Clarence D. “Rapp” Rappleyea Dies at Age 82

Clarence D. “Rapp” Rappleyea, a Republican leader of the New York State Assembly for 12 years during the 1980s and 90s, has passed away. He was 82 years old. The Norwich native died at Albany Medical Center on Sunday, September 4th.

Rappleyea became minority leader in 1983, three years after I was starting out as a news reporter in Albany. I remember him as always being helpful and supportive of my new business venture, Statewide News Service, Inc., to aid in making it a success.

A few remembrances I have of the public image of Rapp, as he preferred to be called, was his patience and the personable connections he made with everyone.

Rapp was famous for sponsoring Dairy Day at the Capitol’s Assembly Parlor on the third floor. One year, around 1986, I called Rapp over to a table holding many pounds of cheese on it. I was rolling my tape recorder when I asked him about which state had the best cheese? Of course, he said New York. I held up a block of cheese and asked him, then why do you have Wisconsin cheese here? He stammered a bit and couldn’t answer but he didn’t get mad and walk away. He continued to stay with the interview until I was finished with my quirky questions. That was the last time I saw Wisconsin cheese at the Capitol.

Rapp was a stock car driver in his early days and always enjoyed regaling anyone who would listen with stories about his racing days. By the time he entered politics and made his way to Albany as an assemblyman in 1973 he was so stocky he couldn’t even fit in one of the stock cars but he always had the memories.

pictured, Martin Agronsky (l), Rapp (center) and Marc Gronich (r)

pictured, journalist Martin Agronsky (left), Rapp (center) and Marc Gronich

During his time in politics he was famous for having an annual Lobsterfest and barbecue every August. Hundreds of Republican elected officials and wannabes flocked to Norwich, Chenango County, for the afternoon gathering. It was a fundraiser but also a fun-raiser and friend-raiser. A good time was always had by all. The event was always on the record and many political deals, arrangements and understandings emerged from the event.

Rapp was in failing health for the past five years. Among other ailments I was told that he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. I last saw Rapp at the Capitol a couple of years ago. He was walking with a cane and accompanied by his loyal and faithful assistant Barbara Vahue.

Tributes to Rapp came in early from state GOP chairman Ed Cox, current Republican Leader Brian Kolb (R – Canandaigua, Ontario County) and the leader of a prominent think tank in Albany.

Statement from Chairman Cox on the Passing of Clarence “Rapp” Rappleyea

“It is with a heavy heart, we grieve the loss of a true New York giant, Clarence “Rapp” Rappleyea.

“As a revered Leader of the Assembly Republican Conference, he inspired many, including myself, to get involved in state politics and government in the 1980’s and 1990’s, beginning by appointing me to the Court of Appeals Commission on Judicial Nomination. He was an integral part of establishing the Republican Party in New York as a party of principles. He will be remembered for his influence and collaboration with Party greats like Bill Powers, and transformative candidates like Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki. Under their leadership, they built an organization from a weak opposition party to a strong, governing Party under whom effective reforms brought good government to New York City and New York State.

“On behalf of the entire New York Republican Party, Tricia and I extend our deepest condolences to the Rappleyea family. He will be missed by all, but his legacy to the people of New York will never be forgotten.”

From Kolb:

Today we mourn the passing of one of New York’s most revered public servants, Clarence “Rapp” Rappleyea.

For more than two decades he served the Empire State with distinction, establishing himself as one of Albany’s true giants through his intellect, integrity and character.

During 12 years as Leader of the Assembly Republican Conference, he governed based on principle, rather than petty politics. He worked with all parties to create a better New York, and carried himself with an intelligent, selfless grace that every elected representative should emulate.

On behalf of the entire Assembly Republican Conference, I extend my deepest sympathies and heartfelt prayers to his family and loved ones.

“Rapp” was a colleague, friend and mentor to many, but he was an inspiration to all. He will forever be missed.

From Mark Hansen, former news director / reporter for WCHN radio in Norwich and now Director of Media Services, New York State Senate

I owe so much in my life to Rapp Rappleyea. In 1987, he gave me a chance and brought me from Norwich to Albany to work for him in the Assembly. That resulted in not just a career, but meeting my wife, making lifetime friends, and so much more. He was always upbeat, always had a kind word, was very down to earth, and had a great sense of humor. He was a tremendous leader. I saw him a couple years ago and took the opportunity to thank him for what he did for me. He smiled graciously, laughed and thanked me for helping him. Rapp will be missed. May he rest in peace.

From A. Wesley Jones, former news director / reporter for WCHN radio in Norwich and now chief dispatcher with the Chenango County Sheriff’s office and owner of Pinstripes Photography.

Proud to have grown up knowing and admiring this iconic figure in state politics who was respected by everyone regardless of their political affiliation. But beyond politics he was an even better person. A true gentleman. RIP, Rapp.

From EJ McMahon, who served as Rappleyea’s director of the Assembly Minority Ways and Means staff from 1991 to 1994. McMahon is president of the Empire Center for Public Policy.

Republicans never held more than 58 of the 150 seats in New York State Assembly during Clarence D. “Rapp” Rappleyea’s 12 years as their minority leader. Yet Rappleyea, who died Sunday at age 82, was among the most consequential New York State legislative leaders of the 20th century.

Going against the Albany grain, Rappleyea was able to unite his embattled minority behind a consistent and coherent policy agenda opposed to the fiscal profligacy of Governor Mario Cuomo.

It was easy enough for Republicans to embrace fiscal conservatism during the Reagan boom of the mid to late 1980s, when Cuomo managed to cut income tax rates even while boosting spending by record amounts. The acid test of Rappleyea’s position came during the last of Cuomo’s three terms, when a recession turned state budget surpluses into yawning gaps almost overnight.

Parting company with members of the Senate Republican majority, who chose the more expedient path of cutting deals with the governor, Rappleyea persuaded his conference to vote as a bloc against all of the recurring tax and spending hikes enacted under Cuomo between 1991 and 1994. Rapp stuck to his guns even after Democrats gerrymandered the Assembly minority down to as few as 49 seats in 1993.

Rappleyea saw to it that his members didn’t just say no to Cuomo: in each round of budget voting, they spelled out alternative spending plans in floor amendments to budget bills. Those amendments were routinely deemed “non-germane” by the majority—although the Assembly speakers of the period (Mel Miller, Saul Weprin and Sheldon Silver, respectively) hedged their political bets by allowing marginal upstate and suburban Democrats to vote with the Republicans.

Rapp’s one-liners could summarize the problems with Cuomo’s budgets more thoroughly than a lengthy fiscal memo.  “This isn’t a budget, it’s a buffet,” he said of one Cuomo spending plan.  And when Cuomo refinanced infrastructure to cover operating costs, Rappleyea commented: “You don’t mortgage the house to paint it.”

While calling for more fiscal restraint, Rapp and his members boosted their credibility by refusing to pursue pork barrel “member items” throughout Cuomo’s last term. Alone among legislative leaders, Rappleyea also opposed Cuomo’s 1992 “Jobs for the New New York” bond act proposal—an $800 million boondoggle that, in the end, was soundly rejected by voters.

Although Rapp’s professed goal was to elect a majority, he more realistically would have settled for moving the Republicans’ headcount up into the mid-60s. He didn’t come close to succeeding, but he did help lay the groundwork for the election of the first Republican governor in 20 years, George Pataki—an eight-year member of Rappleyea’s Assembly “farm team” who also served a single term in the Senate before defeating Cuomo in 1994.

Pataki’s administration was staffed largely with other veterans of Rappleyea’s Assembly team, and its most successful policies (including a historic personal income tax cut) came out of Rappleyea’s playbook. Indeed, if there had been no Minority Leader Rappleyea, there would have been no Governor Pataki.

To those who worked for or with him on either side of the aisle, Rapp will be remembered as unfailingly kind and generous—and as a leader whose integrity was as solid and enveloping as his handshake. Serving in the shadow of a nationally renowned liberal orator in the governor’s office, Rapp was in many ways the anti-Mario: born and raised in the small Chenango County city of Norwich, a once-thriving manufacturing town where he witnessed firsthand the impact of the state’s hostile business climate on Upstate New York, he was a shy public speaker who was gregarious among his colleagues and constituents. Free of the neurotic egotism that seems to afflict so many politicians, he was secure in his own skin, didn’t hold grudges, and consistently nurtured and promoted talent.

On the front of his desk, Rapp had mounted a two-man tree saw with the slogan “Keep Sawing Wood.” It exemplified his patient, steadfast persistence in pursuit of goals—and his spirit of selfless teamwork.

It’s been more than 20 years since Rapp left the Assembly, and the Legislature is in some ways more dysfunctional than it was during his heyday. When a figure like Clarence D. Rappleyea, Jr., passes from the scene, the cliché is to observe that we will not see the likes of him again. For the sake of New York’s future, here’s hoping we somehow do.

When Rappleyea left office in 1995, Republicans had 58 Assembly seats; they are down to 43 today.