Vol. 13, No. 21   Nov. 2 - 15, 2000


New To Politics, Koppell's Experience a Campaign Issue


The race for State Senate between Riverdale lawyer Lorraine Coyle Koppell, a Democrat, and long-time Republican incumbent Guy Velella has focused largely on Velella's voting record. And while Velella has been assailed for what he has done, Koppell, without a history as a lawmaker, has been mainly criticized for what she hasn't done.

Both Velella and Koppell's Democratic opponent in the September primary, Michael Benedetto, accused Koppell of lacking significant community involvement before her campaign. "My opponent has no record to run on," Velella commented. "She has not been involved in the community."

Norman Adler, a political consultant who works for both Democrats and Republicans and is backing Velella in this race, said Koppell's resume is weak for a candidate seeking a seat in the state legislature. "If they haven't held political office, they've worked on district community boards, school boards and neighborhood associations," he said. "Generally, they've had some sort of community-based leadership position."

Even Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who briefly worked on Koppell's Senate bid said, "She is not a typical candidate. She doesn't have the broad range community base ... An ideal candidate has deep community roots and can relate to all segments of the district."

Brushing away such criticism, Koppell responded, "That's just silly. When you're in a community you work in that community."

Koppell has not been a regular presence at the kind of local meetings many political aspirants cut their teeth on -community board, school board, and precinct community council meetings. And Velella said she was not even active in controversial issues concerning her home neighborhood of North Riverdale, including a community fight to keep the Russian embassy from expanding.

Nonetheless, Koppell's participation in community affairs includes service as a volunteer lawyer for several Riverdale and Kingsbridge organizations, including the Kingsbridge Ambulance Corps, Riverdale Presbyterian Church, St. John's Church and Kingsbridge Heights Community Center. She also noted that she was on the board of the Fieldston Property Owners Association for two years, and that she has been involved in litter and graffiti cleanups along Johnson Avenue and at the Kingsbridge Library.

Charles Shane, executive director of the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, said Koppell has been extremely helpful to his organization over the past 15 years. "She has been very supportive in providing legal advice and pro-bono work," he said. "She's been helpful in everything from labor relations to advice on setting up legal issues."

Koppell also provided legal work for the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club, a Riverdale-based political organization, where she has been a member for 15 years, according to club president Ellen Feld, and led a group of mothers from the club to the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. to rally for gun control.

Koppell added that during her campaign, she has learned the district's needs and priorities by tirelessly visiting schools, subway stations and going door-to-door in many of the district's apartment buildings. "I've been all over this district, from top to bottom, north to south, east to west," she said.

State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a fellow Democrat who urged her to run, commended Koppell's energy throughout the race. "She's a worker and she's an advocate and it's been proven in her campaign," he said.

Sheinkopf agreed Koppell has been making a good impression. "She's extraordinarily energetic, quite bright," he commented. "Her story is also very interesting. She put herself through school. She's not a silver spoon candidate."

Still, Adler alleged Koppell does not have much experience outside the legal arena, and said a prime candidate for state Senate would be "someone who has been a school board member, City Council member, or has some experience doing negotiations and trade-offs and the kind of things you have to do in a legislative body."

But many Democrats are willing to overlook these points for the greater good of the party, hoping they can take back the Senate from the Republican majority, which has a six-seat edge.

They also say Koppell is right on the issues, including gun control, education, tenants' rights and the environment. "She doesn't have a voting record, but we know she has been an advocate for our issues," said Barbara Hohlt, chair of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. "It's clear that she supports our goals."

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