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The Penitent

Eliot Spitzer may have a large say in Alan Hevesi’s political future, but the state comptroller has a more formidable tormentor: himself.

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Alan Hevesi in his living room in Forest Hills.  

At his Forest Hills home, a mile from where he grew up, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi is lonely these days. His wife, Carol, is gone. At 64, she’s been sent to a Long Island nursing home after decades of declining health and suicide attempts—Hevesi saved her once by breaking down a door. Most of Hevesi’s political friends, accumulated over a 35-year career, have drifted away; few even bothered to show at the celebration for his reelection. It feels like a life in exile. His three kids are his main companions now, especially Andy, the 33-year-old who’s followed in dad’s footsteps. He holds the Assembly seat that was Alan Hevesi’s for 22 years.

Lots of evenings, Andy accompanies his dad home, a tidy attached Tudor filled with comfortable chairs purchased some years ago, by the looks of them. On a cabinet sits a photo, a souvenir from the cruise where he talked Carol into letting him run for state comptroller. She’d been loosened up with a glass of wine, he says. Lately, the shades are always drawn. It was Carol, his wife of 39 years, who opened them. She played the upright piano, now idle in the living room, and, until she couldn’t walk the steps, baked her special date-nut bread at Christmas—Hevesi’s a Jew; she’s Catholic.

Many evenings, Andy and his dad eat takeout, pizza or something from the neighborhood. Then they watch a ball game upstairs in the den, dad in the cozy armchair, Andy on the couch, and talk about the only topic to talk about: the tragic turn in Alan Hevesi’s career. “He cycles about it,” says Andy. “He will constantly be thinking and talking about it to the point where it’s almost too much.” Lately, he’s even had to remortgage his house to raise money to pay back the state and dip into campaign funds to pay legal bills.

These days, Hevesi is constantly apologizing. He apologizes to his staff for mishandling things, to the public, and even to Andy. It’s almost comical: His dad worries about the effect on Andy’s career.

“Stop apologizing,” Andy tells him. “It’s enough.” During the campaign, Andy was his father’s body man, the person who doesn’t leave the candidate’s side. He still is. He tells his father, “I don’t think you’ve committed a crime,” though a grand jury is looking into it. “You’ve paid way more of a price than you should have for this … whatever you want to call it, mistake.”

Lately, Andy worries that his father seems older than his 66 years and distracted, not as sharp, which he needs to be these days. He’s sleeping okay and, luckily, not dreaming.

“I don’t think the last chapter has been written,” Andy says. He is the optimist, a self-assigned role. There’s a story he likes to recall, one that no doubt buoys his father’s spirits. Fifty years ago, a kid pushed Alan Hevesi around at P.S. 101. The next day, as Andy tells it, his father returned to the schoolyard to fight him. He promised he’d never be bullied, Andy says, as if he wants the reminder in the air, though his father never would say how the fight came out.

Thinking about this, Alan Hevesi says, “I hear you,” adding, “I’ve been fighting all my life.” And he’s going to fight on. “What’s my option?” he asks.

Andy urges him on. “With the last breath in you, you should fight back” is what Andy tells him.

“Sure,” Hevesi promises, energized.

And then, thankfully, it’s time for the game. Even the awful Knicks are a relief.

In a sense, it all went wrong for Alan Hevesi after a phone call from J. Christopher Callaghan, the perfectly pleasant Saratoga County treasurer (staff of twelve) whom the Republicans had selected to lose to Hevesi. Hevesi didn’t bother with a campaign Website or significant campaign staff, except for consultant Hank Morris, the mastermind of nearly all of Hevesi’s public career. This summer, Callaghan trailed by 40 points in the polls. The election has been canceled, Hevesi joked at the time.

Then Callaghan received an anonymous tip that Hevesi had assigned a state employee to act as his wife’s chauffeur. Callaghan didn’t have the means to investigate, so he called Hevesi’s waste hotline and talked to the press. Hevesi quickly went public. The driver assured Carol’s security and also shuttled her to doctors’ appointments. That would have been an acceptable arrangement, if Hevesi had reimbursed the state for the non-security work. “I forgot,” Hevesi said.

“I said he should pay,” Andy recalls. “I was stupid to think if you pay it will go away.” Hevesi did a rough calculation and wrote a check for $82,688.82 to cover the driver’s time over three years. It didn’t work. The attacks from the tabloids, and even the Times, were withering. Governor Pataki cut short a European vacation to grandstand on the issue, and appointed a former assistant U.S. attorney to evaluate damning allegations in a state ethics-commission report. Hevesi’s position, stated early and often, was that he’d made a mistake, a bad one. Still, for weeks he did little more than absorb the criticism. Then, during the only debate with Callaghan that he would permit, he lashed back. He talked about the difficult circumstances of his wife’s illness and reiterated his security concerns. “I’m not taking any chances with my wife,” he said.


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