Sen. Ken LaValle, right, with Assemblyman Fred Thiele in 2012. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Now we know that 2020 will mark the end of an era on eastern Long Island. Sen. Ken LaValle, who has represented the First District in the State Senate since 1977, will not seek re-election.

LaValle’s future had been the subject of speculation in the political circuit for some time. He turned 80 in May. As he said on Friday, he got to thinking maybe there was more to life than driving up and down the New York Thruway.

I grew up in the First District, so of course I knew of him, but I got to know LaValle personally as a Riverhead Town councilwoman 30-odd years ago. It was an time of struggle against the state for Riverhead.

LaValle took a canoe ride on the Peconic with Supervisor Joe Janoski and was so impressed with its pristine beauty, he was compelled to preserve it. That was good, since Riverhead, ever its own worst enemy, had zoned a lot of land along the river for industrial uses. This apparently alarmed State DEC officials enough that they essentially put a moratorium in place on all development in a “river corridor” that was insanely large. It stretched north to Route 58 and east to the bay. This would have a crippling impact on the local economy and we (town officials) had to fight like hell to get it changed.

Then there was the landfill law — another good idea that, as implemented, had terrible consequences. I won’t get into details because I could go on for 5,000 words. Suffice to say it was another source of arguments with the state. That fight even landed in court.

Those are just two examples of times I found myself on the opposite side of an issue with our esteemed state senator. But that was a time when people were able to disagree and still like each other. And I genuinely like the man.

LaValle was always a gentleman and the consummate professional. We had a good rapport when I was a local official and it’s continued since — despite times when, as a journalist, I’ve had to ask him tough questions and times when I’ve written stories he probably didn’t like.

People can disagree and still like and respect each other.

So when LaValle’s chief of staff Joann Scalia called me on Monday to say she had some “emotional news,” I immediately knew what was coming. Joann said the senator wanted to give the local press a heads-up. He’d be making the announcement on Friday and we were invited to attend and cover it. But the story itself would be embargoed till the announcement Friday at 11:30. (Embargo means there can be no publication until the day specified.)

I appreciated the heads-up, of course, since it would allow me to draft a skeleton story ahead of time. I asked if I could interview the senator and Joann and I discussed possible days and times for an interview. The legislative session was about to start, he’d be heading to Albany and things were hectic. To my surprise she called back late Monday afternoon and said he was available to talk right then.

We had a good interview. As always, he started out by asking after my family. (“How are my girls?” he always asks, referring to my two now-adult daughters.) He talked about some of his accomplishments and how it felt to spend more than four decades in state government. He spoke about how discouraging he finds the current climate of constant division and crudeness. We spoke for almost and hour and when the call ended, I contemplated the daunting task of writing an article that would sum up a 44-year career.

Of course, I procrastinated.

I was 500 words into my first draft on Wednesday afternoon when Joann called to say that a certain metro news outlet would not honor an embargo. As the invites to Friday’s announcement went out, word got around and people were talking. (There are no secrets in politics.) They were going with the story with our without confirmation from the senator or his staff, she said. Pols in Albany were telling them LaValle confirmed it to them, and that was enough. Scoundrels! She was kind enough to let me know so I wouldn’t lose out. And, by the way, she added, he hadn’t given an interview to anyone else yet.

Suddenly my nice, thoughtful feature story about the retirement of a 44-year state senator turned into a breaking news story. The adrenalin flowed. I banged it out, hoping when all was said and done, it would be coherent.

I hope it was. But it could have said a lot more about the things LaValle has done locally — preserving the land that would become Hallock State Park, funding for improvements to the East End Arts buildings and the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall. Creating the STAR real property tax relief program — fitting that my STAR rebate check was in the mail the next day, too. Establishing the Stony Brook Incubator in Calverton. Funding for the North Fork Breast Health Coalition, Main Street grants, the EPCAL bike trail, rails to trails, the Sept. 11 Memorial Park, the Riverside traffic circle. And hundreds more.

Forty-four years is a very long time. — some would say too long for any one person to hold an elective office. But in Ken LaValle, we’ve had a legislator who never lost touch with the people he represents, who never stopped listening and never stopped caring. He has represented our district well — thoughtfully, compassionately and gracefully. He’s set a high bar for whoever follows him.

Coming up this week

There are a number of useful workshops at Riverhead Free Library this week. They offer help for job-seekers, resume and cover-letter writing, help for people trying to navigate family court or social services, tips for gardeners and more. Check out the LOCAL events calendar for details.

Free Friday matinee at the Riverhead library: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” at 2 p.m.

The Suffolk Theater has a Johnny Cash birthday bash on stage Friday at 8 p.m.

Join a drumming circle at East End Arts Saturday at 11 a.m.

The Riverhead school district is holding a rally for more state aid on Saturday at noon at the Riverhead Middle School. [https://riverheadlocal.com/2019/12/26/riverhead-school-district-to-hold-rally-to-demand-increase-in-state-education-aid/]

Public meetings this week


Monday, Jan. 13
Agricultural Advisory Committee, Riverhead Town Hall, 7 p.m.

Tuesday, Jan. 14
Business Advisory, Riverhead Town Hall, 4 p.m.
Board of Ethics, Riverhead Town Hall, 5 p.m.
Recreation Advisory, Riverhead Town Hall, 5:30 p.m.
Farmland Committee, Riverhead Town Hall, 7 p.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 15
Suffolk County Legislature, William H. Rogers Building, Hauppauge, 11 a.m.
Open Space Committee, Riverhead Town Hall, 2 p.m.
Business Improvement District, Riverhead Town Hall, 5:30 p.m.

Thursday, Jan. 16
Town Board work session, Riverhead Town Hall, 10 a.m.
Planning Board, Riverhead Town Hall, 3 p.m.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.