Volume 76, Number 53 | May 30 - June 5, 2007

Obituary

Ralph DeBlasio, far right, in his political heyday organizing in the Village.

Ralph DeBlasio, 77, district leader, renegade activist

By Michael Karp

Ralph DeBlasio, a contentious, feisty community activist and Greenwich Village Republican district leader, whose ability to mobilize volunteers in the service of improving life in the community was matched by a near genius for alienating the very powers upon whom the success of his efforts depended, died April 30 at his home at 290 Sixth Ave. He was 77.

DeBlasio as a young man.
A graduate of Our Lady of Pompeii School and Straubenmuller Textile High School, DeBlasio attended New York University, graduating with his B.A. in 1952, and attending N.Y.U. Law School for one year thereafter.

“He helped a lot of people down here” is the phrase most commonly heard in connection with Ralph DeBlasio. And help he did.

But it was a congenital streak of headstrong independence that ultimately led to his political eclipse — and to his place in the lore of national politics, even if only as a quirky footnote.

Occasionally even today, as television’s pundits recount past presidential conventions, they will mention, bemused and puzzled, how one delegate to the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City — site of a bitter battle between the incumbent, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan in his first bid for national office — essentially threw away his vote by entering the name of Elliot Richardson, Richard Nixon’s attorney general, in nomination for president.

Despite the pleas of the entire delegation of his fellow New Yorkers; despite the reminder that he had strong-armed his way into the delegation and had even gotten the Republican County Committee to pay all his expenses (an unheard of perk); and despite a personal appeal from Elliot Richardson himself to not enter his name, that is precisely what DeBlasio did.

“I never experienced such hatred,” DeBlasio would later recall. “They opened my ballot as they passed it forward and announced the name ‘Elliot Richardson.’ Catcalls, cursing, everyone turned toward me with real fury.”

Most observers of the scene believed that DeBlasio was simply out for attention and a perverse gratification. But the gesture, he later explained, was consistent with his mandate to vote his conscience: “‘A plague on both your houses,’ that was the message I sent.”

But the signs leading to this final act of political defiance were evident from his behavior in all but his first major race.

Following his withdrawal from N.Y.U. Law (“I got interested in girls,” he said, “The Village was too much fun in the ’50s to get serious”), he joined the political club headed by State Senator MacNeil Mitchell, the popular co-sponsor of middle-income housing projects, the Mitchell-Lama Houses.

Mitchell chose DeBlasio to mentor through the arcane process of New York politics, securing him a paying job as a city tax collector in the process.

Through Mitchell, DeBlasio also made his first foray into the electoral arena, running as a Republican against the district’s popular long-serving State Assemblymember William Passannante in 1969.

And although he lost the election, this initial effort convinced the Republican County Committee that DeBlasio had potential as a professional pol and, more important, that he had an active, vocal constituency.

DeBlasio’s strategies in his first campaign demonstrated his talent at mobilizing a large number of people in the service of his projects — a talent he never lost. His brother Johnny cadged a print run of 25,000 campaign posters — forging, he admits today, the “union bug” required on all print jobs. DeBlasio borrowed his father’s convertible and had it driven throughout the district and even parts of Brooklyn, festooned with signs exhorting voters to “Go-Go DeBlasio.” A small portable P.A. system blared the candidate’s appeal for votes from the back seat. He even secured the endorsement of then-World Middleweight Champion Emile Griffith, who accompanied him on some appearances.

Most effectively, DeBlasio, his wife, Linda, and hundreds of local volunteers hit the streets and the tenements, buttonholing pedestrians and climbing flights of stairs to urge his election.

The result: A landslide victory for Passannante, but a significant vote total for the almost totally unknown DeBlasio, who polled more votes in Chelsea’s Robert Fulton Houses complex in his race than Governor Nelson Rockefeller did there for his.

“Running as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic stronghold guaranteed a candidate’s defeat,” said Nick DeCurtis, DeBlasio’s campaign manager in the contest. “But he put up such a good showing that they couldn’t ignore him.”

It was his next campaign, however, that would set the pattern that would ultimately scuttle his political career. He insisted in opposing the candidates chosen by his own mentor, MacNeil Mitchell, in the 1971 race for Republican district leader.

“That just wasn’t done,” said DeCurtis. “But Ralph insisted.”

Added Joe Laux, who later became DeBlasio’s protégé, “He felt that Mac was just another ‘go-along-to-get-along’ politician, and that he, as an independent, could get things done better and faster.”

Not surprisingly, given the sheer numbers of DeBlasio’s active street team, the election resulted in a stunning upset — noted by a banner headline in The Villager — that swept DeBlasio and his co-district leader, Elizabeth Drew, into office and his mentor Mitchell into retirement.

There are no rewards, however, for bucking the system, and DeBlasio’s stubborn insistence on opposing his mentor incurred the wrath of Vincent Albano, the powerful chairperson of the New York Republican Committee.

“After the election, we met with Albano,” recalled DeCurtis. “He told us, ‘Congratulations fellas. You won. But you’re not going to get one cent of patronage from this organization.’” An amount of $250,000 had been earmarked, as was customary, to create jobs for the party faithful who had helped secure the victory. DeBlasio’s constituents were to receive none of it.

Undaunted, DeBlasio spent the ’70s in a whirlwind of activism both in his role as Republican district leader and as head of the Village Action Alliance, a grassroots organization made up of, as described then by the New York Post, “several hundred local businessmen and residents.”

Photos appeared in the dailies and segments on the local news broadcasts focusing on whatever issue happened to strike the new district leader’s attention: DeBlasio standing knee-deep in a pothole, demanding the city repair dangerous city streets; DeBlasio leading a demonstration to protest dangerous conditions at the Greenwich Hotel, a notorious Bleecker St. flophouse (a pedestrian had been killed by a table thrown from one of the windows above); DeBlasio demanding more police at the Sixth Precinct and organizing crime-fighting citizens groups; DeBlasio advocating stores keeping their lights on to deter criminal activity; DeBlasio personally helping the police catch the “Harry Belafonte Mugger,” who had been following men into their apartment building doorways and attacking them; DeBlasio leading hundreds of protesters to the Limelight, a mobbed-up club at 91 Seventh Ave. S. — where Jekyll and Hyde restaurant is today — hammering a sign reading “Drug Dealers Out of Greenwich Village.”

Unfortunately, DeBlasio and his organizers had forgotten to bring a hammer. He often recalled, “All that media — television too — and I’m hammering the sign with my shoe!”

And, although Albano still fumed, there is evidence that he occasionally served DeBlasio’s constituents too, submitting people for state and city jobs at DeBlasio’s recommendation or succumbing to DeBlasio’s relentless call for halogen lights to be installed on the side streets off Sixth Ave.

DeBlasio served his constituents in matters large and small: Securing draft deferments for young men whose families needed their income; aiding tenants in landlord/tenant disputes by directing them to helpful city agencies; becoming an early and vocal advocate of gay rights.

It didn’t matter to him if his efforts “on behalf of the little guy” often resulted in problems for himself. He lost his job with the State Human Rights Commission for complaining to the director — bypassing his immediate superiors — about the low wages paid to the women working in the commission’s own typing pool.

“Ralph treated Albano and the County Commission the same way,” observed Patricia Buzzuro, then a state committeewoman and often a volunteer for the weekly petition drives DeBlasio would conduct at card tables set up on street corners. “He had his own ideas and he couldn’t put them aside.”

Stripped of his district leadership in 1979 (“They didn’t even inform me that I wouldn’t be running, which they’re supposed to do as a simple courtesy,” he noted), DeBlasio characteristically fought back. He filed a memo of allegations against Vincent Albano with the District Attorney’s Office, claiming that the County Committee chairperson had tried to defeat him in the 1977 district leader’s primary race by illegal means.

The story was reported in New York magazine with Albano’s reply: “Ralph went off the reservation a long time ago. We gave him the honor of being a delegate at the ’76 convention and he voted for Elliot Richardson. I appointed him to four state jobs and he couldn’t hold any of them. I’d sue him for libel but he owes money all over town — he’s judgment-proof.”

The statement effectively put an end to DeBlasio’s political career, his job (an appointed one with the New York State Lottery as a salesman/troubleshooter) and his marriage to the former Linda Green, who had helped him tirelessly throughout his political campaigns.

For a while, he was still able to, as he put it, “stalk the corridors of power.” Several trips to Washington to visit those who may, in fact, have respected his throwaway vote yielded little in the way of redemption. Bella Abzug welcomed him into her office personally, jumping the considerable line of waiting appointments, and Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada recommended him for a federal job with the Bureau of Railroads. But no job was forthcoming.

For the next few years in New York he occasionally tried to regain a presence in the Republican Party, cadging invitations to party functions from his last co-leader, Angela Boone, who maintained her office until her death last year.

“But,” Boone later recalled, “I had to stop bringing him. They told me, ‘We don’t want him around.’” He subsequently picketed Boone’s restaurant, Pennyfeathers.

For the rest of his life, DeBlasio continued his grassroots activism in town meetings on subjects as wide ranging as breast cancer awareness and fire prevention and in letters written to the newspapers, weighing in on everyone from Tawana Brawley to Bishop Desmond Tutu — “Et tu, Tutu?” was his question on the bishop’s perceived less-than-total support of Israel. He was selected to be the official host for Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign stop at Our Lady of Pompei Church during his first run for mayor.

He also mounted operatic concerts on Pier 45 for the Hudson River Park Conservancy, and broadcast a weekly television program, “DeBlasio’s New York,” over Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s cable access channel. To support himself, he held odd jobs, including operating an elevator in a building where many of his old colleagues lived.

And he continued to be an acerbic critic of the community’s foibles and lapses. He pointed out loudly and often that the head of a local block association often parked illegally with a “City Business” card in his windshield to which he was not entitled. He called the city when construction sites were not adequately lit for pedestrians after sundown.

He also continued a lifelong avocation, rescuing stray animals. Over the years, according to one estimate, he found homes for hundreds of dogs and cats.

Alert to the end, he joked about ex-President Ford’s funeral, “It lasted longer than his administration.” And he battled the medical establishment even as the pancreatic cancer that ravaged his body overtook him. He refused the comfort of hospice care, or even any but the barest amount of pain medication.

He is survived by his brothers, John and Robert, and two nephews, William and Gaetano, and by his niece, Frances, who became his caretaker and healthcare proxy in his final months.

Of his refusal to pursue a less painful end, Frances observed, “My uncle was never about comfort. He was all about the fight.”

A gathering of DeBlasio’s friends will meet on Mon., June 4, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Greenwich Village Bistro, at 13 Carmine St.


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