Former New York City Councilman Walter McCaffrey, who represented the neighborhoods of Woodside, Long Island City and Sunnyside for 16 years, died yesterday at the age of 64.
As a mark of respect for McCaffrey, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered all flags to be lowered to half-staff for one full week.
A shrewd legislative strategist, gifted debater and consummate political animal, McCaffrey thrived on the intrigue and importance of campaigns and governing without ever losing his idealism.
“He was a person with great affection for the city,” said former New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. “He was a good fellow. He kept his word. His was the old style politics.”
McCaffrey was born to Irish immigrant parents and raised in Woodside. As a student at Monsignor McClancey Memorial High School in nearby East Elmhurst, he distinguished himself through his intellect.
“He was a legendary high school debater,” said Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who also attended McClancey and had the same debate coach—though eight years later.
After graduating from Iona College, McCaffrey found his way into the machine politics of the Queens County Democratic Party. He would go on to serve as chairman of Queens Community Board 2, and chief of staff first to then Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein, and later to Congressman Thomas Manton.
In 1985 McCaffrey was elected to the first of four terms in the Council, where he rose to become chairman of the Zoning & Franchises Subcommittee, as well as an influential member of the Land Use, Finance, Public Safety and Transportation Committees.
“Walter was one of the brightest and most knowledgeable council members that ever served the City of New York,” said former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr. “He was responsible and the catalyst for some very important pieces of legislation.”
Among the bills Vallone cited as McCaffrey’s was landmark legislation requiring security cameras at ATMs and restricting ATM surcharge fees, and a law banning or restricting pornographic establishments near schools and in residential neighborhoods.
He was also “solely responsible,” in Vallone’s words, for the library that was built in Long Island City that would eventually be named after Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. “It was Walter McCaffrey who fought everyday to get the pennies to put that together at a time when we had no money whatsoever, and now it’s one of the best libraries in the city,” said Vallone.
McCaffrey, a devoted champion of the city’s and the country’s uniformed officers, also helped establish the five borough’s first homeless shelter for war veterans and its first police suicide prevention program.
Maggi Peyton, a senior advisor to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who met McCaffrey when they were both staffers for Stein, emphasized that, above all, McCaffrey was a “brilliant, incredibly capable public servant.”
“He loved politics, but he loved good causes even more,” said Peyton. “He was a gentle giant and a peacemaker.”
Had it not been for the introduction of term limits, McCaffrey would have likely cruised to reelection once again in 2001, but instead he stepped down from office and retrenched in city politics as a consultant and lobbyist for his own firm, the McCaffrey Group. In this capacity, he led a number of successful high-profile battles, including the fight against congestion pricing and the effort in favor of the passage of Local Law 1, which expanded the opportunities afforded to minority- and women-owned businesses.
“He was artful in putting legislation together,” said Sandra Wilkin, the president of Bradford Construction, a longtime friend and client of McCaffrey’s, who worked closely with him on the MWBE bill. “He knew all the cards and how they would get played.”
Always a quick wit, McCaffrey delighted in barbed exchanges, though for sport, not for blood.
In 2007, when City Hall asked McCaffrey if he would consider running for his old seat when his successor Eric Gioia was himself term limited out of office, he dismissed the notion unequivocally. “Thank you, been there, done that,” he said.
“He had such a sensitive side to him,” recalled Wilkin. “His humor—his Irish humor—about everything in life. He made you laugh at the most ridiculous times. He always put things in such a perspective. When you’d think the worst about things, he put a spin on them that just made you feel good.”
McCaffrey was divorced decades ago, never remarried and had no children. He is survived by his many friends—who were his family—and the district, borough and city for which he lived.
McCaffrey’s wake will be on Sunday at Edward D. Lynch Funeral Home in Sunnyside from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Monday there will be a mass at St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Woodside at 11 a.m. The funeral will follow.
Tags: Andrew Stein, ATMs, Congestion pricing, eric-gioia, Geraldine Ferraro, Henry Stern, Iona College, Long Island City, Maggi Peyton, Michael Bloomberg, Monsignor McClancey High School, MWBE, obituary, Patrick Foye, Peter Vallone Sr., Sandra Wilkin, sunnyside, Thomas Manton, Walter McCaffrey, Woodside