Theresa Scavo is taller than I thought (about 5’9” in heels), and without the granny glasses she wears in her store posters, she looks a decade younger. I’m waiting for her at a rear table in a neighborhood restaurant and as she walks toward me, she is stopped by well-wishers at almost every other table who shake her hand and wish her good luck. She greets me with a smile and a firm handshake, but not too firm. She apologizes for being late and I remind her that she is actually 10 minutes early for our appointment. “For me, that’s late,” she says, and we both laugh. I take note of her hair (blonde and straight back in a ponytail) and her nails, her jewelry, pocketbook and other accessories. Everything is tasteful but not showy. I ask her age, and she responds without hesitation, “I’m 61.”
You’re not shy about revealing your age.
TS: Well, you did say it was a full disclosure interview. She smiles easily—no trace of nerves even though this is her first major interview.
Theresa, you are very well liked and respected in the Sephardic community. How did that come about?
TS: That is one of the things that I’m most proud of. My campaign is a diverse one with Americans of all backgrounds. I have gotten support from the Russian-American community, the black community, Asian, Pakistani, Turkish and many other communities in the 48th Councilmatic District. My life has been spent in this District. Dr. Edward Sutton and his family have been lifelong friends, and we remember with pride when he was president of the Sephardic Voters League. Ronald Tawil, who sits as a member of my community board, has been a friend and mentor for many years, and his wisdom has been a lantern of light leading the way for so many of us.
I fought alongside my Sephardic neighbors in extending the variances for the Sephardic homes on Ocean Parkway, which proved to be such an important victory for Orthodox families. I worked with the Holocaust Committee to have the memorial built in Manhattan Beach. To me, it is very fitting that the first interview I’m giving for this campaign be featured in IMAGE Magazine, the clarion publication for the Sephardic community whose values and aspirations I’m proud to share.
Where were you born and raised? Tell me about your family.
TS: I’m a Brooklyn girl through and through. We originally lived on Ocean Parkway near Avenue W, and the first school I attended was Our Lady of Grace. My parents, Frances and Louis Molino, had three children, and I was the middle child. My brother passed away at a very early age. My dad was a builder, a master at construction, who branched out into real estate. I can walk through the neighborhood where I’m running for office and see houses that he built, and bought and sold. My father was my hero, and is to this day.
You mentioned Our Lady of Grace. Where else did you go to school?
TS: Well, from OLG, I went to St. Edmund’s High School; I attended Hunter College where I received my B.S. I received a Master’s in Psychology at Richmond College.
How would you rate your Catholic education compared to the public schools that children attend today?
TS: I will always thank my primary teachers for providing the foundation to help me evaluate what was right and what was wrong.
Do you have fond memories of your childhood?
TS: I loved growing up in Brooklyn. Our block was an extended family. Everyone knew each other. We played together; we laughed together; and we cried together. There was an idyllic sense of serenity knowing that friendly eyes of surrogate parents were watching out for our safety.
Why don’t you tell us something about your family?
TS: Well, before, I said that my dad was my hero. I was fortunate to have another hero—my husband, Anthony. Anthony’s father worked for my dad in construction, and that’s how we met. He is my best friend, my confidante, and my rock. Anthony is an executive with a major corporation, and he has supported everything I have ever done. We have two children, Anthony and Tara. Anthony Jr. is an engineer, and he works for a building developer; Tara is a Senior Attorney with the Federal Government in Washington, DC.
What was your first job?
TS: I went into teaching, which I enjoyed immensely. But I found myself missing my own small children. Like many mothers, bringing in a paycheck had to be balanced by losing time with the children. Fortunately for me, I came up with an idea that would enable me to be near my children and earn a living. My father had a friend in retail jewelry and through another friend of my father’s, we were able to secure a space in Ceasar’s Bay Bazaar—and that was my original store, Fantasia where I was able to make my own hours.
How did you go from owning a successful business to becoming Chairperson of Community Board 15?
TS: Interestingly enough, I loved Fantasia. What I loved most about it was that it gave me the opportunity to meet people, hear what was on their minds and thoroughly educate myself about the community and how my neighbors felt about the important issues of the day. Out of those customer contacts, I felt a stirring of old memories regarding the neighborhood where I grew up. I reached the conclusion—and it really was one of those “Eureka” moments—when I realized that if I and my neighbors wanted to preserve our values, our morality and our beliefs, we all needed to stand together and fight for a better future for everyone. So to achieve my goals,I began attending community meetings; I joined the High-Way Democratic Club and became its vice president; I served as an executive on the 61st Precinct Community Council; I am the second vice-chair of the Coney Island Hospital Advisory Board; a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Board and I took courses on emergency response and I was certified to be part of the Community Emergency Response Team; and finally in 1999, I was appointed as a Member of Community Board 15. I have been the unpaid chairperson of our local community board which acts as liaison between the community and the various government agencies that affect our lives since 2006.
So, you received no salary from any of your public service activities?
TS: No, the personal satisfaction is much greater than any kind of monetary compensation, and I’m pleased that I’m in a position to do that.
Theresa, I’m told that you had a big scare about two years ago. Do you want to talk about that?
TS: Yes, I do. I refer to it as the Wake-up Call. One moment, I was working with our elected officials to lower the homeowners’ taxes in our area, and the next minute I was in an ambulance fighting for my life. Like so many other people, I ignored all the warnings and smoked like a chimney. My eating habits suffered, and I qualified for “couch potato in chief.” Wonderful doctors, dear friends and the prayers of so many people pulled me through.
I was determined not to let this second chance go to waste. In fact, I remember thinking to myself about running for higher office so that I could leave the world a little better place. It strengthened my resolve to be the voice for the voiceless, and the champion for the defenseless.
Have you been slowed down by your illness?
TS: Just the opposite. I started eating the right foods. I quit smoking, cold turkey. And I exercise more than I ever thought possible. In fact, when I visit buildings and go door-to-door, when we walk through neighborhoods, when the clock winds down on another 16 hour day, my 19 and 20 year old campaign volunteers are looking for a chair to rest their weary bones and I’m turning around a block ahead, still full of steam.
I want you to give me short answers—the first thing that pops into your mind.
TS: People tossing garbage out of their car windows.
What puts a smile on your face?
TS: Babies and animals
Your best quality
TS: Honesty and loyalty
Your worst quality
TS: I can’t stop myself from fighting if I know I’m right.
If and when you are elected, do you have anything that you feel very strongly about that you would like to see accomplished?
TS: I would spend time working toward female veteran equality. Female service members seem to have been short-changed in terms of benefits and recognition. Like their male counterparts, they have left children and families behind. I would like to make sure that their return to the states affords them the same benefits which are justly deserved by our male service people and I would fight to improve the quality of life for all the neighborhoods.
Let’s talk about the campaign. You have four young men running against you. What are you going to do to get elected?
TS: Well, outside of gender, the four of them already have demonstrated that they are not ready for prime time. The four are very similar. They lack the experience and maturity needed for the job. Not one of the four has ever owned a business. None of them has been exposed to the New York City educational system. Not one of them has ever been responsible for meeting a payroll. Each one of them has spent years working for a politician. Being on a politician’s staff is probably the worst way to acquaint yourself with the everyday dealings and happenings of the community. Their job boils down to doing and saying anything the politician requires to get himself elected and, unfortunately in too many cases, getting elected is the only real thing that some of our politicians are interested in. As most of us know, earning a living, paying taxes, educating kids, and raising a family look a lot different when you’re doing it, compared to viewing the world behind the desk of a political office.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how you intend to win?
TS: I have the great fortune of having Democratic political genius, Hank Sheinkopf, running my campaign. I have the support of the High-Way Democratic Club and its hundreds of members and affiliates, and District Leader, Pearl Siegelman; dedicated friends, family and most important is the love, support, intelligence and dedication of my number one supporter, Anthony Scavo, who believes in me and shares my vision. I look forward when I’m Councilperson to working hand-in-hand with this community and together providing our children with a life even better than the one we live today.
By E. Kim Grell