Sen. Ken LaValle, the longest-serving member of the New York State Senate, will not seek re-election next year.
LaValle, 80, was first elected to represent New York’s First Senate District in 1976. In the ensuing nearly 44 years, the Port Jefferson Republican earned a reputation as a principled straight-shooter who is willing to work across the aisle to get the job done for his district.
And he’s loved every minute of it — well, almost. Politics has gotten nastier and more difficult in recent years, LaValle said in an interview Monday, reflecting on his long career in state government.
“There’s too much fighting that goes on — backbiting. I tell people I had a good kindergarten experience, so I get along with people,” he said. “My personality tends to be bringing people together rather than being divisive.”
The time for change has come, LaValle said. But don’t expect New York’s elder statesman to kick back and spend all his time on the golf course.
“I’m looking for a new challenge,” LaValle said. He said he will be working in some capacity at Stony Brook University, but declined to disclose specifics. LaValle has been a champion of the university, whose red baseball cap has become a staple of his daily attire. The senator has an athletic stadium and a library collection named for him on the Stony Brook campus.
He said his mother told him long ago the key to remaining “relevant” is to “follow the young people.”
“If you think about it, that’s where relevancy begins, with the young people starting out, cutting new pathways,” LaValle said.
LaValle’s career began as an educator — first as a classroom teacher and then as a principal in the Middle Country school district. Education remains one of his passions. He quite naturally gravitated to the senate’s higher education committee, where he serves as ranking member and as its former longtime chairman.
“I made up my mind very early in my career the areas I wanted to get involved in: education, land preservation and health care. In broad strokes, those are the three areas I’ve focused on,” he said.
“Environmental endeavors have been the centerpiece” of his achievements, LaValle said. “There are a lot of things I’ve done,” he said, “but I think preserving 100,000 acres of pine barrens is central.”
LaValle co-authored the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act with Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli. Preservation of the pine barrens was “critically important,” he said. “They guarantee our source of clean drinking water and they will be preserved forevermore, for future generations.”
The senator points to the creation of the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, which he coauthored with Assemblyman Fred Thiele, as another crucial achievement. It became law in 1993. . The law allowed East End voters to adopt a new 2% transfer tax to fund land preservation in the five East End towns. To date it has raised more than $1 billion for land preservation on the East End.
Land preservation was always “on top of my list,” he said. “Once land is built on, it’s done,” he said. “It’s not coming back.” His first bill in the legislature was a farmland preservation measure, he said. Besides the pine barrens act and the CPF program, he has been a proponent of establishing parks and green space throughout his district.
“Every community should have a park,” he said, “a green space where people can go and congregate and recreate. We’ve done that.”
LaValle is credited with forging a regional health care system with Stony Brook University Hospital as a hub.
“It was clear that in the changing health care environment, community hospitals would not be able to survive on their own,” he said. He thought it was important to keep Suffolk’s hospitals in a Suffolk-based hospital system and fought to make it happen.
It was not an easy lift. Peconic Bay Medical Center and John T. Mather Memorial Hospital eventually became part of the Northwell Health System, while Southampton Hospital and Eastern Long Island Hospital have become part of the Stony Brook system. L.I. Community Hospital (formerly Brookhaven Memorial), the island’s last independent community hospital, has signed a letter of intent to explore a merger with Stony Brook as well.
LaValle and Thiele have had a special friendship for more than 25 years in the State Legislature. But Thiele recalls first meeting LaValle when Thiele was a 22-year-old intern in the State Assembly, working for a legislator from Buffalo. LaValle was then an aide to former State Sen. Leon Giuffreda.
“I was like this eager-beaver intern, so excited about everything. He always had time for me,” Thiele said in an interview today. “That was really the beginning of our relationship. When I was in local government, we had a good relationship, but really it was in the 25 years we were partners in the State Legislature that we developed a special relationship,” Thiele said.
“I’m not aware of any other senator and member of the assembly who have the professional and personal relationship we’ve had,” Thiele said. “It’s been a joy. I’m blessed to have had him as my mentor and friend.”
LaValle is hosting a luncheon Friday in Port Jefferson where he will formally announce his decision not to seek re-election.
“It’s a very rare opportunity I’ve had to be entrusted by the people of the First District with the honor of representing them,” he said Monday.
He calls the district, which takes in central and eastern Suffolk County, “my extended family.”
“God has been good to me because I never have forgotten where the real people are,” he said.
“If you look at my logo, it’s ‘First District First’ — two forks, six towns, one district.”
LaValle said it has been “an awesome responsibility to try and represent the dreams, the hopes and the aspirations of almost 315,000 people. I’ve never taken my eyes off of that.”
The next chapter in his life “will be a lot of fun,” he predicts, adding “as everything has been in my life.”
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