There’s a ferryboat called the Sen. John J. Marchi that many tourists to New York City take a ride on, free of charge, because the Staten Island Ferry provides the best views of the Statue of Liberty. However, many people probably don’t know much about Senator John Marchi, especially younger New Yorkers or out-of-towners not familiar with our state’s history.
John Joseph Marchi (1921-2009) represented Staten Island in our state’s senate for half a century. The New York State Senate is the upper house of the New York State Legislature. This is distinct from our U.S. Senators, elected officials, two from each state, representing each state’s interests in the Upper Chamber of the United States Congress, our federal legislature.
There’s a great deal that Sen. Marchi did for Staten Island, as well as a lot more he planned to do, but was thwarted. The CUNY system, our citywide institution of higher education, was particularly helped by Senator Marchi’s efforts. In fact, the History, Philosophy, and Political Science Building at the Willowbrook Campus of the College of Staten Island — otherwise known as Building 2N at CSI — was renamed for Senator Marchi in 2006, in gratitude and recognition for all the senator had done during his long fifty year tenure as Staten Island’s representative in Albany, and specifically for what he had done for both CUNY and C.S.I.
In fact, it it were not for Senator Marchi, CSI might not have moved to its sprawling Willlowbrook campus in 1993 from its two former distant and distinct campuses: the former “upper divisional” Richmond College in an office building in St. George and the former Staten Island Community College, located in Sunnyside on what is now the grounds of the Michael J. Petrides School Educational Complex.
The Willowbrook campus sat fallow for years, the former Willlowbrook State School, once famed for Geraldo Rivera’s career-building expose on the treatment of its “students.” In fact, the combining of the two former colleges, as well as CSI’s designation as a senior college are also the results of Senator Marchi’s lifelong ambition to improve educational opportunities for Staten Islanders.
Because of Senator Marchi’s prior efforts, The City University of New York became an institution separate from SUNY in 1961. CUNY is now now a world leader, well recognized internationally as a university on par with the most prestigious centers of learning in the world, with twenty four campuses, including the CUNY Graduate Center, lauded as NYC’s premiere public research institution and post-graduate university.
Senator Marchi was an attorney and jurist who had graduated from Manhattan college during World War II, back in 1942. Also during the war, Marchi served in the US Coast Guard on Antisubmarine duty in the Atlantic, as well as with the Navy at Okinawa in the Pacific. Thus, it’s quite fitting that a ferry was named after the senator, as his military service focused on seamanship.
Senator Marchi’s service as NY State Senator spanned from 1957 until 2006. The National Conference of State Legislatures formally recognized him as the longest serving legislator (at any level) in the United States. Staten Islanders appreciated all he had done for Our Island, as well as the city. Marchi even helped draft the state laws enacted to help NYC escape its fiscal turmoil, when NYC nearly went bankrupt during the downturn in the ’70s, which created the Emergency Financial Control Board and the Municipal Assistance Corporation.
The plan for Staten Island to secede from New York City was feverishly supported by islanders, and a non-binding referendum in 1993 showed that the island overwhelmingly supported breaking away from NYC and creating an independently chartered city of Staten Island. Even so, the effort ground to a halt, as Rudy Giuliani, while running for NYC Mayor,promised Staten Islanders that we would no longer be, “the Forgotten Borough.” Mayor Giuliani rewarded Staten Island by helping to close our landfill, with the continued efforts of Senator Marchi.
The Fresh Kills Landfill, now being developed as Freshkills Park, in a long-term 30-year plan spanning decades, was once what Staten Island was best-known for. After all, our dump was the largest on planet Earth, releasing enough methane each day to be measurable. Archaeologist Martin Jones stated that the Fresh Kills mounds numbered “among the largest man-made structures in the history of the world.”
We can thank Senator Marchi for its closure, in fact. Nearly since its inception, Islanders were opposed to becoming the recipients of the city’s mountains of trash. It was a vision that John Marchi had since at least 1958, when he first drafted a plan for the closure of Staten Island’s landfill, then only a few years old, and not nearly as high as it eventually reached. At the time, Gov. W. Averell Harriman decided against the measure and vetoed it down.
In fact, it was a bi-partisan effort to get Fresh Kills finally closed and capped. Staten Island Democrat, Assemblyman Eric N. Vitaliano was instrumental in helping along the closure. If Senator Marchi had been an inflexible politicist, he would not have reached across the aisle and joined hands with a Democrat. Thankfully, the end goal was more important than partisan politics, and Senator Marchi’s longstanding dream was finally realized only a few years later.
This was not the first time Senator Marchi decried partisanship; in 1961, as Chairman over the Senate Committee on Commerce and Navigation, the Senator resigned, citing his wish to allow the investigation to continue,unhindered, and “out of the realm of partisan politics,” as he was running for the position of Borough President of Staten Island on the Republican ticket.
Senator Marchi dreamed big. He even tried for the mayoral position of NYC, choosing to become a candidate in both 1969 and 1973. Perhaps it’s best that he did not win; otherwise, his efforts to help Staten Island may have been diluted, as his focus have had to widen, necessarily coming to include New York City as a whole.
Even so, his efforts to improve CUNY’s stature did affect many New Yorkers outside on Staten Island. Likewise, as Chairman of the Temporary State Commission on New York City School Governance in 1989, Senator Marchi helped the New York City Public School system to move forward, providing specific recommendations on how this might be accomplished.
After September 121th, 2001, the Senator headed the NY State Senate Task Force on the World Trade Center Recovery. Ironically, the recently closed Fresh Kills landfill, only recently closed due to the Senator’s lifelong efforts, served as a staging ground for the F.B.I., as they painstakingly sifted through the rubble and debris for human remains for months after the attacks.
Back in 1968, the Italian President and Prime Minister awarded Senator Marchi with Commander of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy, the greatest honor that might be bestowed upon a non-Italian national. In 1976, New York State Veterans of Foreign Wars granted Senator Marchi as its latest recipient of the Silver Commendation medal,recognizing his “Legislative service to veterans and all New Yorkers.” A year later, the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith, presented the Senator with its own Public Service Award. The Senator was also cited by the Association of Colleges and Universities of the State of New York for his continuing efforts to improve higher education for New York state residents. In 1987, Marchi was bestowed with an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Wagner College.
In 1971, Senator Marchi appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, alongside host Dick Cavett and guests Jane Fonda, Judy Collins, and author Anthony Burgess. Marchi greeted Cavett with, “buena sera, Ricardo.” He truly helped foster the era of the acceptance of Italian-Americans in popular American culture.
He spoke with Cavett on the absurdity of “relating crime to any ethnic group,” further stating that “…criminal activity known no national origin.” Senator Marchi did not agree with the Italian Civil Rights League that Mario Puzo’s film adaptation of “The Godfather” must omit reference to an “Italian mafia,” specifically. He further stated that it was “pure fantasy” that any Federal Agency was “plotting to get Italo-Americans.”
In 1972, Marchi presented legislation that could form the New South Richmond Development Corporation, responsible for the development of more than 10,000 acres on Staten Island’s South Shore. At the time, this measure was not universally accepted as a good thing; see Staten Islander’s previous article on this sentiment . In all, twelve new communities were planned, along with 6.5 billion in public funds to bring in ~400,000 residents to the island, on lands that were formerly wetlands and woodlands. Staten Island Republicans Edward Amann and Lucio Russo opposed the measure, which was ultimately scrapped. Even so, rampant development continued, even without the plan.
Senator Marchi, a practicing Catholic, voted in line with his faith, opposing capital punishment in 1977. When the NY State Court of Appeals declared NYS’s death penalty as unconstitutional, which was also vetoed by then-NYS Governor Carey. Marchi vowed to uphold the veto, and he did. Republicans usually support the death penalty, and so choosing to follow his own morals and ideas, as well as those of his faith, created dissention among Republican voters. Marchi was the sole voice of opposition to the Governor’s veto among Republicans.
And proving that he did not vote his faith, but rather his own personal understanding of society and its needs, Marchi voted against a bill that intended to ban Medicaid funding for abortions. Although Catholics were not in support of abortion, Marchi felt it would impose undue hardship upon only a segment of population, and therefore violate the tenet of Equal Protection Under the Law.
Those with means could choose to have an abortion procedure, while their poorer constituents would have no choice in the matter. No one could ever accuse Senator Marchi of voting blindly; in fact, our Constitution, and Laws of Our Land, were always foremost in his mind, while the people of Staten Island, and New York State remained forever foremost in his heart.
Senator Marchi, a former Navy man, also supported the proposed Homeport on Staten Island, which did end up being built, briefly serving the US Navy from 1989 until 1994. His efforts blocked a city-wide referendum on the proposed Homeport, helping the project to move along with ease. Marchi felt this would be an economic boon to Staten Island, bringing jobs here and re-vitalizing the Bay Street corridor. Marchi helped many Staten Island projects receive funding, including the Staten Island Zoo, the Staten Island Children’s Museum ,The Learning Institute Jewish Community Center, and the Korean-Americans Senior Citizen Center among them.
The senator also favored a right-on-red rule for Staten Island. While New York State permits this while driving, unless explicitly stated otherwise, in New York City, the opposite is true, and no right-on-red is allowed, unless signage specifically permits this, at a select few intersections. As Staten Island’s more suburban character more resembled counties outside on NYC, the proposal did not get very far, and Staten Islanders still follow NYC traffic laws regarding this matter.
The College of Staten Island, fittingly, hosts the repository for Senator Marchi’s papers, and comprises, “…65 linear feet of material from 1958-2000.” The earliest paper in the collection pre-dates his tenure as state senator; entitled, “The Zenger Case,” it was penned by Marchi as a young man while taking an American Constitutional History course. The collection may be inspected by appointment at the College of Staten Island’s Library, situated in the center quadrangle of its South Campus at Willowbrook.