If you’re younger than 45 or 50 years old, you probably don’t remember the time that Al Coppola refused to take a $10,000 pay raise that the Common Council voted itself in the early 1990s; or why Coppola is such an endeared figure among Buffalonians of a certain age. That is especially true among his North Buffalo and Elmwood Village constituency, which he represented on the Common Council for 17 years.
“We’re still the third poorest city in the country, and the politicians knew what the salaries were when they ran for office,” he told The Chronicle this week. “It would have been a slap in the face to all of those small businesses who are struggling to keep their people employed.”
Coppola was the only Councilman to vote against that raise. Such is emblematic of the maverick self-styled outsider who has not been endorsed by party headquarters and often refuses campaign contributions. Some call it whacky, while others call it honorable.
Chalk it up to his life as a businessman. Coppola opened a restaurant he named after his son, Shane, in 1967 and ran it until the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority put him out of business in 1983. The authority was constructing the Main Street subway line and Coppola was next to the location of a station. A three-year hole was dug at his front door, leaving his business stranded from cars and customers. He never filed bankruptcy, but he was forced to liquidate a number of properties that he acquired as a developer in order to take care of his employees and creditors.
The Association for the Blind was located at the corner. Blind patrons comprised the bulk of his business during those slow years when he struggled to keep his doors open. For those customers to get to his restaurant, they had to traverse a construction zone using a makeshift wooden walkway, often guided by service dogs.
“When they would walk in the door smiling, saying ‘how’s it going Al,’ it put a lot of my woes into perspective,” he explained. “I refused to fall into the trap of feeling sorry for myself, and learned a lot from their relentlessly positive attitude.”
That same year he ran for Common Council and won.
“Tom Amodeo thanks me for running against him every time I see him,” Coppola jokes; Amodeo now in his third term as Chief Judge of the City Court.
Exposing corruption in the parks department
In the late 1980s, Coppola exposed a pervasive culture of corruption inside the City’s Parks Department, run by then-Commissioner Robert Delano, a loyalist to Mayor Jimmy Griffin. Coppola’s approachable style led many city employees to confide in him information that he would then make public, whereas to protect the identities and jobs of those city workers for fear of retribution.
Coppola remembers when a Parks Department staffer told him that Delano was selling new department lawn mowers to city officials at half price. The information came immediately after a vote to fund a parks department project, leaving Coppola to feel duped. Coppola then found out that the Department was selling chlorine to city employees at half price, so he launched his own investigation.
It would be revealed that city employees on city time were regularly used to work on the home of Delano and others with political connections; that a quarter mile long trench had been dug through Front Park so Delano could enjoy cable television at a city owned apartment; and that Parks Department had bought 11 tons of powdered chlorine, a type used for home swimming pools and impractical for municipal pools. At the time the Department was purchasing three times as much dog food than the Police Department, which had more dogs.
Delano and Griffin had become so angry with Coppola that they ordered Parks Department workers to dumb an anti-icing compound, calcium chloride, on the ice of Delaware Park Lake during the winter of 1987-88 to ruin it for skating after the Council voted to close an unauthorized concession stand operated by Parks’ workers.
The lake disclosure brought new demands for Mr. Delano’s resignation from public officials, environmentalists, and park lovers concerned about the once-polluted lake, which in 1984 underwent a $7.2 million cleanup. The state Department of Environmental Conservation joined the FBI’s investigation into the polluting of the lake.
Griffin and Delano refused to talk, characterized by some as “going into hiding.” Griffin refused to hold a press conference for over a year and Delano refused repeated calls for him to testify before the Common Council.
In the heat of the controversy someone threw bricks through Coppola’s windows on Lancaster Avenue. Renowned journalist Tony Farina, then at WKBW, played a key role in exposing the story, which engulfed the Griffin Administration’s fourth term.
It was reported, based on accounts by unidentified parks workers, said that a boat engine and lawn mower owned by Mayor Griffin and lawn mowers owned by his brother, Thomas, were among about 100 privately owned machines that parks workers had repaired at taxpayer expense.
”You might see the villagers marching on City Hall,” said John Otto, the host of a popular talk show on radio station WGR, who said his listeners were angered by the scandal. ”There is dismay, frustration, outrage.”
Delano was convicted by a federal jury of running the City Parks Department as a criminal enterprise. A combative Griffin continued to refuse to fire Delano, downplaying the Parks Department scandal, calling Delano “my friend” and “a good boss.” Griffin called the scandal “tragic” but refused to apologize for any wrongdoing. He said that federal prosecutors found “only a few individuals” guilty and that he would be surprised if the scandal involved more than $30,000 in stolen goods and services.
“Bob Delano is my friend,” Griffin said at the time. “He’s always going to be my friend.”
Coppola prides himself on his reputation as an independent maverick on the Council and saw himself as working for honest taxpayers.
“Griffin and I were at odds a lot of the time, but he supported me on a lot of issues that I cared about like the Canisius College dorms and Hewitt Robins clean up. He even supported the North Buffalo Ice Rink,” he explains.
“Masiello did some nice things, too, but the thing about Masiello was that he was groomed by Joe Crangle,” Coppola explains. “Masiello wouldn’t take any chances. He was guided by the power brokers and wouldn’t move without their approval.”
“I was always my own guy,” he told The Chronicle.
Standing up to Niagara Mohawk
Perhaps the most iconic period in Coppola’s lively career was his epic battle with Niagara Mohawk, Western New York’s monopoly power utility. Coppola remembers asking every city official he could find a seemingly simple question: ‘how many street lights do we have?’
No one knew the answer, so he looked into it. He identified 2,000 phantom streetlights that the city got billed for that didn’t exist. The city ended up getting $2 million in refunds from Niagara Mohawk.
But that was just one episode in a battle that lasted years. Coppola wanted the city to buyout the monopoly, which had an assessment value for electrical poles throughout the city of $300 million. Coppola’s plan would have bought Buffalo a municipal power utility, which could have cut rates for homeowners in half, he argued.
When in the Senate, he pushed the plan relentlessly. Niagara Mohawk, fearful of the public takeover, bankrolled then-Councilman Byron Brown’s campaign to oust him from the 60th district seat in 2000.
After Brown defeated Coppola, he redrew the district to encompass the bulk of the East Side, shifting it from an Italian district held by figures like Tony Masiello and Anthony Nanula; to an African American seat which would be held by Brown and later Antoine Thompson until 2010. After the 2011 redistricting, the seat was again redrawn.
A preservationist, before it was hip
Coppola has been a leading preservationist long before it was broadly popular to be so. He even restored the historic Pan-Am House out of his own pocket, not once approaching the government for help to do so.
Now he’s working with preservationists Mark Vogel, a lauded journalist retired from The Buffalo News, and Bill Zimmerman, owner of Seven Seas Sailing School and a dynamic force in the city’s waterfront revival, to restore the historic South Buffalo Lighthouse. The group founded a non-profit and purchased the structure for $1 from the federal entity that owned it. They are in the process of restoring the structure and do not intend to seek a dime from the government to do so. The plan calls for a boater-orientated revenue model.
Growing up in the ragged neighborhood known as “Dante Place” or “The Hooks,” Coppola remembers the sounds of the lighthouse’s fog-horn that animated his childhood streetscape. One of the Skyway’s pillars now stands at what was the entrance to the building he grew up in, before the era of slum clearance pushed the Italian immigrants living there out to make way for the highway.
Protecting neighborhoods, even in retirement
Coppola has been a leading longtime environmental justice advocate — particularly on behalf of West Side residents who suspect that the area’s elevated rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders are linked to diesel exhaust emanating from the Peace Bridge’s truck plaza. Over one third of the children attending Public School 3 on Porter Avenue suffer from asthma so badly that they need to be administered medication during the school day.
In 2007 residents of Columbus Park on Buffalo’s West Side were faced with the prospect of an irrevocable loss of 100 homes in their historic community, and the displacement of hundreds of residents. Plans for expansion of the Peace Bridge’s truck crossing would replace homes and businesses with a 45 acre truck plaza and Duty Free store. Private properties would be seized through the power of eminent domain, rendering the homeowner powerless to resist.
“It was Al Coppola who volunteered to take on the PBA in a series of public debates so that residents could question and challenge this boldly destructive plan,” explains longtime West Side resident Kathy Mecca, who leads the Columbus Park and Prospect Hill Association.
“His plan was ingenious because the open debates provided detailed information about how big government and private interests are working together to manipulate the law so that a small but powerful group can benefit,” she says.
Eventually residents acquired enough knowledge to successfully defeat the plan. In 2012 the Federal Government and the PBA withdrew that plaza expansion plan. Mecca explains that Coppola demonstrated to weary residents that one person could take on a powerful special interest and big government mentality even when our own government is working to against its own citizens.
“Al stood on the side of what was right even when our own State Senator wouldn’t,” she remembers. “Al Coppola believed that wrong was wrong, that the public good was more important than politics — and that justice should never be out of reach because of who you are or where you live.”
An independent minded Democrat
A lifelong Democrat, sometimes Coppola can sound like a Republican — comfortable breaking with Party orthodoxy when he thinks it’s wrong.
“Taxes are too high in New York State,” he says plainly. “There has to be a way to reduce taxes. Where do you think the Buffalo Billion is coming from?”
“Why not give businesses and homeowners a break,” he asks. Coppola argues that the only way to make a dent in the culture that encourages private firms to solicit public subsidies is, “by being in the Senate and standing up and asking, what are we doing?”
Coppola has been opposed to the Cuomo Administration’s NYSAFE Act, designed to impose additional layers of regulation on law abiding gun owners.
“We have enough gun laws in New York State. We should be watching out for illegal guns coming from out of state,” he explains.
Coppola has been a pistol owner since 1957. He scoffs at the way the law was passed, without even allowing the Senators time to read the bill.
“They had the wool put over their eyes,” Coppola says of Cuomo’s urgency in pushing the law. Asked if he would “call bull” on Cuomo if he does it again, Coppola responds, “I call it bull that he’s done it already.”
A stark contrast with Sheldon Silver
The first time that Coppola met former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is scheduled to begin a federal prison sentence for bribery, was on the Senate floor. He approached Silver to introduce himself and requested a meeting to discuss the challenges confronting Western New York.
“Consider this the meeting,” Silver replied, quickly brushing him off.
“You’re supposed to be a servant of the people who put you there. If someone calls you with a problem you try to work it out as best you can,” Coppola explains, reflecting on that experience. Coppola’s constituent oriented posture defines his view of politics, which he believes to be deeply rooted in the idea that the elected official is a “servant” of the public.
“I will be guided by the people who vote for me who want a representative to serve them in a nice, honest way,” Coppola says. “Money will not influence me.”
Coppola will caucus with the Democrats, but will vote his conscious. “A lot of politicians are afraid to offend another politician. If you say it in the right way things can get done.“
Asked if he would be willing to take the smallest office in the Senate if that’s the price of independence, Coppola responds, “the biggest office in Albany is the chamber that we all share.”
“I would want my obituary to say that I did all I could for my city and the people that I represent,” he says.
Coppola says Small was wrong
Coppola’s primary challenger Amber Small, a former staffer in the administration of Mayor Byron Brown and the Executive Director of the Parkside Neighborhood Association, took Green Party candidate James DePasquale to court in an attempt to remove him from ballot.
“I think that’s wrong,” Coppola says, not worried that a Green Party candidacy would siphon votes from him in the general election. “He is a hardworking guy with great kids and deserves to run.”
“I’m an environmentalist and really appreciate the Green Party and what they do,” Coppola explains. “Let the voters decide. If you want people to vote for you, you work harder.”
When asked about how his candidacy contrasts with his opponent, Coppola explains that he was born and raised in Buffalo and has a vast background of experience working on behalf of his constituents for many years.
“I think she would try to do a good job, but I’m a little worried that she would be influenced by the power brokers, like the Mayor and Maurice Garner.”
A gentlemanly approach to politics
County Legislator Betty Jean Grant served on the Common Council with Coppola for two years in the late 1990’s. She has fond memories working with then-Councilman Coppola.
“The first thing he did for me as a novice councilmember was to give me his number one spot for parking. It was easier to drive into as it was on the edge of the councilmembers’ parking spaces,” Grant recalls on social media. “I will never forget this. Thank you, Al. You were and are still a gentleman.”
Coppola was recently endorsed by the Puerto Rican Committee for Community Justice (PRCCJ), headed by Jose C. Pizarro and Alberto O. Cappas, two well regarded leaders in the community.
“I am beyond convinced that Al Coppola will bring decency and integrity to the local political community,” said Pizarro, who has been actively organizing the Latino community on Buffalo’s Lower West Side in support of Coppola.
Mark Mathews, a Canisius high school senior who is volunteering on Coppola’s campaign, says that the response from voters door to door has been great.
“You see a mixture of everyone from an older age who have had great experiences with Al, like when he helped them fight their tax assessments; and others who are younger who just think he’s right for the job,” Mathews says. Mathews knows Coppola as a fellow parishioner at St. Mark’s. His brother, Sean, a student in medicine, is managing Coppola’s campaign.
When it comes to money…
Coppola intends to spend about $20,000 of his own money on the primary effort. He has refused contributions from friends, often asking them to wait for the general election.
Meanwhile, Small has been an aggressive fundraiser declaring $100,000 on her first filing. She has about $50,000 on hand and has a Manhattan fundraiser scheduled for September 5th, hosted by Senator Liz Kruger and said to be arranged by Brown in his capacity as state chairman.