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Guy Molinari, Republican powerbroker on Staten Island and in Bay Ridge, 89

Spoiler: Guy Molinari, left, ran John Gangemi, Jr., right, for state Senate against a political rival in 1996, splitting the Republican vote and helping to elect Democrat Vincent Gentile.
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Guy Molinari, who reigned as Staten Island’s top Republican power broker for nearly 30 years as a local, state, and federal legislator — and whose long political shadow loomed across the Narrows onto Bay Ridge — died on July 25 of pneumonia in a Manhattan hospital. He was 89.

His political base was always on the island, but Molinari’s influence began to loom large in Brooklyn in 1980, when he was elected to a Congressional seat that shortly afterward was expanded to include Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights. Political friends and foes alike remember that he wasted no time in establishing his identity with constituents on both ends of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

“He immediately made himself a presence in Bay Ridge, quickly opening a district office,” said longtime Brooklyn-based political consultant Gerry O’Brien. “The hallmark of Guy’s tenure as a Congressman in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights is that he insisted to the people who worked for him in his district office that constituent service was Job 1, 2, and 3.”

Perhaps Molinari’s best gift to his Brooklyn district, O’Brien said, was the successful fight he waged to block then-Mayor Koch’s plan to open a city jail on a site just off the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge.

“Guy contended that putting a jail in a working-class neighborhood like Bay Ridge was not a good idea,” the consultant said. “He had a reputation among local elected officials — if Guy Molinari is telling people something isn’t a good idea, it probably isn’t.”

Even opponents could not help but respect the Staten Island political kingpin.

“I was a district leader in Bay Ridge from 1990 to 2010, and although I was a Democrat and he was a Republican, I had great respect for him,” said Ralph Perfetto. “He did not distinguish between Republicans and Democrats when it came to working for the community. If you had a legitimate concern, no matter which party you represented, he would listen. At times we were on opposite sides, when I was supporting a Democratic candidate, even a candidate that was running against him. But no matter what the situation, he always greeted me with a respectful handshake.”

As the head of the political machine in a borough that at one point was known as “Molinari Country,” he secured patronage jobs, made decisions on candidates for judgeships, Council, state legislature, and congressional seats, as well as making occasional campaign appearances with those candidates.

One such decision was a family affair. In 1989, while in Congress, he ran for borough president and defeated the incumbent, Ralph Lamberti. When he resigned his congressional seat to move to Borough Hall, his daughter, Susan Molinari, won the special election to succeed him.

Guy served as borough president from 1990 to 2001, when term limits forced him to step down.

In 1997, Molinari endorsed a protégé, Republican Councilman Vito J. Fossella Jr., in his run for the congressional seat that he and his daughter had held. Fossella won and served for a decade.

But sometimes his influence worked at cross-purposes to his party. In the 1996 state Senate race, he ran John Gangemi, Jr. against political foe Robert DiCarlo, which split the Republican vote and helped elect Democrat Vincent Gentile.

As an assemblyman and congressman, Molinari advocated for improved transportation and less pollution in the borough, successfully opposing a new power plant, winning a fight to have tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows bridge cut for island residents, and getting the fare on the Staten Island Ferry eliminated. As borough president, Molinari played a key role in shuttering the Fresh Kills landfill on the island’s western shore — long an infamous dumping ground for the city’s garbage. He was so popular in his home base that a Staten Island Ferry boat was named the Guy V. Molinari.

And even as late as last year, as his health declined, Molinari was a supporter of the candidacy of yet another protégé, former Staten island Congressman Michael Grimm, who lost his seat when he was convicted of tax fraud and was challenging incumbent Republican Dan Donovan in a bid to reclaim it.

And though he sometimes feuded with mayors, governors and at least one president — and occasionally came under fire for ill-timed, caustic statements about opponents — Molinari, easily Staten Island’s most famous elected official, was held in high esteem by friends and foes alike.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, whose presidential campaigns Molinari backed in 2000 and 2008, tweeted this comment on learning of his passing:

“Deeply saddened by the passing of my friend, former #NewYork Congressman Guy Molinari. Guy dedicated his life to public service — as a proud Marine, in Congress & across local gov’t. Cindy & I send our prayers to Guy’s family & friends during this difficult time.”

Born on Nov. 23, 1928, in Midland Beach, Staten Island, Gaetano Victor Molinari was educated at New Dorp High School, Wagner College, and New York Law School. He served as a Marine sergeant in the Korean War, and practiced law for 20 years before successfully running for state Assembly, where he served three terms in the 1970s. All told, he was elected to five terms in Congress in the 1980s, and was Staten Island borough president for dozen years, all the while becoming the dean of the island’s Republican Party and, in his heyday, the most powerful politician in the city’s smallest, most conservative borough.

Molinari’s wife, Marguerite, died in 2008. His brother, Robert, died in 2015. He is survived by his daughter, Susan, three sisters, Betty, Dolores, and Joan, and two grandchildren.

Reach James Harney at (718) 260-2529 or e-mail him at jharney@cnglocal.com.
Posted 12:00 am, August 3, 2018
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