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Democrats remember Basmajian’s contributions to politics

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MASSENA — The dean of St. Lawrence County Democrats 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 Mr. 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 kingmaker,” 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 a local businessman who owned Basmajian Real Estate, became active in politics when he was asked to take over the local Democratic chairmanship. That tenure lasted 50 years and earned him the Silas Wright Award for outstanding service from the St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee.

Mr. Basmajian was a man who knew political leaders not just locally, but on the national level, including the Kennedys, the Clintons, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. 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 L.) Carey also knew him,” former Massena Mayor Charles R. Boots 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 1970s, he worked on two successful campaigns for 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. 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.

“He was really my mentor from the time I entered politics, especially during the ’80s and ’90s,” Mr. Dawson said. “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.”

Calling hours for Mr. Basmajian will be from 7 to 9 tonight and from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Phillips Memorial Home. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday at St. John’s Episcopal Church with the Rev. Kathryn M. Boswell officiating.

“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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