Abate, former Downtown senator & health advocate, dies

Catherine Abate last fall during a fundraising cruise for a new holistic health clinic at Community Healthcare Network’s 150 Essex St. location.
Catherine Abate last fall during a fundraising cruise for a new holistic health clinic at Community Healthcare Network’s 150 Essex St. location.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  | Catherine Abate, president and C.E.O. of Community Healthcare Network for the past 15 years, former state senator representing the Village and Tribeca, and Dinkins administration commissioner of the city Departments of Correction and Probation, died May 17 at Bellevue Hospital. She was 66.

Her death came after a two-year battle with uterine cancer. In addition to conventional medical care, she underwent alternative holistic treatment that extended her quality of life, she told Downtown Express last year.

Her life and work in public service was an inspiration to people who followed her in government, nonprofit service and health agencies and labor groups.

“It’s a terrible, terrible loss,” Assemblymember Deborah Glick said Monday. “She was a totally wonderful person, with no self-aggrandizing attitude, which is fairly unique in politics. Just a good, kind, thoughtful policymaker, who reached out to people everywhere and did as much as she could to help those who had nothing. It’s really too upsetting,” Glick said, her voice catching with emotion. “She’s going to be very missed by a lot of people.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed Abate as a dedicated public servant and a passionate advocate for human rights.

“I fondly remember working together with her in 1989 as founding members of Italian-Americans for Dinkins,” the mayor said. “She never shied from a good cause and a good fight.”

State Sen. Brad Hoylman — whose 27th District seat Abate held for two terms from 1995 to 1999 — said the community “has lost one of our most dedicated, talented and thoughtful public servants.”

Tony Hoffmann, president of Village Independent Democrats and a friend and colleague, called Abate one of the best public servants that New York City ever had.

“She got her political start at V.I.D. where she was female district leader from 1981 to 1985,” Hoffmann said. “It was my privilege to serve with her as co-district leader. She was one of the brightest, most caring and competent people I have ever known.”

City Comptroller Scott Stringer recalled that as commissioner of the departments of Correction and Probation, Abate addressed the city’s high recidivism rates by establishing job-training programs and education opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. She also instituted measures to control jail overcrowding and reduce inmate violence.

During her tenure at the Community Healthcare Network, she more than tripled the number of people that it served annually, from about 20,000 to 75,000. About 80 percent of C.H.N patients are on Medicaid or are not insured.

She was also a supporter of VillageCare, the nonprofit agency that has many clients living with H.I.V./AIDS. 

During her two terms in the State Senate, Abate “was a firewall” against AIDS funding cuts to the state budget, according to Paul Schindler, editor of Gay City News, a sister publication of Downtown Express.

Catherine Abate graduated cum laude from Vassar College and earned a law degree from Boston College. Her first job was with the Legal Aid Society in New York City where, as director of training in the society’s criminal defense division, she taught criminal law and procedure and litigation practice to new lawyers.

In 1986, Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed her executive deputy commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights. In 1988, she was named chairperson of the state Crime Victims Board.

In 1992, when Mayor Dinkins named her to head the Correction and Probation departments, reporters asked her about allegations that her father, Joseph Abate, was an organized crime figure. She dismissed the allegations and said her father was a clothing manufacturer in Margate, N.J., where she was raised.

The allegation that Joseph Abate was a capo in the Lucchese crime family surfaced again in 1998, when Catherine was seeking the Democratic Party nomination for state attorney general against Eliot Spitzer. At that time she dropped her denial of the allegations, although she said she could not substantiate the charge because her father died in 1994 with dementia at the age of 92.

“The allegations don’t describe the father that I knew,” she said in 1998.

Abate also served as a member of the New York City Commission on H.I.V./AIDS, the state Community Health Care Association, the Alliance for Women’s Health, the steering committee of Medicaid Matters New York, the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, the state Probation Commission, the New York City Board of Corrections and as co-chairperson of the Business and Labor Coalition of New York.

Her husband, Ronald Kliegerman, her son, Kyle Kliegerman, and her brother, Joseph Abate, survive.

Frank E. Campbell, 1076 Madison Ave., is in charge of arrangements. A Mass of Christian burial is scheduled for Thurs., May 21, at St. John Baptiste Church, E. 76th St. at Lexington Ave. Donations in her memory may be made to Community Healthcare Network, 60 Madison Ave., fifth floor, NY, NY, 10010, designated for Holistic Center.