BY MATT RICCHIAZZI
If you’re younger than 45 or 50 years old, you probably don’t remember the time that Al Coppola refused to take a $10,000 pay raise that the Buffalo Common Council voted itself in 1998.
“The politicians knew what the salaries were going to be when they ran for office,” he told Artvoice in explaining why he was the only councilmember to turn down the raise. “It would have been a slap in the face to all of those small businesses who are struggling to keep their people employed.”
Coppola not only voted against the raise, but after it became law, he was the only council member who refused to accept the raise. It remained in the general fund.
Few can argue that Coppola is a revered figure among Buffalonians of a certain age, especially among his North Buffalo and Elmwood Village constituency, which he represented on the Common Council for 17 years. He is known as a maverick, a self-styled outsider who hasn’t been endorsed by party headquarters and often refuses campaign contributions.
Chalk it up to his life as a businessman. Coppola opened Shane’s Restaurant in 1967, and ran it until the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority put him out of business in 1983 when their three years of construction outside his Main Street restaurant left a huge hole at his front door, leaving his business stranded from cars and customers. He never filed bankruptcy, but was forced to liquidate a number of properties that he had acquired as a developer to pay his employees and creditors.
The Association for the Blind was located at the corner, and blind patrons comprised much of his business during those slow years when he struggled to keep his doors open.
“When they would walk (they had to traverse a construction zone using a makeshift wooden walkway, often guided by service dogs) in the door smiling, saying ‘how’s it going Al?,’ it put my woes in perspective,” he explained. “I refused to fall into the trap of feeling sorry for myself, and learned a lot from their relentlessly positive attitude.”
That year he ran for Common Council and won. He remained there for 17 years until he was elected to the State Senate in 2000, after Anthony Nanula vacated the position to become City Comptroller.
Exposing corruption in the parks department
In 1989, Coppola exposed a pervasive culture of corruption inside the City’s Parks Department, run by then-Commissioner Robert Delano, a loyalist to Mayor Jimmy Griffin.
Shortly after the council was asked to vote to fund a Parks Department special purchase of lawnmowers, a curious Coppola went to the site to inspect the equipment. He asked parks officials why they needed so many lawnmowers of the size people use at their residences.
He was assured by Delano that they were employed usefully in the parks. A few days later, Coppola was in the city hall elevator and apropos of his approachable style, the elevator operator asked him in whispers if he had gotten in on the deal to buy a new lawn mower at half price. Coppola quickly realized Delano had duped him and city taxpayers.
He started an investigation, and it soon came to light that the Department was also selling chlorine to Department employees at half price; that city employees on city time worked on Delano and others’ homes; and that a quarter mile long trench had been dug through Front Park so Delano could enjoy cable television at a city-owned apartment. At the time the Department was purchasing three times more dog food than the Police Department, which actually had dogs.
After the Council, led by Coppola, voted to close an unauthorized concession stand operated by Parks’ workers, Delano ordered Parks Department workers to dump an anti-icing compound on the ice of Delaware Park Lake, ruining it for skating.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation joined the FBI’s investigation and, for over a year, Delano refused repeated calls from Coppola to testify before the Common Council. Ultimately Delano was charged and convicted by a federal jury of running the City Parks Department as a criminal enterprise.
Standing up to Niagara Mohawk
Perhaps the most iconic battle in Coppola’s career was with Niagara Mohawk, now National Grid. Coppola remembers asking officials a seemingly simple question: ‘How many street lights does the city have?’
No one knew the answer, so he looked into it. Seriously. What he found was that there were 2,000 phantom streetlights that the city got billed for that didn’t exist. The city ended up getting over $1.6 million in refunds from Niagara Mohawk.
But that was just one skirmish in a battle that lasted years. Coppola wanted the city to buy out the monopoly, which had an assessment value for electrical poles throughout the city of $300 million. Coppola’s plan would have bought Buffalo a municipal power utility, which could have cut rates for homeowners in half, he argued.
Once in the Senate, Coppola pushed the plan relentlessly. Niagara Mohawk bankrolled then-Councilman Byron Brown’s campaign. Party bosses got another candidate to split the vote and Coppola was ousted from the 60th district seat in 2000.
A preservationist, before it was hip
Although he has been out of elected office for 15 years, Coppola is still intensely active.
He was a preservationist before it was popular to be so. He is still a preservationist. He restored the historic 1901 Pan-Am House out of his own pocket, not once approaching the government for help.
He’s working with preservationists Mark Vogel, a retired Buffalo News journalist, and Bill Zimmerman, owner of Seven Seas Sailing School, to restore the historic South Buffalo Lighthouse. The three men founded a non-profit and purchased the lighthouse for one dollar from the federal government and are spending their own money restoring the structure. Rather than take taxpayer money, their plan calls for a boater-oriented revenue model open to the public.
While not officially their council member, Coppola continues to help West Side residents combat elevated rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders linked to the diesel exhaust emanating from the Peace Bridge’s trucking plaza. Over one-third of the children attending Public School 3 on Porter Avenue suffer from asthma so badly that they need to be administered medication during the school day.
In 2007, residents of Columbus Park on Buffalo’s West Side were faced with the prospect of an irrevocable loss of 100 homes in their historic community, and the displacement of hundreds of residents. Plans for expansion of the Peace Bridge’s truck crossing would replace homes and businesses with a 45 acre truck plaza and Duty Free superstore. Private properties would be seized through eminent domain.
“It was Al Coppola who volunteered to take on the Peace Bridge Authority by challenging them to a series of public debates so that residents could question and challenge this boldly destructive plan,” explains longtime West Side resident Kathy Mecca, who leads the Columbus Park and Prospect Hill Association.
“His plan was ingenious because the open debates provided detailed information about how big government and private interests are working together to manipulate the law so that a small but powerful group can benefit,” she says. “Eventually residents acquired enough knowledge to successfully defeat the plan. In 2012, the Federal Government and the PBA withdrew that plaza expansion plan.”
Mecca explains that Coppola demonstrated to weary residents, who thought they were sure to be defeated, that one person could take on a powerful special interest and big government mentality.
“Justice should never be out of reach because of who you are or where you live,” Mecca said.
A gentlemanly approach to politics
County Legislator Betty Jean Grant served on the Common Council with Coppola for two years in the late 1990’s. She has fond memories working with him.
“The first thing he did for me as a novice councilmember was to give me his number one spot for parking (Coppola, as the most senior council member, had the first parking spot). It was easier to drive into as it was on the edge of the councilmembers’ parking spaces,” Grant recalled. “I will never forget that. Thank you, Al. You were and are still a gentleman.”
Coppola’s constituent-oriented posture defines his entire view of politics. “The elected official is a ‘servant’ of the public. I will be guided by the people who vote for me who want a representative to serve them in a nice, honest way. Money will not influence me. It never has,” Coppola said. “And I’m too old to change now.”
Asked if he would be willing to take the smallest office in the Senate (party leaders often punish members if they don’t cooperate by downgrading perks) if that’s the price of independence, Coppola responds, “the biggest office in Albany is the chamber that we all share.”
With a small self-funded budget, Coppola’s primary campaigning consists of going door to door. Coppola is spending about $20,000 of his own money on the primary effort, he said. He has refused contributions from friends, small businesses or anyone else, sometimes asking them to wait for the general election.