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Democrats remember Basmajian’s contributions to politics

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MASSENA - A long-time Democratic chairman was remembered Tuesday for his contributions to the local, county and state political scene.

Walter V. Basmajian, 90, Massena, died Monday night, leaving a legacy that those who knew him say will live on.

“He was a great man. I used to refer to him as the Godfather of the Democratic Party in St. Lawrence County. Everybody knew him,” former state Democratic Committee Chairwoman June F. O’Neill said.

“He was the Democratic Party,” said Ernest J. LaBaff, Aluminum, Brick & Glass Workers International Union president emeritus.

“He understood the political arena. He always referred to it as the political arena. I don’t think I ever met anyone who understood it like he did. He did a lot of good,” Massena Town Councilman Albert N. Nicola said.

“He was Mister Democrat. He knew the right people. He could pick up the telephone and call people in Albany. He had a great rapport with those people in the know and in power. He was never king, he was a king maker,” Brasher Town Supervisor M. James Dawson said.

“He made it clear that there was another party in St. Lawrence County. He just kept building and building it,” St. Lawrence County Democratic Chairman Mark J. Bellardini said.

Mr. Basmajian, a 1941 graduate of Massena Central High School and Massena businessman who owned Basmajian Real Estate, became active in politics when he asked to take over the Democratic chairmanship.

That tenure lasted 50 years and earned him the Silas Wright Award for outstanding service from the St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee.

“I’m so proud that we honored him with the Silas Wright Award,” Ms. O’Neill said. “He leaves a great legacy. He’ll be missed by many people.” Mr. Basmajian was a man who knew political leaders not just locally, but on the national level, including the Kennedys, Clintons, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. Pictures that adorn his office show him with many of those leaders.

“He was able to get some very big names into St. Lawrence County. I remember when Bobby Kennedy was here. Hubert Humphrey was vice president. Walter’s office walls are covered with famous people - Governor Rockefeller, Mario Cuomo, Hubert Humphrey, Bobby Kennedy. Walter knew these people and the most important thing about it, they knew Walter,” Mr. Dawson said.

“People knew him also. When he was in a crowd, there were people like Mario Cuomo. Mario would come right over to him and call him by his first name. But it goes back further than that. Gov. (Hugh) Carey also knew him,” former Massena Mayor Charles Boots said.

“To walk into his office was like walking into a political museum. That’s exactly what it was. He had autographs from different people. His back shed was just cluttered with political memorabilia. He saved all of it. He could go back and reminisce about the political party or that particular campaign,” Mr. Boots said.

“We would sit and talk in his office and look at the pictures. I asked him, ‘Did you ever look beyond the local politics?’ He got reflective and said, ‘If the Kennedys had lived, I probably would have gotten something, but you never know.’ He was very, very close to the Kennedys,” Mr. Nicola said.

Locally, friends and political associates say Mr. Basmajian was the man who rejuvenated the Democratic party in the county.

He is credited with assembling the first all-Democratic village Board of Trustees and Town Council in the 1950s and 60s. In the 70s, he worked on two successful campaigns for state Assemblyman K. Daniel Haley, the first Democrat ever elected to represent the 110th District.

His political career began with a failed run for village trustee in 1952. Mr. Basmajian was a state committeeman for 25 years. He spent 30 years as the town and village party chairman and 10 years as county chairman.

Mr. LaBaff said he remembers “his ability to organize and make the Democratic Party a force in St. Lawrence County and the state of New York.”

“It was all Republican at that time, 75 to 80 percent Republican. He got it going. I remember going to towns with him to get candidates. He was the party. He was able to convince everybody to get involved in politics. He’s the one that got me involved,” he said. “He had the connections and ability to do it. He could accomplish anything in politics. Look at his record. It speaks for itself. He had respect from all sides, Republicans and Democrats.”

“He was a power in the Democratic Party for 50 years,” said Charles W. Kelly, who was a Democratic state committeeman.

“Back in the 1950s the Democrats took over control of the town of Massena after a bitter fight which was promoted by Walter and the Democrats. That led later into municipal power with the Democrats controlling both the village and the town. That brought about the municipal power fight in Massena, which was strongly supported by the Democrats. They got it approved. I guess we can all say it’s successful,” Mr. Kelly said.

Throughout the county, he said, they would hold meetings for those interested in running for county committeemen.

“They were truly organized. They used to hold meetings in various towns and make sure they got all the committees in place. That’s how they won the party. It was a big fight for him to win the party, too. The party was split back in those days. He was the power back in those days,” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Basmajian helped run campaigns for many people in the county and those who had never held an elected office soon found themselves in the middle of the political scene.

“Walter was a personal dear friend and a mentor to me and others. When I became state chair, he was so thrilled. He was one of my first calls. I said, ‘Thanks to you, Walter,’” Ms. O’Neill recalled.

“He led the fight to create the Board of Legislators and he was so proud when the Democrats took control of it. When Dan Haley was elected to the Assembly that was Walter behind it. He’s responsible for many, many great things and he was so thrilled with Bill Owens getting elected (to Congress),” she said.

“He was really my mentor from the time I entered politics, especially during the 80s and 90s. He had a very firm grasp of the political climate, if you will. He was not a person to run for elected office, but he was the brains. When K. Daniel Haley became our assemblyman for three terms back in the 70s, Walter Basmajian was really the reason that happened,” Mr. Dawson said.

“Walter was the one that all of us younger fellows would go to for advice. Even after he kind of got away from the scene, he was still maneuvering from behind the scenes. He was a great maneuver man and he was a great man behind the scenes. I don’t know anybody in our party or anybody in the opposite party who didn’t deep down respect him. I never heard anyone who didn’t have the utmost respect for him. He was the man behind the throne,” he said.

“He’s had a huge impact on my life. I came back to Massena and was not really involved in politics. He got me involved. He got people elected where they’d never been elected before. He worked with Mark Bellardini and June O’Neill. June and Walter were close.

He was instrumental in helping Gene Nicandri become St. Lawrence County court judge. He could get people to run. He understood politics like no one I’ve ever known,” Mr. Nicola said.

“He was a north country icon in terms of politics. He helped many, many people get into the political field, myself included. He worked tirelessly for the Democratic Party not only locally, but on the state and federal level for the greater part of his life. When he was active, we wanted to work with him. Here’s the guy who would set up the appointments, make sure the signs were ordered, make sure the ads were in the paper. Behind the scenes, that’s where he was,” Mr. Boots said.

“Supreme Court Justice Edmund l. Shea once told me that there was never a better political organizer than Walter Basmajian,” Mr. Kelly said. “He wasn’t always popular, but they respected him. He was a very hard worker and very respected. His wife, Marie, was a full partner. Where he went, she went and she was a hard worker.”

Calling hours for Mr. Basmajian will be held from 7-9 p.m. tonight and 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Thursday at the Phillips Memorial Home, Massena. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. John’s Episcopal Church with the Rev. Kathryn Boswell officiating.

“I bet there’s quite a party up there in Heaven. He’ll see Marie,” Ms. O’Neill said.

“I had a long, long association with him. I always considered him a dear friend. He stood behind me not only in politics, but in labor. I always appreciated his support and considered him a dear friend,” Mr. LaBaff said.

“He’s going to be missed by a lot of us,” Mr. Boots said.

“He’ll be sorely missed. He was an inspiration to all of us young guys when we started politics. He was a great guiding light. He was fiercely Democratic and loyal to his party and he spread that around,” Mr. Dawson said.

“Walter Basmajian ruled his universe like the Titans ruled the universe. He took care of the county. He took care of the people, and he made the Democratic Party a force in St. Lawrence County,” Mr. Bellardini said. “You can’t replace a Walter Basmajian. He was the architect. We lost an icon, there’s no doubt about it.”

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