Pat Ungaro reflects on life as Youngstown mayor


By Samantha Phillips

sphillips@vindy.com

LIBERTY

A 1983 Vindicator article about then-Youngstown Mayor-elect Patrick Ungaro described him this way:

“He is not eloquent; he sounds less like a politician than the Rayen School football coach he once was. Yet, he is straightforward and convincing.”

The article, titled “Ungaro hopes to cure ‘neurosis’ on city’s woes,” continues to say Ungaro sought to turn around Youngstown’s image by restoring public confidence in public officials.

Over the course of his 14 years as mayor, Ungaro sought to do just that.

Ungaro, 78, retired from his last political position – part-time Liberty administrator – in June due to an illness.

Sitting in a cozy room of his home, with a large window providing a view of nature and a collage of family photos hanging nearby, he reflected on his career.

He spoke softly yet with intensity.

Yes, he’d do it all over again, he said with a chuckle.

“You have to know what you want to do, and let your heart guide you,” he said, noting his outlook on politics was the same as his outlook as football coach. “You know what’s right and what’s wrong, and you stick to that.

“You have to love it, too.”

TAKING ON CRIME

Ungaro gained fame as the Youngstown Democratic mayor who railed against organized crime and spurred economic development in the city in the 1980s and 1990s, not long after the death of the Mahoning Valley’s steel industry.

He shook up the city’s administration, by hiring a new police chief, Randall Wellington, and a new board of control including Gary Kubic as finance director and Edwin Romero as law director.

“I think I changed the politics. I didn’t cave into anyone, including the mob,” he said.

The mob, at the time, was in every facet of the community, he said. He replaced corrupt city officials who were taking bribes and cracked down on mobsters operating their businesses illegally.

“I turned out to be right when everyone went to prison,” Ungaro said.

The FBI took Ungaro and Wellington into their confidence while investigating Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, a mob boss, and others.

Strollo was arrested in 1997 in an ongoing investigation of gambling and public corruption. That same year, Ed Flask, then-Mahoning Valley Sanitary District director, was fired after an audit revealed he benefited personally and professionally from his position, receiving nearly $1.9 million in consulting fees from MVSD vendors.

A couple of years later, after a four-year investigation that was bolstered by testimony from Strollo, then-Mahoning County Sheriff Phil Chance pleaded guilty to bribery and extortion charges. Also in 1999, a jury convicted Commissioner Frank Lordi of theft in office and violating state ethics statutes.

“Organized crime, at that time, was a pressure, and they always had their way. They always would get a piece of whatever they wanted. It’s very simple: I gave them nothing,” he added.

Ungaro testified at a congressional hearing on organized crime in Washington, D.C., as mayor. As the testimony gained national attention, precautions were taken to ensure his safety. When he arrived at his hotel, an employee took him to a room different than the one on the reservation list.

FOCUS ON FAMILY

This resistance against organized crime came at a price.

In an era in which enemies of the mob, including two city prosecutors, were targeted with car bombings (known as a “Youngstown tune-up”), Ungaro feared for his family.

“I had to worry about my kids,” he said. “It’s crazy; you leave a restaurant, and you worry that someone’s going to blow your head off.”

Ungaro’s wife of more than 30 years, Theresa Ungaro, still gets teary-eyed thinking about those times.

“We were scared to start our car,” she said. “He was so deep into it, he had all these people like Wellington that the mob didn’t want in office, so when he would go to work as mayor, I would just stand in the kitchen and wait for him to start it.”

Theresa and Pat are still amused by how some people were scraping for dirt on him during those times.

A frequent rumor had Pat cheating on her during his tenure as mayor.

At one point, after they ate together at McDonald’s, reports came out that Pat had eaten and left with another woman.

What the rumor-mongers didn’t know: Theresa had just changed her hair color.

“It’s been interesting and scary at times,” she said, noting she spent about a month encouraging Pat to run for mayor when he was a 3rd Ward city councilman.

“I felt based on his political experience, and because he was an honest man, that he would do the right thing,” Theresa said.

Under Ungaro’s administration, police raided businesses owned by mobsters and destroyed more than 100 illegal poker slot machines.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Another highlight of Ungaro’s tenure was his emphasis on economic development in Youngstown.

It’s a concept he carried with him when he assumed the position of administrator in Liberty, where he helped revitalize Belmont Avenue.

A 1985 Vindicator article details the Youngstown City Council allowing Ungaro to seize 1,200 city lots, and to demolish dilapidated downtown buildings and vacant houses in residential areas.

The Community Investment Corp. was given downtown properties to develop. The move was met with push- back because of the cost of acquiring the properties.

He helped bring buildings such as the George Voinovich Government Center downtown.

Another move initially met with skepticism was the city’s purchase of abandoned steel industrial sites. Grants were acquired to clean the brownfield sites, which included the former U.S. Steel plant.

In a 2005 Vindicator article reflecting on the city’s brownfield redevelopment and industrial diversification efforts, Ungaro said, “I got a lot of criticism at the time, but those sites have generated a lot of cash for the city. We didn’t wait for something to happen. The key for us was to buy the land and work the development after that.”

Some had hoped the steel mills would come back to the Valley, but Ungaro pressed forward.

“The needs of this city are overwhelming ... but the most important thing about buying these vacant buildings or buildings that really aren’t used much is that we are going to aim our efforts at creating jobs,” he said in a 1985 article.

Son Eric Ungaro looks back on his father’s career proudly.

“We are just proud that he represented the people of this area and our family with honesty, humility and integrity,” he said.

Longtime Vindicator editorial page Editor Bertram de Souza said this of Ungaro’s tenure: “It was Ungaro, who launched the revitalization of downtown Youngstown. It would have been so easy for him and the two leading members of his Cabinet to cross over to the dark side. But they walked the straight and narrow.

“It was a tenure defined by a word that is under assault in city government today: honesty.”

Back at home, as Theresa spoke about Pat’s career, she kissed his forehead and said, “I’m real proud of you, bud.”

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