First Larry King hung up his microphone. Now New Haven’s longest-running union president—Sgt. Louis Cavaliere, an old-school labor leader and self-proclaimed “talented” talker—plans to tell his executive board Tuesday night that he, too, is ending a decades-long run in the spotlight.
In an interview at his union office Tuesday afternoon, Cavaliere said that recent dissension among younger cops convinced him that he should call it quits a bit sooner than he might have planned. Cavaliere, 65, has run AFSCME Council 15 police union Local 530 for 30 years.
As some members hurled charges at him at a boisterous February meeting, Cavaliere’s second-in-command, Frank Lombardi, leaned over to him. “For the first time in 30 years, I feel we don’t belong here anymore,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi, who has served on the union executive board since 1983, said Tuesday he, too, plans to step down as vice-president. Unlike Cavaliere, though, he plans to remain on the force.
Cavaliere has been in the spotlight recently as he led a no-confidence vote against the police chief and clashed with City Hall over the layoffs of 16 patrol officers. Some critics scored him for suggesting citizens arm themselves for protection in the wake of layoffs. At the other end, some officers have pushed him to take a stronger stand as City Hall seeks givebacks on pensions and health care to deal with a budget crisis.
“It’s like we were the enemy,” Cavaliere said. “It’s not even pleasurable anymore.”
He said that younger officers, with little appreciation for historical gains made by unions, don’t appreciate how hard he has fought for the rank-and-file or the complexities of negotiating with the city.
“They think you can take your Glock out and go up to DeStefano and say, ‘We want to fight for a raise.’ They think we can ... make them come down on their knees and give us the raises ... They don’t care about the recession. They say there’s no recession. They don’t care that the city is broke. ... That’s not the reality that’s happening in this country.”
Cavaliere said he’ll probably retire on May 19 after swearing in his union replacement. He said he’s open to working as a consultant to the union to help with tough contract negotiations with the city for the upcoming year.
Elections for the union’s top jobs are scheduled for May 12. Sgt. Anthony Zona, Local 530’s current treasurer, plans to run for president. (He’s also the president of AFSCME Council 15, the local’s parent union.) Patrolman David Coppola also plans to run for local president to replace Cavaliere.
Farrell. Pastore. Wearing. Ortiz. Redding. Lewis. Limon.
Those names have swept in and out of the police chief’s office since 1981. All of those chiefs have clashed with one union president over that time: Cavaliere. They’ve wrestled with him over contracts, battled over suspensions of officers. And, for the most part, developed a respectful, friendly working relationship.
In that way, Cavaliere may be one of the last old-style labor leaders: Savvy at the table. Fired up and blunt spoken in public, always good for a quote. Ready to fight, ready to deal, depending on when the time is right.
Similarly, most of the cops on the force, even those here since the 1980s, have known only one union president.
“I like labor relations. I like to debate. I like the controversy. The next day I come over for a cup of coffee” with adversaries, Cavaliere, wearing a white dress shirt and a New York Yankees tie, said as he reflected on his 43 years on the force and his three decades as union president. Born in West Haven to a trolley-car driver, Cavaliere joined New Haven’s force at the suggestion of his cousin, now-retired Detective Ralph DiNello. (Click on the play arrow on the video at the top of the story to watch Cavaliere describe tear-gassing demonstrators on the Green during the 1970 May Day rallies.) “Business is business. I don’t hold grudges. But I get aggressive at meetings sometimes.”
Over the years Cavaliere has always encountered some criticism from members. He didn’t like when some black officers charged that the union cared more about protecting white cops; he spoke of how he defended all cops, even if he personally didn’t like them. He spoke of one instance in which he provided crucial evidence to lock up an officer who shot up a house he thought belonged to then-mayor Biagio DiLieto; Cavaliere still fought on the behalf of the incarcerated officer against the city at a hearing to try to win him his pension.
But he rarely faced opposition in biennual elections. “The most someone got against me was 60-something votes” on a 400-member force, he said. “Either I was doing the job—or nobody wanted the job.”
The grumbling has gotten louder lately and has hurt him more, he said. He recalled how some years back anonymous criticisms of him started appearing one day on the union bulletin board at the station. He remembered taking a marker and writing, “You ball-less fuck. Come in here and come down to my office” to talk about in person. (He said he was convinced promptly to erase the remark.)
Talking straight is crucial to doing the job well, he said. “It’s a natural talent I have. I talk. I don’t shut up.”
Were he to run again, he’d still win reelection easily, he said. But the growing attacks on his integrity and lack of appreciation for his history of battling for cops have made the job “less pleasurable,” he said. He concluded that at his age he doesn’t need all that negativity. “I’m 65 years old. I want to enjoy myself.”
(Mayor John DeStefano released a statement about Cavaliere’s decision: ““Lou has many characteristics of a good labor leader. Whether you were a member of the union or the mayor, you knew where you stood with Lou because he was always straightforward when he communicated with someone. He is the kind of guy you can have an argument with one day and a beer the next. I have a lot of respect for Lou and I know his
heart with always be with the New Haven Police Department.”)
“I’m going to miss it. I love the job,” Cavaliere said, as he reflected on his 43 years on the force and his three decades as union president. “I had a great run. I can look in the mirror every morning; my integrity means everything to me.”
He was asked where he’d like his pals to throw his retirement dinner.
“Jack’s Bar & Grill? McDonald’s? A phone booth?” he responded. “I don’t look for that stuff.”
He’s focused on a different post-retirement plan: taking up yoga. For real.
“I’m going to try it,” he said. “I go 100 miles per hour. I have to slow down eventually.”
If that doesn’t work, he can always try the slow-down technique he’s used to date: “Miller Lite.”