Hail Caesar – A Tribute to Senator Trunzo, A Quiet Giant Part 1 of 2

…the legacy of one man whose years as a public servant and important political leader on Long Island for almost half a century. 

“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”   President Ronald Reagan 

(A picture of Senator Trunzo and President Ronald Reagan hung in Caesar’s office at the Islip Republican Party.)  

Chris Molluso, a thirty-year veteran staffer in the New York State Senate and former Chief of Staff to Senator Trunzo, believes that the above “Reaganism” might have been invented by Caesar Trunzo.  “If I were to identify one characteristic of Senator Trunzo, it would be his humility, “ said Mr. Molluso in a telephone interview, “Caesar was always more interested in getting things done, than getting credit for doing them.”

Chris would know that from personal experience.  Before serving as the Senator’s Chief of Staff, Chris served as his Press Secretary.  Anyone who worked for Senator Trunzo says press releases, press conferences and working to secure credit for his legislative and constituent service triumphs were not in the Senator’s method of operation.  Frustration would fill the office staff when Caesar would take a draft press release announcing some great accomplishment and say, “I will look this over…” as he slid it into his leather briefcase never to be seen again!

Caesar Trunzo may not show up in the history books one hundred years from now because he simply did not work as hard on publicizing his accomplishments as he did in making them happen.  In his district on the South Shore of Long Island, Caesar Trunzo was a household word for more than three decades.  Recently, when the former Senator walked into the Oconee Dinner in Islip only a block from Islip Town Hall, he was swarmed by well-wishers including present Town Supervisor, Tom Crocci.  One young man, who now acts as a health aid-companion for the elderly former Senator (at the time, 85 years old) was stunned by the celebrity reception and warmth of the greetings that his new employer received. 

Though rarely on television or in the newspaper and almost never on radio, Caesar Trunzo set the standard for attending community events like picnics, parades, dinners, award ceremonies, grand openings and dedications.  His availability was legendary and his schedule predictable but exhausting for new aides who tried to keep up. 

When I joined his staff, I was a junior officer in my American Veterans post.  At a meeting after being hired, I proudly announced I could help get the Senator to the New Year’s Eve dinner the Post always held.  One older veteran, without even raising his head, said, “Oh don’t worry about that, Mark.  He will be here at 11:30 pm; he comes every year.”  And so it was, my boss walked into the hall promptly at 11:30 and stayed ‘til closing.  He had made his usual round of fire departments and civic groups for New Year’s Eve.  He did that every year like clockwork.  Caesar had made his career in “community politics,” the fire house, in the PTA’s, and in the senior citizen assisted living villages.  He was amazing to watch, even in his later years, as he seemed to know everyone in a district of 350,000. 

My first official duty as an aide to New York State (N.Y.S.) Senator Caesar Trunzo (R.) was to travel to Albany to have my photograph taken and to complete the required forms necessary to serve.  It was just routine administrative things and I was done around lunchtime.  When I returned to the Senator’s office, half a dozen staff members who worked the legislative side of Senator Trunzo’s operation were all busy on the phone or talking to colleagues or lobbyists.  The office buzzed with an “in session” hum I would get to know during the ten years I worked for Senator Trunzo.

The evening before, I had gone to dinner with Caesar, who was then the Chairman of N.Y.S. Senate Civil Service & Pensions Committee.  There were possibly a dozen or more union presidents at the restaurant when we arrived.  Some of them I knew from my time as a legislative aide in the Suffolk County Legislature.  The room was large, private, with dark wood, and chandeliers.   Ornate and classical in design, it looked like something out of an epic novel, possibly in Rome or France.  This was my first exposure to Senator Trunzo in the state’s capital.  It’s clear and vivid in my mind today. 

The next day, when I returned from lunch, Caesar was sitting at his desk in his office, and called out to me, “Come in here, Mark.”  I walked in, sat down and we chatted awhile when he said, “Mark, why don’t you walk down to the Chamber [the Senate Chamber] with me before you leave to go home this afternoon?”

“Sure boss,” I replied, and after a few moments we left his office to make the walk he had made thousands of times.  I think there were two different security points we had to go through before we entered an ante-room decorated in velvet reds, dark green, and bright golds.   Through a door to my left front I could see the ornate Senate Chamber with plush carpet, large wooden student-like desks of an earlier era that were secured to the floor in circular rows.  The galleries for visitors were in balconies halfway to the ceiling against a far wall. 

But the Senator did not head for the door to the Chamber.  Off some distance in a shadowed part of the room sat a thin man in a gray suit, hunched over and writing on a desk.

In an uneventful, mundane tone Caesar said “Mark, come with me, I have someone I want you to meet,” as he walked straight over to the man saying; “George, this is someone new to my staff I would like you to meet.”  Raising his head, the man looked at me and stood slowly rising at least six inches or more above me, he extended his hand.

“Mark, this is Senator George Pataki,” Caesar said.   At that time Senator Pataki was seeking the Republican nomination for governor, and Caesar as the Party Chairman of Islip, controlled a sizable portion of uncommitted delegates.  Caesar had not yet decided his course at the Republican convention. 

As we shook hands, the future Governor Pataki said with a big smile, “Mark, your boss and I will do a lot of great things when I am governor.”  I knew Caesar had not yet committed his delegates to Pataki, and not wanting to get ahead of my boss I said, “I am sure you two will do a lot of great things, no matter how this turns out!” 

I often wondered if Caesar had done this intentionally to see how I would react.  I never spoke to him about it.  But in those few seconds, I saw the man I knew from Suffolk County in the halls of power of the Empire State, and he moved gracefully through them like a veteran professional athlete who knew his record had already assured him a place in the Hall of Fame. 

Senator Trunzo’s power was on the ascent in those days.  George Bush had won election to the White House, and Suffolk County had provided the largest margin of victory in the nation.  Senator Ralph Marino, a close friend of Caesar’s, was Majority Leader in the Senate.  In 1992 Rick Lazio would defeat 18-year incumbent, Tom Downey, for a seat in Congress. 

In researching this article, I talked to former Islip Town Councilman Brian Ferruggiari.  I have been gone from Long Island for ten years, so I asked Brian if he thought Caesar’s time as a public servant had had an impact on Long Island. Did Senator Trunzo’s make a difference on Long Island today?  Brian’s answer was spontaneous; “He was an effective political and governmental leader.  The way he handled his district, he brought in much needed dollars for both not-for profits and governments.  He sought dollars for marinas, senior centers, and improvements for other things that will live on long after this generation of Long Islanders has moved on.”

Mrs. Lillian Barbash, Director of the Islip Arts Council, was quick to provide support to Councilman Ferruggiari’s statement.  “The grants he got for the New York Orchestra Symphony in the Park made that a dream a reality.  Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of residents have enjoyed those evenings in Hecksher State Park since late August 1978 because of Caesar’s commitment.”

In talking with Dan Mitola, the Senator’s counsel for a decade, Dan rambled off Caesaar’s most significant legislation: Creation of the South Shore Estuary, forcing banks to re-adjust mortgage escrow accounts so property owners got the full benefit of the STAR property tax relief program.  Mr. Mitola talked about the Senator’s evolution as a representative of his constituents, shifting from very conservative to a more compassionate one as the decades passed.

At budget time each year, there was one priority above all others in Caesar’s office – state aid for school districts.  The entire staff focused on this critical issue until the amounts fit the boss’s objectives. Every year I was there, the priority was always the same.   And that priority remained, even when Senator Trunzo moved to become the Chairman of NYS Senate Transportation Committee.  A huge responsibility spending vast sums of money, Senator Trunzo did not miss a step.

One of the great characteristics of Caesar was his ability to bring calm to situations filled with tension and pressure; his mere presence was calming, and in ten years I never saw him less than composed and in control.

In 1995 a strong breeze of revolt was blowing within the Republican Caucas in the Senate.  By Thanksgiving, Senator Joe Bruno had organized a coup to remove then Majority Leader Ralph Marino from Nassau County.  As the storm grew, Senator Trunzo gave his word to the Majority Leader that he would not leave him.

In the business of governing politics relationships between colleagues can be the deciding factor in who serves as powerful committee chairpersons, and who is relegated to the back bench.  It can mean the difference between the passage of a bill you need for your constituients or seeing the bill  held in committee.  Senator Trunzo had already served 22 years as a Senator and was well aware of the possible ramifications of his loyalty to Senator Marino.

After the unofficial headcount indicated Senator Bruno had the votes within the caucus to unseat Marino, Senator Trunzo received a phone call from one of Bruno’s strongest backers asking him to switch his vote since destiny had already been set.  But Caesar quietly but firmly told his colleague, ” I have given my word and I will stand by it.”  (I remember as a staff member the pride I had in working for a man who stood to his word even when fate was inevitable, and even when his decision could mean retribution.)

The respect Senator Bruno had for Caesar was demonstrated quickly after the caucus meeting that decided the issue.  Caesar had been chair of the powerful Civil Service and Pensions Committee, and we on his staff wondered if he would even get a chairmanship.  Senator Bruno appointed Senator Trunzo to Chair of the Transportation Committee, a committee on par with, if not more powerful, than the one from which he had been removed.  This was a clear sign of the high regard in which the Senator was held by his colleagues.

When asked what words best describe Senator Trunzo, Fran Hinton, his District Director for five years, said, “He was always kind and a great humanitarian; that’s what kept him in office for three decades.”

I agree totally, Senator Trunzo seemed dedicated to a Christian service of leadership philosophy; he never used his power or authority to hurt people, but only to help.  Politics can be a cut-throat business; but Caesar was of an earlier time, he was a gentleman.  I found within his staff of fifteen no envy, or jealousy or one-ups-manship.  I don’t think he would have tolerated it, but his personal leadership led to working together for his constituents as the only goal.

Caesar Trunzo held the position of Chairman of the Islip Republican Party from 1980 to 2009.  During his tenure, Frank Jones and Pete McGowan served as town supervisors of Islip and the Republicans would control all of the Town offices, along with a New York State Assembly seat and Caesar’s Senate Seat.  The GOP also controlled three of the four County Legislative seats.  And maybe the most startling victory came when Rick Lazio upset incumbent Tom Downey for New York’s Second Congressional seat!

Down at 3rd Avenue, as it was known, the Islip Town GOP had a political machine equal to anything in Chicago or anywhere else in America.  Most of the year it was relatively quiet, a place for party leaders to meet.  But from Labor Day on, every year, hundreds of volunteers would fill the large room to label campaign pieces or make phone calls and do polling.  Like a bee hive, it was constantly busy.  Coffee and cakes were always available.  

Unofficially the campaign would start with the Apple Fest.  You could not campaign there, but the Senator would be there every year, with several thousand apples we would go upstate to purchase.  He would stand with a half dozen volunteers handing out the apples, shaking hands with the thousands who attend the Fest each year.  Each year the people of Suffolk knew there would be an apple for them or their kids.  The funny thing is I don’t remember it ever raining on that weekend.  Maybe cool, but always sunny.

But during election season, 3rd Avenue would hum with constant activity.  Evening meetings would be held where the hundred plus Republican committeemen would nominate candidates after they had been screened and nominated by the Party’s Executive Committee.  Different committees met to lay out strategies, to formulate marketing plans, fund raising, and design campaign literature.

Hundreds of volunteers could be there at lunch making phone calls for candidates, or labeling campaign pieces.   A second shift of volunteers might be needed if the mail campaign increased due to polls showing a tight race here or there.  But the time in headquarters doing this work was also social time where people in the party from all over Islip talked about their families and the events that had occurred since the last campaign.  You could be assured that Jeanette Messina would be there folding and stuffing with the rest of us.  Caesar would walk through shaking hands and talking to people he had known for decades.  It really was like one big family effort.

The Chairman was always there when he was not in Albany.  Working with Co-Chair Jeanette Messina, they would guide the gargantuan effort required to oversee all the different campaigns from the national to local level.  This job included the planning of the Town political calendar so as to ensure that the fundraisers of the different candidates did not collide with one another or those of state and national offices.  In addition, the calendar included the meetings of the many Republican clubs throughout the town and was used to coordinate candidate schedules. 

Towards the end of the race, the Albany people might come down to help and attend Caesar’s annual Sunday-Before-Election Breakfast at the Windwatch Hotel where as many as five hundred people would attend.

On election day the headquarters took on the persona of a military headquarters, complete with runners bringing in the Republican turnout numbers from all 200 of Islip’s election districts, all day long.  Phone calls were made to get the vote out in particular election districts or to calm candidates, especially the rookie ones who had not felt this kind of anxiety before.

Election night was normally festive while Caesar was chairman.  Most years the Republicans won the great majority of the races.  There were some losses. Men like Paul Harenberg and Steve Levy were truly good servants of the people and were unbeatable in their day.  One of the great aspects for me was the ability to work with the other side at all levels of government.  Even as a party leader, Caesar was always the servant first, and our office had good relations with most representaives on both sides of the aisle, and at all levels of government.

At the federal level, Chairman Trunzo was a key supporter of Rick Lazio when Rick earned the Republican nomination to run against long time and seemingly invincible Congressman Tom Downey.  But in 1992, two years before the Contract with America, then Suffolk County Legislator Lazio handily upset Tom Downey, giving Rick unusual seniority when two years later the Republicans took the House.  Rick would prove to be a Trunzo-type servant of the people, working tirelessly to represent his district.  Though their views were different, they were a lot alike in the way they treated people, including their staffs. 

In 1998 when Rick Lazio decided to run for U. S. Senate against Hillary Clinton, Chairman Trunzo made a bold move in supporting Islip Town Clerk Joan Johnson for Congress. Rick Lazio had been comfortably re-elected in New York’s Second Congressional District with more than sixty percent of the vote, and it seemed possible that Long Island might elect the first black Republican woman to Congress.  But that was not to happen through no fault of Chairman Trunzo.

As a senior aide to Senator Trunzo from 1994 to 2003, I had the great pleasure to work with his staff which numbered about 15.  They were professional, caring, experienced, devoted to Caesar.  During that ten years I can’t remember an internal staff fight over anything.  There was no jealousy or one-upsmanship, or internal intrigue.  I think it wasn’t there because the boss would not have put up with it.  It just wasn’t him.  There was a great spirit of team work and serving the Senator.  I don’t remember credit seekers in his employ.   

Caesar was a perfectionist.  He read every letter he signed.  Every one.  And I had my share sent back to me with a note.  And that was after all the red marks by Fran Hinton had been corrected . 

Caeser lives in Brentwood.  For all the years he was in office, his home phone was listed in the phone book.  Access to Caesar was never an issue.  You might have to wait for weeks; he might be in Albany or in Washington.  But when he got home, and after he had sorted all the issues, or even before, if you needed to see him, you would.  He was the consummate constituent – servant politician.

Caesar Trunzo lived a full political life and was involved in almost every significant policy decision affecting New York and Long Island for more than thirty years.  His mantra was to use to the office he held to help people, never hurt.  In any history of New York through the entrance into the 21st century, Senator Caesar Trunzo should be included in the cast of characters. 

Mark Vogl
Mark Vogl

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