Outgoing State Sen. Kenneth LaValle was honored as a teacher, a tireless advocate and an impactful leader at a sometimes-tearful event on Friday in Port Jefferson, where an A-list of leaders from both sides of the aisle celebrated his accomplishments.
LaValle, 80, announced this week he will not seek reelection for his next term, setting off a scramble of potential successors and a recognition of the vacuum his departure will create when he leaves office in December.
The Republican leadership is already eyeing a list of candidates that includes Assemb. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and Brookhaven Town Council members Dan Panico and Jane Bonner. Democratic contenders include Parents for Megan’s Law founder Laura Ahearn and Southampton Town Board member Tommy John Shiavoni.
LaValle, who tearfully invoked his brother, Ronald -- who died in 2010 -- twice during his speech, indicated he did not plan to fade from view once he leaves office, potentially taking a teaching post and writing a book with his wife, Penny LaValle.
“I’m a teacher. I always will be a teacher. It’s a great job. I wonder if there are any teaching jobs ... ?” said LaValle, a former fifth-grade teacher and principal who may take a post at Stony Brook University.
The Port Jefferson senator told the group of around 100 supporters, staff, family and lawmakers that when he began his first term in 1977, he started with simple objectives. “Let’s see if we can do some good things,” he told his staff at the time.
He said his advocacy for individual constituents was just as important as his many larger accomplishments, including a vital role in the Pine Barrens Preservation Act, championing the STAR property-tax relief measure and support of Stony Brook University and Long Island hospitals.
“The greatest part of the job is people coming into my office and sitting down with them,” LaValle said. “Maybe I’m just a softy, but what a thrill to be able to help people.”
Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) described LaValle as “dogged about the middle class,” an “unabashed, hard-core, 100 percent environmentalist” and a “teacher at his core.”
He also praised LaValle for his “unswerving loyalty,” saying there was no way he’d be Republican leader of the Senate if LaValle “didn’t have my back.”
Suffolk Republican leader Jesse Garcia called LaValle “an icon” and noted: “For him it wasn’t about glory. It was about the community.”
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat who as an Assembly leader worked closely with LaValle on the Pine Barrens Act, described the senator as “impactful,” a lawmaker who could strike “an incredible balance” between working for constituents and for people across the state — even when the issues weren’t favored.
“This is a guy who won’t eat fish but fights for aquaculture on Long Island,” DiNapoli said.
A sometimes tearful Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) called LaValle “a teacher first” and “always a teacher,” particularly as Thiele was entering politics.
“He couldn’t have been more helpful,” he said, never viewing fellow legislators as rivals. “He worked with me no matter what party I was in.”
Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) called LaValle “a Renaissance man” whose work on behalf of educational and environmental issues continues to be felt, notably with the recent addition of 856 acres in Shoreham into the core Pine Barrens protection. “Thank you for preserving the environment,” Englebright said.
Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine, a Republican who also worked with LaValle on that Shoreham preservation, noted: “This man has led, but in leading he has taught us it’s not about the barbs or criticisms. It’s not the tweets. It’s about reaching out to people and forming coalitions. … It’s about getting things done.”