For Patrick Ungaro, politics was an honorable endeavor

Through the years, we have supported candidates for public office, only to regret our decision either because of their venality or incompetence. Not so, Patrick Ungaro, who to his very last day on earth remained for us a beacon of honesty and hope in a sea of public corruption that has long defined the Mahoning Valley.

Ungaro died Saturday morning after a battle with cancer. He was 78.

We fondly recall his many meetings with The Vindicator Editorial Board during his tenure as Youngstown’s 3rd Ward councilman and his record-setting 14 years as mayor of the ever-changing and challenging city. We kept in touch with him during his 17 years as administrator of Liberty Township.

To be sure, our unwavering support for Ungaro stemmed from the fact that he strongly believed in the important watchdog role this newspaper has played over its 150-year history.

Indeed, the Democratic officeholder’s decision to do battle with the Mafia, which long had a foothold in local governments in the Valley, was prompted, in part, by our own declaration of war against the mob in our news pages, our editorials and columns.

The Vindicator also was a strong partner with Ungaro in his controversial campaign to rid downtown Youngstown of the long-standing eyesores and to persuade state government to invest millions of dollars in the cleanup of the central business district and the construction of office buildings on main street.

It’s no accident that the names to two Republican governors, the late George V. Voinovich and Robert A. Taft, adorn two of the newest buildings downtown.

Although he was a Democrat, Ungaro was a rebel in the finest sense of the word. He battled fiercely with the Mahoning County Democratic Party leadership, headed by the long-time chairman, the late Don L. Hanni Jr., and was a harsh critic of the most powerful Democratic officeholder in the recent history of the Valley, the late Congressman James A. Traficant Jr.

Again, he found common cause with this newspaper, which opined on many occasions that Hanni and Traficant epitomized the corrupt politicians who manage to hold on to the reins of power year after year.

Economic transformation

But Ungaro’s legacy goes beyond politics. He had a keen sense of how an old industrial region like the Valley, with its myriad rusting edifices from its manufacturing past, could be transformed into an active participant in the new, technologically driven economy.

As a first step, he launched a brownfields reclamation program that subsequently became the foundation for state and federal legislation.

Ungaro was able to attract dollars from Columbus and Washington to tear down old steel mills, rid the land of pollutants and create industrial parks that attracted new businesses and industries.

His economic development initiatives resulted in plants, warehouses and a prison being built on parcels of land that once boasted huge factories.

In all, 5,000 jobs were created in the city under his watch, and the revitalization of North Star Steel set the stage for Vallourec, the multinational French company, to invest more than $1 billion in the construction of a steel-making complex on land straddling the cities of Youngstown and Girard.

As the chief executive officer of the city of Youngstown, the former public school educator created the template for downsizing government.

Here’s what we said in an editorial marking his last day as mayor on Dec. 31, 1997:

“Ungaro took over a bloated city administration at a time when revenues were shrinking and the city’s reported unemployment rate was 27 percent. Over the years, he cut a city payroll of 1,500 to 850.”

Pat Ungaro understood that an administration could easily be derailed by people in positions of power. Thus, he had as his closest advisers two individuals who served with distinction and honesty: Finance Director Gary Kubic and Law Director Edwin Romero.

Kubic and Romero were the gatekeepers who turned away individuals who long had unfettered access to City Hall.

Police Chief Randall Wellington was the buffer between the administration and organized crime figures.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ungaro was Enemy No. 1 as far as the Mafia was concerned.

During his years as Liberty Township administrator, Ungaro worked closely with the trustees in launching numerous economic development and community improvement projects, such as the upgrading of Belmont Avenue.

His dedication to public service never waned, even when illness slowed him down.

Patrick J. Ungaro showed us that politics can be an honorable calling.

Rest in peace, our friend.