Joe Mondello, Longtime NY GOP Powerbroker, Dies at 84
LEVITTOWN, N.Y. – Joe Mondello, the longtime leader of the Nassau County Republican Party in New York and a sometimes feared, often admired political powerbroker on the national stage, has died.
The chairman, as many called him over the years, died peacefully late Monday at Glen Cove Hospital in New York. He was 84.
Former Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., recalled Mondello as a complex, multifaceted human being, who could be intimidating, but also had a softer side.
“He was a bulldog. He wouldn’t stop,” King told the Long Island Press newspaper Monday night. “When Joe Mondello wanted something or wanted something for somebody else, he just went all out. If he could do it in friendly ways he would do that, if it was all out warfare, it was all out warfare.”
In a post on Twitter, King went on to call Mondello “an outstanding political leader, a distinguished elected official and a true friend.”
Even the Nassau County Democratic Party, with whom he repeatedly locked horns over the years, paid tribute to its longtime adversary Tuesday morning.
“He was true to his principles but practical — always able to forge agreements when he felt that his community would benefit,” the party said via Twitter. “While a proud and tough fighter, Joe Mondello was an ‘old school’ gentleman, in the best sense of the term.”
During his tenure as county party chairman, a plaque on the wall outside his office on the second floor of the party’s headquarters on Post Avenue in Westbury said much about the man and the way he operated:
“When they’re with you,” it said, “it’s an organization; When they’re against you, it’s a machine.”
“I’m the kind of a guy that when I get involved in something, I go whole hog,” Mondello told this reporter in the spring of 1995.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, where his father was a linotype operator and printer for the old Brooklyn Eagle and Herald Tribune newspapers, Mondello and his family considered themselves Democrats.
As a boy, Mondello attended St. Theresa Elementary School and Boys High School, until his family moved to Queens. Thereafter, he commuted to Far Rockaway High School on the Long Island Rail Road. A stint in the Army followed.
“The service was good for me,” Mondello said self-effacingly. “Because it taught me how much I couldn’t do with my hands in terms of mechanics or anything else.”
Shortly after his discharge, he entered Hofstra University, then known as Hofstra College, and upon graduating, he bounced from job to job until he entered law school and eventually went to work as an assistant district attorney.
“I really enjoyed being in the D.A.’s office. As a matter of fact, I loved it,” Modello said. “At the same time, I had married and our family was growing and my wife wanted to quit her job to spend her time raising our children. The problem was, she couldn’t do that as long as I was earning an assistant D.A.’s salary
“So I put some feelers out and eventually joined the law firm of Flaum and Imbaratto,” he said.
It was a fortuitous move.
Chester Flaum was a Democratic committeeman at the time, and Anthony Imbaratto, a Republican councilman. It was through Imbaratto that Mondello began to travel in Republican circles.
His first political job, secured with Imbaratto’s help, was as counsel to the Republican majority in the New York State Senate.
“That was the beginning of my involvement in politics, and as time went on, I got bigger and better assignments,” he said.
“The bottom line is, I guess, that I became more and more involved and active politically, and from that start, one thing mushroomed after another.”
Mondello recalled those early days in politics as financially tight.
“For every $2,000 I made back then — this was 1970, 1971 — I think I was spending between $8,000 and $10,000 a year on the party’s behalf,” he joked.
“But it was like an investment, I guess. I was involved. I was in up to my ears. It was just like a labor of love. And I did this, serving the state legislature in various capacities, right through 1978,” Mondello said.
During the conversation, Mondello was asked an obvious question. How did a Democrat from Brooklyn become a Long Island Republican?
“To be honest with you, although my mother and father had been Democrats in New York City, what I found and what I think my parents also found when we came from the city to Nassau County, was that the Republican party was more akin to the city Democratic party than the Democratic party out here.
“I honestly believe this, and I still feel that way to this day: I think that there’s a conservative thread that runs through the Democratic party in New York City, that does not run through the Democratic party on Long Island. That’s how I found myself a Republican.”
Mondello became a Hempstead Town Councilman in 1979 and held onto that seat until he was appointed presiding supervisor of the township in 1987 — well into his tenure as county party chairman. He won re-election as presiding supervisor in 1987, 1989 and 1991.
He stepped down from the position in April 1993, to become chairman of the board and president of Nassau Downs OTB, which oversaw betting on thoroughbred horse racing in the county.
As a town councilman, supervisor and political leader, Mondello swore by a simple edict — that the key to political success was making sure the streets were cleaned and plowed, the garbage was picked up on time and that every neighborhood had a park for local kids to play in.
Though critics derided the Republican party for its apparent stranglehold on local elected offices, Mondello saw his real role in his party as solving the everyday problems the average Nassau County resident was facing.
Asked in 1995 about the lessons he learned during his political rise, Mondello said the first was the lesson of “true patience.”
“I put up with a lot. It’s easy to look at me now and say, ‘He’s the chairman and former presiding supervisor’ and for people to think that I’ve had a meteoric career, but that is not true.
“I wanted to be an elected official while I was still in my 20s. It did not happen until I was 40 years old. So I learned patience. I learned to wait for my time. That’s a lesson that some people never learn.
“This party is one of the few organizations I’ve ever seen in my life that offers a person who comes from nothing, I mean nothing, in terms of finances, and allows them to get somewhere. … no one in my family had ever gone to college, much less graduate from one, and frankly speaking, I learned that this was an organization that really brought people along like myself who came from nothing, and taught us the business of politics..”
If the late 1970s and early 1980s were good years for Joe Mondello, they were definitely bad ones for the Nassau County Republican party.
It was during this time that a federal grand jury began investigating allegations that the party was demanding 1% kickbacks from the salaries of workers it had placed in positions throughout the county government.
Dubbed the “1% Case,” the intensive investigation eventually led to the discovery of other improprieties and led to the downfall, in 1983, of then-county Republican party Chairman Joseph Margiotta.
At his trial, Margiotta contended he was only continuing a patronage system that had been in place for years before his arrival on the scene. He was convicted, sentenced to two years in jail and Joe Mondello became chairman of a political party in complete disarray.
“I was beside myself,” he said years later. “I felt like the last guy left in the room.”
“You have to remember, when I was elected chairman, my predecessor had just gone to the hoosegow; the debt that this party was in was enormous, we owned $750,000 and there mortgages on both our headquarters and our print shop, and there was a lawsuit hanging over our heads stemming from this 1% business.
“Along with that, there were the leaders. It takes a long time for a leader to really become a leader in the eyes of 71 executive leaders and 2,070 or so committee people. They look at you askance. It’s ‘Show us what you can do.’ And so I had a lot of tough years.’”
In fact, long after he was established as chairman and a powerbroker, Mondello faced an insurrection that lasted nearly an entire election cycle. It was finally crushed on election night, when a slate of Mondello-backed candidates fended off a series of challengers.
Shortly after 9:01 p.m. on election night, 1994, Mondello slipped through the back door connecting county GOP headquarters with the Wheatley Hill Tavern, a venue the party often used to await election returns and conduct other business.
“Come, all of you,” he said to the reporters who had been awaiting his arrival.
After the television camera lights were set, with sweat glistening on his forehead, Mondello launched into the speech of all speeches.
Referring to the insurrectionists, he declared there had been “treachery in the Republican party,” and went on to skewer his critics and enemies publicly for several minutes. Many saw their political aspirations dashed in an instant. It was clear, Mondello knew every single name of those who had crossed him.
It proved to be an incendiary start to a victorious night for the chairman and his party.
He was asked, “Do you consider yourself a scary guy?”
“Do I look scary to you?” he said with a smile. “Listen, I’m a frank guy. At 9:01 on election night, I wanted to be scary. You don’t know what I lived through. You don’t know what my wife and my three children lived through. …”
“You know, my wife, she’s a museum curator. She has no interest in politics. She thinks, to this day, that I’ve got tapioca up here [points to his head] to be involved in this. ‘You’re a lawyer, practice law,’” she says.
“So, you ask me if I’m scary. No, I never thought of myself as a scary person. As a matter of fact, I was very democratic, with a small ‘d’ with all of these guys. Maybe that was almost my undoing.
“What they are fearful of now is, they know they were part of a conspiracy,” he said. “Now, I won’t tell you that they don’t have a right to ask for my resignation or to get rid of me. But I do think I have been around long enough to deserve a knock on the door … for someone to come in and sit down and say, ‘Hey Joe, your time has come.’”
“Would I have accepted that and gotten up from the desk? Of course, I wouldn’t have,” Mondello continued. “But I would have respected the person or the group who came to my door and made such a statement to me.
“Would I have fought them on it? Yes. But they would have had my respect because it would have been done on top of the table and in what I consider to be the right way. That never happened. … It was all clandestine, surreptitious, designed to do me from behind, because they didn’t want to come to me. And it caused me great consternation.”
“They tried to spread rumors about me. I’m sensitive that way. I have a family. I have children that go to local schools. I don’t appreciate them coming home with stories. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Mondello asked.
“There’s a certain part of that you can’t escape from in public life, I’m not referring to that part. What I’m referring to is people who are supposed to be on your side who are all of sudden, out to get you …. Out of what I would consider greed and what I would consider a lust for power. That’s not the way to do it. If you have a lust for power, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be exhibited in that way,” he added.
Mondello served as Republican national committeeman for New York State from 1992 to 2004 and as chairman of the New York Republican State Committee from November 2006 until September 2009.
He concluded his decades of public service as the U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. He was appointed by former President Donald Trump.
His final public appearance was in January, when he participated at the swearing-in ceremonies for a number of Hempstead Town officials.
“Of all the positions that I have held, the one I enjoyed the most was being a councilman in the Town of Hempstead,” Mondello said. “I mean that sincerely. It was the most fun job, the one closest to the people and the one that I got the most good feelings from.”
As for his advice to those being sworn in, the former party leader and elder statesman said, “You have to be dedicated, you have to be conscientious and you’ve got to be compassionate.”
His words were echoed Tuesday in a statement released by one of his successors.
“Throughout his service as an elected official, his tenure as the U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, and his time as chairman of the Nassau County Republican Committee, Joe Mondello was always focused on service to others and improving our society,” Nassau Republican Party Chairman Joseph Cairo said in a statement Monday night.
“Principled in conduct, competitive by nature and compassionate in action, Joseph N. Mondello was an emblem of the very finest ideals and aspirations of those who work in the world of government and politics. I will miss him dearly,” Cairo said.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been released.
Mondello’s Rules for Success in Local Politics
- The job of a leader is not honorary. There are things you have to do and raising money is not number one. Knowing your district, getting to know the people in your election district and in your executive area is the key. (If people call you to solve a problem, when they could just as well called the town or county to solve it themselves, then you have succeeded)
- Practice old-fashioned grassroots politics at every turn. Yes, come around to get your petition signed, but also come around to ask them if there’s anything they need. Ask them if there’s anything they can think of that you might be able to help them with.
- Remember, logistics plays a part. It’s easier to walk a district and knock on doors when a community is more compact and together.
- If people come to you and say they were unsuccessful in their district because of its ethnic makeup, that’s someone relying on a scapegoat. It’s an excuse for a leader who doesn’t want to work hard. Who’ll come back and say, ‘Well, you know, these people. …’ That’s an excuse. If you go into this business with the right attitude, you can go into any community, regardless of its ethnic makeup, and make it work for you. I’ve seen it done too many times in this business to ignore it.
- The smaller the district, the more you have to pump the flesh. When running for a local office or in a small district, you absolutely have to get out there and walk the street, visit the shopping centers and visit the banks. And you have to realize, it’s going to be a repetitive thing. The candidates have to get to the voters who will be casting their ballots. That’s got to be done. It’s an absolute must. If your election district is walkable, it should be walked. That gives you an opportunity to get to know people on an individual basis.
- Your approach has to be on the basis of “Hey, would you do me a favor?” Or, “You know me, I’m the kid that lives three blocks down,” or “You may not know me, but I’m just like the kid that lives next door to you and I’d like to be considered for the job.” Therein lies the strength of a party or a campagne. “Vote for your neighbor …”
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.
Rules for Success added
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