For the people of New York

by John D. Hubbard

Dennis Vacco '74 takes it personally.

Oh, New York State's Attorney General casts the cold eye of a seasoned prosecutor on the heaping plate before him, and even though the November 1994 election was his first run for public office he has innate political savvy. But passion is an unmistakable part of the mix and a measure of what fuels Attorney General Vacco can be taken there.

Vacco and his wife Kelly have two young sons and he has lost friends in the line of fire. Through it all -- life and death -- a commitment has been forged. Vacco is determined to see a safer tomorrow, a better future.

The Attorney General's career leading to Albany has been marked with crime fighting and consumer advocacy. First as a prosecutor in the Erie County District Attorney's Office and then as a U.S. Attorney appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Vacco has battled violent crime, led the charge against sexual misconduct and pursued environmental polluters. He has been recognized for his strong stand against public corruption and he was the leader of an Affirmative Civil Enforcement unit which, through civil actions, recovered taxpayer funds in fraud cases.

"I see the Attorney General's office as a worthy challenge," says Vacco, "while remaining an advocate involved in the legal business. I saw the office as a means to continue as a lawyer while doing things that could help people."

Vacco is the first Republican Attorney General in New York in 16 years and the first non-career politician to hold the post in his lifetime.

After nearly a year in the job Vacco is comfortable with Albany and the "politics of being a statewide official." He also has a "sense people are listening."

The death penalty

Vacco's stand on the death penalty has made the most early noise. Like Governor George Pataki, the Attorney General favors capital punishment, a distinct break with New York's stubborn history of gubernatorial vetoes.

"I believe the death penalty is an important tool," says Vacco. "I've never claimed it's a panacea but it sends an important message. I've spent two years traveling this state and the people I've met echo the sentiment shared by most of this country. They feel less safe.

"The death penalty sends a message to the law-abiding public that we are prepared to do everything within the power of the law to reverse the trend of violence. There are 2,000 murders in New York State each year, an intolerably high number. We have to do something."

Vacco knows effects of violence. Two law enforcement friends were gunned down and he felt government failed them. "We weren't giving them the full protection of the law," says Vacco. "I believe as

a government we have an obligation to address even the perception of fear."

That belief is moving the Attorney General's office beyond its traditional role. "The Attorney General is the chief legal officer of the state and is concerned about the water we drink, the air we breathe and the products we consume. The people's lawyer should be concerned with safety

as well as health. In addition to defective products and the exposure to risk in the home, we should also have a voice in keeping citizens safe from harm when they walk the streets."

In addition to criminal justice issues Vacco is facing the state of the economy. A native western New Yorker, the Attorney General has seen the demise of a once thriving area. "I do believe there is an obligation on the part of government to make this state more competitive. We have an obligation to find a way to create opportunities for the one million New Yorkers on government assistance.

"My role in this is done on a case-by-case basis in dealing with the relationships between producers and consumers, generators and environmentalists."

Vacco, who has been called "business friendly," says he is actually "consumer friendly" and that a person "can't be a consumer without a paycheck."

Interesting times

These are interesting times for Vacco -- "exhilarating," he terms them. In June of 1993, after he left the U. S. Attorney General post, Vacco was unemployed, unmarried and had no children. In the span of the next two years he and Kelly were wed, sons Carmen and Connor were born and Vacco was elected Attorney General.

"I was fortunate to be on the cutting edge of a generational change in New York State. You can sense there is clearly a different style of doing business in Albany, a different attitude. I don't want to let down the people whose confidence in me gave me this honor. I'm not interested in sitting back. I want my accomplishments to go way beyond being elected Attorney General."

Vacco is committed. "I had sufficient motivation before my sons were born but now I have a personal stake in this. My father was a vegetable farmer and his hard work and labor allowed me to go to Colgate and spring forward, to reach for what I could. I think it's healthy for a father with two kids to be in this job. It gives me a far more committed perspective."

The Attorney General is late. Dennis Vacco isn't sitting back. He's making his case for his family and all the people of New York. He's still running hard and enjoying the race.