Requiem for a heavyweight

Being out of office for 11 years -five election cycles – the passing of former county legislator Frank Felicello, R-Marlboro last week did not send officials rushing to lower flags. Except, maybe in Marlboro where the big fellow Frank was a heavy hitter, literally.

A fine figure of a young man at about six feet, 200 pounds, Felicello played in a fast men’s basketball league after college. I first saw him in a tournament in Kingston with a team called Felicillo’s Pipers. The Pipers made up for talent with aggressive brawn. And nobody was tougher than their point guard.

Felicello went to college, got his teaching certificate and started coaching the Marlboro High School basketball team. Sports teams tend to take on the personalities of their coaches and Marlboro played hard-nosed, in-your-face basketball. His son Chris would succeed him as head coach some 20 years later.

Felicello’s entry into politics was seamless. Who wouldn’t vote for a hometown boy who also happened to be the high school basketball coach? Running as a Republican in a solid GOP district meant that Felicello could have been legislator for life. He chose to retire in 2011 after nine (two-year) terms.

Felicello is perhaps best remembered for the 1998 coup he and good buddy Dan Alfonso, R-Highland, pulled off to deprive Phil Sinagra, R-Hurley of the legislature chairmanship. It was the classic ambush, in turns brilliant and secretive, deceptive and deceitful.

Space does not permit a complete review, but the shorter version has Sinagra securing 14 of 18 Republican votes in caucus, three short of the 17-minimum required to unseat sitting chairman Alfonso. What some saw as a humiliating defeat, others viewed as unique opportunity. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. Over a period of about three weeks, in deepest secrecy, Alfonso succeeded in rounding up more than enough Democratic votes in the 24-9 legislature to reelect himself as chairman. “Don’t go up there, Phil,” Felicello warned just prior to the respective caucuses breaking for the formal election. “You don’t have the votes.” Sinagra, his acceptance speech neatly typed on his personal chairman’s stationary tucked under his arm, just couldn’t believe it.

A few months later, I was sitting during half-time at another Marlboro championship basketball game. Felicello, by then at least a hundred pounds beyond his playing weight, ambled across the gym and took a seat right next to me.

“You didn’t have a clue, did you?” he said with a self-satisfied smile, referring to the Alfonso-Sinagra business.

Now, no reporter is ever going to admit cluelessness to a politician. It’s a sign of weakness and pols, like sharks, thrive on weakness.

Fortunately, even with Felicello breathing garlic in my face, I didn’t have to lie.

“We were hearing things,” I told him in all honesty. “But I just couldn’t believe that after Alfonso had been insulting Democrats for so many years that any of them would vote for him.” Neither could Sinagra.

As I Iater learned, Alfonso, the mastermind behind the plot, even had one of his chief henchmen in doubt.

“I’m driving home from work just before the meeting,” Felicello told me at the basketball game, “and I hear Danny on the radio saying he’s done, he’s cleaning out his desk, Phil has the votes. I stop at the nearest phone booth and get Danny on the line. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I yelled into the phone. ‘We’re busting our ass to get you votes and you’re giving up?’”

“Relax,” he said Alfonso told him. “It’s all for show. We’re OK.”

Frank Felicello was 68 when he died after a long battle with cancer. RIP.