THIS GARRULOUS FORMER ASSEMBLYMAN CONTINUES TO SERVE HIS COMMUNITY FROM HIS POST AT STATEN ISLAND UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL NORTHWELL HEALTH, AS WELL AS THROUGH CHARITABLE ORGANIZATIONS
BY JENNIFER VIKSE • PHOTOS BY AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
“Merry Christmas!” Chances are, if you hear that greeting in, say, July, you’re about to encounter Lou Tobacco. This is a man who loves that holiday so much that he’s made it part of his signature salutation all year long.
“Everyone who knows me knows I greet someone 365 days a year whether I know them or not with ‘Merry Christmas.’ That’s my thing,” he said.
Tobacco may be 46, but he will forever be a joyful kid at heart. He represented Staten Island’s South Shore in the New York Assembly for six years, and is now the associate executive director of government affairs at Staten Island University Hospital Northwell Health, where he works closely with John Demoleas on all community relations, development, marketing, and government affairs for the hospital.
Tobacco’s life is the stuff of Staten Island success stories; he had hardworking parents, and doors opened because of his enthusiasm, hunger, and a passion for helping others. He was raised in Sunnyside, the youngest of three children (he has a sister, Gina, and a brother, Dominic) of a New York City cop and a secretary mom, who raised her family while commuting into Manhattan for work.
“My parents sacrificed. They made sure we were prepared for life. It was a great example that they set, that work ethic,” Tobacco said.
“I come from a tight family,” he further explained, adding that his maternal grandparents lived just a few blocks away. “My grandparents had a big influence on me. I’m an old soul,” he said, laughing about how his friends would tease him over his love for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
As a kid, Tobacco recalled with a chuckle, he wanted to be either “the Pope or the President of the United States.” While he didn’t reach those goals, he landed somewhere in between. He said he learned a lot about civics and leadership in the Boy Scouts. At 11, he was working on a merit badge and wrote a letter about transportation on the Island to then U.S. Congressman Guy Molinari. At the time, he had no idea how that letter would change his life.
“He returned my letter by calling me,” recalled Tobacco. “He invited me down to his office. That had a major impact on me meeting Mr. Molinari at a very young age and having a dialogue about a local issue. Next thing I know, I interned for him in Congress, then worked for him at Borough Hall.” During that time, Tobacco got valuable experience on a range of local issues, including the one way toll on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and closing the Fresh Kills land fill.
Tobacco also worked on Molinari’s political campaigns, discovering an affinity for that kind of work. He later volunteered for the campaigns of Susan Molinari, George Pataki, and Rudy Giuliani.
“I knew in my heart that I wanted to serve my community,” said the graduate of Monsignor Farrell High School, who went to SUNY Albany and interned for Staten Island Assemblyman Robert Straniere, devoting his efforts to his home turf.
At just 24, Tobacco ran in his first campaign, against Assemblyman Eric Vitaliano. He won close to 40 percent of the vote, when no Republican before him had managed to capture more than 19 percent. Although he didn’t win, it was a successful campaign, and Tobacco walked away feeling that he’d begun to make a name for himself.
While continuing to stay current on Island politics, Tobacco moved on to pharmaceutical sales. Then came the chance to run for State Assembly from the South Shore. He jumped at it.
Tobacco served in the Assembly for three two year terms. While there, he focused on educating youth about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke through his program called Tobacco Against Tobacco. “I had a powerful presentation that I gave to the students,” he said. “Kids introduce themselves to me now and say, ‘I never thought about touching a cigarette because of that program.’
Tobacco admits that smoking is one of his pet peeves. “A lot of things are out of our control,” he said. “There are illnesses we can’t prevent. With smoking, you’re inviting illness.”
While in the Assembly, he also worked to increase awareness of autism and other developmental disabilities. He hosted Staten Island’s first ever Autism Awareness Forum, and recruited the help of Dr. Saidi Clemente. He also sponsored and helped pass several bills to promote developmental disability awareness and provide support for families affected by autism and other challenges.
After three terms, Tobacco decided not to seek reelection, choosing to stay on Staten Island full time with his growing family. Today, he and his wife of 20 years, Jennifer, have four children: Madison, 16; Christian, 13; and 8 year old twins, Luke and Ella.
“I was torn,” he confessed. “Between love of my community and the need to be an active and present part of my children’s lives. I didn’t feel it was fair to my wife, and it wasn’t fair to me to miss out on the good memories.”
Tobacco elected to join Staten Island University Hospital as director of surgical business development, which allowed him to work closely with the physicians he had come to know during his days in pharmaceuticals while serving the community in a new way. These days, he serves the hospital now Staten Island University Hospital North well Health as its associate executive director for government affairs. In that role, he works closely with the Island’s elected officials, potential donors and the board, and co-chairs the hospital’s Bocce, Golf & Tennis Outing.
A typical day could have him working on a range of issues, small and large, from managing the turkeys that live on the hospital property to securing funding for one of its many new investments: larger operating rooms, birthing suites, or the new cancer center.
“One of the proudest things [in my time at SIUH] was that we secured $40 million in FEMA money for hazard mitigation projects of the power plant at the North Site,” Tobacco said. While helping a major hospital that happens to be in a flood zone might seem like a no brainer, he had to educate many in government about why this project was in the best interests of the borough.
Phil Mancuso, board chairman of the SIUH Foundation, said he’s known Tobacco for four years that they instantly bonded when they met because they share an intense dedication to the community. “Lou has an unparalleled focus on serving Staten Island broadly and Staten Island University Hospital specifically,” Mancuso said. “That dedication is infectious.”
Tobacco also serves as chairman of the Joseph Maffeo Foundation’s Casino Night and is active in the alumni association at Monsignor Farrell High School.
“I’m like that cousin who sells Amway,” he joked. “If you sit next me long enough, it’s going to cost you thousands in charitable donations.
”Keith Manfredi, who serves on the foundation’s board, has worked closely with Tobacco. Established in memory of a Staten Island firefighter who perished on 9/11, its mission is to support individuals and organizations in need of financial assistance, in part via scholarship awards.
“He immediately showed interest in the Joseph Maffeo Foundation and inquired about how he could get more involved,” Manfredi recalled. “I was impressed with his passion and drive, and knew early on in our relationship that we would not only become good friends, but also work well together.
”For the past two years, Tobacco has been the committee chairperson for the foundation’s annual Casino Night fundraiser. “He and I constantly brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other regarding the development of the charity and how it might reach deeper into our community,”
Manfredi said. “Since he joined with us, we’ve stepped up our game tremendously, and have broken revenue records the past two years. He has enabled the foundation to attract new committee members, as well as the interest of young professionals, giving us a more diverse and professional platform to work from, and with. Staten Island is a much better place because of Lou. I’m proud to call him my friend.”
While Tobacco decided to give up the Assembly to be closer to his family, his schedule can still get crazy. “Sometimes I wonder if I became busier after I left the Assembly,” he said. “My wife and I have family first priorities. I spend a lot of time with them. I really make it a point: Every evening I get out to Tottenville to hug and kiss them and talk about their day.”
The family has kept many of the traditions he grew up with, including going to church together and then having a relaxed Sunday dinner. For him, these reserved times are vital. Every Christmas, Tobacco also sets up his Lionel trains and “Department 56 City.” And he makes jokes constantly. “I’m never going to grow up. I take what I do seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. I love to kid around. I cant help it. I bust chops. I want everyone smiling, laughing.”
Tobacco added that he feels privileged to be a part of the SIUH Northwell Team and to use his skills at relationship building to make the hospital and its impact greater than ever. “I build strong relationships. I think people trust me. I love to smile and laugh. I love helping others.”
Mancuso summed it up: “Lou does not have a commitment to many causes, just one: Staten Island.”
For big kid Tobacco, laughter is an important part of the equation; finding time to smile and laugh is not a luxury, it’s a must. “ e most useless day is that in which we have not taken time to laugh,” he mused. “We can’t take the time we have here for granted. We can’t control everything. But we can control a smile and a laugh.”
Looking to the future, Tobacco understands that while he may not know exactly what comes next, he does know it will be leadership driven and will involve getting people “to rally around a cause. Anything that I will be involved with,” he said, “it has to be helping others.”
Staten Island University Hospital / Northwell Health
475 Sea view Avenue / 718.226.9000 / northwell.edu