The czar is dead

Local radio editorialist Harry Thayer called him “Czar Peter, the Second”, the six-story eye-sore of a county office building he built in uptown Kingston, “the glass menagerie,” the legislature he ruled with an iron fist, “the fiddlers 33.” Put it all together and it spelled Pete Savago, Republican strongman, the last of a breed.

Deep into his twilight years and pretty much out of touch for a decade, Savago died at 89 this week in New Paltz, gone, but well-remembered by the generations he dominated, his was a transformative career over some five decades.

Savago returned from army service in Korea to win his first election, New Paltz town clerk, in 1956 as a Democrat in a solid Republican town. He didn’t like to be reminded of that.  Subsequent elections to town board, as a Republican, and supervisor and then chairman of the county board of supervisors, placed him in a unique position at only 35.

The Supreme Court in the mid-60s had ordered a stricter adherence to the “one man, one vote” dictum of equal representations. Ulster could have been a test case wherein the town of Denning, population less than 200, sent one supervisor to the 33-member board of supervisors as did Saugerties, with a population in excess of 15,000. The 33 derived from Ulster’s 20 towns and Kingston’s 13 wards.  

The Republican board of supervisors with Savago as chairman, had several choices. They could have retained the board of supervisors, thereby giving every town a representative. Under that scheme Denning would be given about one-eighth the vote of Saugerties.  They could have run legislators in single-member districts (the system now in place).

Savago had a better idea, keep all the town supervisors and create a brand new “county legislature” with 33 members running in districts with multiple candidates. It was a no-brainer, given Republican dominance in those days, but even Savago couldn’t have predicted a 28-5 legislature. It took Democrats almost a decade to break into double digits. They took the legislature by a single vote in 1977 and then relapsed into the minority for another two decades. Savago, claiming politics “wasn’t fun anymore,” resigned from the legislature but as chairman got himself appointed an elections commissioner. He wasn’t known to keep strict office hours.

He seemed to control every aspect of Republican politics, from town board candidates to state supreme court judges. The czar liked to call himself “the judge maker,” because without his say-so, judicial candidates never got out of the gate. “Party donations” were willfully accepted by hopefuls.

Savago’s period of power was a time of major public construction, including the county office building, the old jail and the infirmary. Building is good for politics.

He made a very comfortable living with his New Paltz-based insurance agency. Insuring local bridges helped as did a “seldom show job” (as they politely called it) in Albany with the state senate.

While the “Savago-Spada wars” fed column fodder, I’m aware of only one serious challenge to his decades-long reign as boss of bosses. GOP reformers Gerry Benjamin and Rich Croce from New Paltz got as far as a county convention only to be crushed like bugs. I doubt if either will be asked to speak at a Savago memorial, to be scheduled when the current plague dies out.

Not to denigrate the dead, but Savago by almost every account, was not a nice man to work with. Quick-tempered and always, always in charge, he rocked his world. With media (like me) he was curt and dismissive. “Party business,” he’d growl when asked the particulars of some public policy decision.

I’m not saying Savago was all bad. Nobody is. He came to my mother’s funeral.

I got to needle him in person on occasion. Savago had summoned the Legislature’s Republican majority to nominate a chairman. They caucused in secret (which was allowed then) at the Ramada Inn in the town of Ulster. Media got wind of it and staked out the closed-door session. Angry voices could be heard from inside.

Savago emerged to meet the press. “The Republican majority has nominated Ward Todd for chairman,” he said.  Newshounds exchanged knowing glances: Todd was barely a three- two-term legislator and incumbent chairman Dan Alfonso had shown no signs of stepping down. We sensed high intrigue.

“What was the vote, Pete,?” I asked for what I thought would be openers.

“The Republican majority has nominated Ward Todd for chairman (tantamount to election by the full legislature),” he said, tersely, for the second time.

“Let me rephrase that question,” I said, drawing an annoyed look. “What was the vote, Pete?”

“The Republican majority has nominated,” he said, grinding molars on the last few words before turning for the door. It was a defining moment. 

Say what you will about Pete Savago, but for better or worse, he defined public policy and local politics in a way and to an extent that I very much doubt we will see again.