Guy V. Molinari, Staten Island Power Broker, Is Dead at 89

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Guy V. Molinari, the longtime Republican kingpin of Staten Island who represented New York City’s least populous, most conservative county as an assemblyman, congressman, borough president and political paterfamilias, died on Wednesday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 89 and had been a lifelong resident of the island.

His son-in-law, Bill Paxon, said the cause was pneumonia.

Mr. Molinari was a dominant force on Staten Island for two decades, but his influence also reached City Hall, Albany and Washington in Republican alliances with Mayors Michael R. Bloomberg and Rudolph W. Giuliani, Gov. George E. Pataki, and Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush.

Irascible, pugnacious, a Marine in the Korean War and a lawyer for 20 years before entering politics, Mr. Molinari was elected to three terms in the State Assembly in the 1970s and to five terms in Congress in the 1980s, and was borough president from 1990 to 2001. He won 10 straight elections before losing a 1995 race for district attorney.

He was also the fulcrum of a political dynasty that some called the Kennedys of Staten Island. His father, S. Robert Molinari, was an assemblyman in the 1940s, and his daughter, Susan Molinari, became a city councilwoman, succeeded her father in Congress from 1990 to 1997, and, after a short-lived career as a television journalist, became a lobbyist, a member of Mr. Giuliani’s law firm and vice president of public policy for Google.

Off the island, Mr. Molinari was known for flare-ups and feuds with Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Pataki and others — and for his prescient political endorsements. He was the first New York City politician to endorse Mr. Giuliani for mayor, in 1988, six years before he took office. Early on he supported Mr. Pataki, Mr. Reagan and the elder Mr. Bush, becoming state chairman of Mr. Bush’s victorious 1988 race for the White House.

But after endorsing George W. Bush for president in 1999, Mr. Molinari abruptly retracted his support, apparently miffed that he had not been chosen as state chairman for the 2000 campaign; he also broke ranks with Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Pataki and others who refused to follow him in supporting Senator John McCain’s bid for the Republican nomination. He denounced them in terms that had Republican eyes rolling.

Critics called his ego Napoleonic and often condemned his remarks, some of which made even his allies cringe. He once challenged a city councilman to a fist fight. He suggested death by brain suction for doctors who performed late-term abortions. In 1994 he called Karen S. Burstein, a former Family Court judge who was a candidate for state attorney general, unfit for the office because she was gay.

All this hardly seemed to matter in the middle- and working-class neighborhoods he represented. Indeed, in Mr. Molinari’s heyday, from the mid-1970s through the mid-′90s, Staten Island was known in political circles as Molinari country. Lawns were dotted with his campaign signs. His name and face were on billboards, buses and ferry boats. (One boat was later named the Guy V. Molinari.)

The Staten Island Advance chronicled Molinari family events, from the birth of a grandchild to a cat’s new litter. Everyone called him Guy, and voters were not surprised when he knocked on their doors or slapped their backs at the supermarket.

In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, Mr. Molinari was one of the prominent Republicans of his era, a forceful advocate for 380,000 islanders, many of Italian and Irish descent and many of them police officers, firefighters and civil servants, who often seemed to regard the problems of the rest of New York City across the harbor as distant thunder.

In Albany and Washington, he fought for better transportation and against pollution in his borough, the site of many oil depots. He successfully opposed a new power plant, and he won a bid to cut tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for residents. He also took an obligatory stance for Staten Island’s secession from the city, a hopeless yet perennial issue among islanders who felt they received short shrift.

As borough president, Mr. Molinari played a key role in closing the Fresh Kills landfill on the island’s desolate western shore in 2001, ending its more than half-century distinction as the prime dumping ground for New York City’s garbage.

And at the helm of a formidable political machine, Mr. Molinari, one of the last of the city’s old-time power brokers, decided who would get patronage jobs and who among his protégés would run for the City Council and the Legislature, for judgeships and seats in Congress. Candidates who faced tough races were always assured of his presence on the campaign trail, which often guaranteed victory.

Although Staten Island has traditionally been a Republican bastion in the city, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the borough 3 to 2. But voters often cross party lines in general elections, splitting tickets and electing as many Republicans as Democrats. Mr. Molinari sometimes represented the Conservative and Right to Life Party lines as well as the Republican line on ballots.

Guy Victor Molinari was born on Nov. 23, 1928, in Midland Beach, Staten Island, one of several children of Sigmund Robert Molinari and Elizabeth (Majoros) Molinari. His father, an Italian immigrant known as “Fighting Bob,” was a real estate broker and an assemblyman from 1943 to 1944, but failed in later bids for the State Senate and for borough president.

Guy graduated from New Dorp High School in 1945 and received a bachelor’s degree from Wagner College on Staten Island in 1949 and a law degree from New York Law School in Manhattan in 1951. After serving as a Marine sergeant in Korea, he passed the bar in 1953 and for two decades practiced law on Staten Island.

In 1956 he married Marguerite Wing, who also grew up on Staten Island. She died in 2008. Their daughter, Susan, was their only child.

In addition to her, he is survived by three sisters, Betty, Dolores and Joan, and two grandchildren. A brother, Robert, died in 2015.

Mr. Molinari was elected to the Assembly in 1974 and served six years. He was elected to Congress in 1980, unseating a nine-term Democrat, John M. Murphy. His district was merged in 1982 with that of a four-term Democrat, Leo C. Zeferetti, with a part of Brooklyn near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Mr. Molinari defeated Mr. Zeferetti and was re-elected three more times in the 1980s.

In Congress, he supported President Reagan’s agenda of tax cuts and smaller government, voted in 1983 against a national holiday in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was a persistent critic of the Federal Aviation Administration, arguing that cutbacks of air traffic controllers were leading to unsafe conditions. He opposed abortion and social welfare programs.

In local politics, he castigated Mayor Edward I. Koch, whose third term was mired in scandal, and he supported Mr. Giuliani in his race for mayor in 1989 against the Democratic candidate, David N. Dinkins, who won.

Mr. Molinari’s chief rivals on Staten Island were State Senator John J. Marchi, a Republican, and Ralph J. Lamberti, the Democratic borough president. While still in Congress, Mr. Molinari ran for borough president in 1989, beat Mr. Lamberti and resigned his seat a year early to take that office. Susan Molinari won a special election in 1990 to succeed her father.

Quitting Congress to become borough president, a largely ceremonial role that had lost power in a City Charter revision, struck many Molinari supporters as a nod toward semiretirement. But for 12 years, from Jan. 1, 1990, to Dec. 31, 2001, he remained remarkably active in politics and public affairs, presiding over his beloved borough from a huge, ornate, wood-paneled office at Borough Hall in the St. George neighborhood.

He provided crucial support for Mr. Giuliani’s successful 1993 mayoral race, and was Mr. Pataki’s New York City campaign chairman in his winning 1994 campaign for governor. But the mayor and governor, who rarely saw eye to eye, both distanced themselves from Mr. Molinari after his remark about the sexual orientation of Ms. Burstein, the candidate for attorney general.

There were other strains. In 1994, Mr. Molinari accused Mr. Giuliani of betraying Republicans when the mayor supported President Bill Clinton’s anti-crime bill, and he said Mr. Giuliani was “finished” when the mayor supported Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the Democrat, over Mr. Pataki in the race for governor.

The feud was patched up in 1995, when the mayor, mindful of Staten Island’s critical role in his own election, warmly endorsed Mr. Molinari for district attorney. It did not help. Mr. Molinari was trounced by the Democratic incumbent, William L. Murphy, in the only electoral loss of his career.

In 1997 Mr. Molinari endorsed his protégé, the Republican city councilman Vito J. Fossella Jr., in his run for the congressional seat that he and his daughter had held. Mr. Fossella won and served for a decade. But he declined to run for a sixth term in 2008 after he was arrested on drunken-driving charges and admitted that he had fathered a child in an extramarital relationship.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Molinari was instrumental in closing the Fresh Kills landfill, filing a federal lawsuit over methane and other gases that violated the Clean Air Act, and calling in political debts to ensure support. The landfill was closed in late 2001 as Mr. Molinari was stepping down as borough president, his incumbency ended by term limits.

In later years, he practiced law with Russo, Scamardella & D’Amato, now known as Scamardella, Gervasi, Thomson & Kasegrande; was a bank director; and remained a Republican patriarch, though his influence faded. He endorsed Mr. Giuliani for president in 2007 and in 2008 joined Senator McCain’s campaign.

In 2009 Mr. Molinari received a call from an aide to Mr. Bloomberg, who had enjoyed his initial support but had become an independent and denounced political parties as a “swamp of dysfunction.” The mayor now needed old allies in his race for a third term.

“What do we have to do to win back Republicans?” the emissary asked.

“Apologize,” Mr. Molinari said.

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