vallone Jr. strives to prove himself as a legitimate candidate in his own right – and not simply the son of the incumbent – he never hesitates to praise his father’s legacy or express his intent to build on the elder Vallone’s accomplishments in office.

But the subject of his father overshadowed the issues at the debate, where Ciafone described the Vallone family as a “dynasty” and claimed endorsements are easier to come by “when you’re the son of a powerful Democrat.”

Vallone Jr. cited his own 20-year record in the community, which includes service as legal counsel to the local environmental group CHOKE and the United Community Civic Association, as more important to his candidacy than his father’s incumbency.

“He’s not running in this election — I am,” Vallone Jr. said. “I have my own record of service.”

A volley of mud-slinging and stinging one-liners between the candidates continued for an hour and a half as questions of campaign and professional impropriety were raised by both parties but rarely answered.

The most serious allegations, over which Vallone Jr. filed an official complaint with the Campaign Finance Board, contend that Ciafone fabricated political endorsements and quotes supporting his candidacy from major daily newspapers, including The New York Times, in his campaign literature.

“You know they don’t exist and you hand them out in front of churches,” Vallone Jr. said.

Ciafone said the false endorsements were mistakenly listed in a newspaper ad that ran only once, and he continued to stand by the newspaper quotes as valid, although he failed to produce copy to confirm his claims.

In his own offensive, Ciafone waved a recent article from the Daily News claiming Vallone’s law firm profits from court-appointed guardianships that allow it to take advantage of senior citizens — a charge Vallone denied.

Ciafone also cited an article in last week’s Village Voice that claims Vallone Jr. voted in his father’s council district while living in Hollis Hills with his wife and two daughters.

“I didn’t move here from Hollis Hills to run for my father’s seat,” Ciafone said, alluding to Vallone Jr.’s recent migration back to a condominium in the district.

Vallone responded that according to his opponent’s own logic, “the only thing John’s done for this community is never move out of his mother’s house.”

Providing comic relief, Zapiti was the only candidate to receive support from all sides of the audience, which was sharply divided between supporters of Vallone Jr. and Ciafone.

“I have a travel agency. Maybe I should give them a trip to go someplace,” Zapiti said, eliciting laughter and cheers from all corners of the mirrored hall.

Only the issue of illegal housing conversions received much substantive debate. Ciafone advocates reviewing zoning laws and making changes to prevent rents from continuing to skyrocket, while Vallone Jr. supports enforcing existing laws so illegal conversions are not allowed to exist.

Only Zapiti is in favor maintaining the status quo.

“They should be allowed to stay,” Zapiti said of the immigrants living together in crowded conditions due to illegal conversions. “They’re friendly. They get together, they live together.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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