Sea Cliff Village Trustee and Deputy Mayor Elena Villafane will become the next mayor on April 5. Despite running unopposed, she garnered 826 votes on March 16.
“I’m so excited,” Villafane said. “I’m humbled that that many people came out and voted for me when they didn’t have to . . . I really hope that I can use everything that I’ve got to give back and move forward.”
Villafane, 62, is the eldest of four daughters of Lynn Smollen, a native of the Rockaways, and José Villafane, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean island of Saint Croix with his family when he was 8. Having spent most of her childhood in Bayside, Elena graduated from Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica, Queens, in 1976.
She studied political science and business at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. But her family life changed drastically during her junior year, when her aunt and uncle, who lived in Sea Cliff and had four sons, both died of cancer within a year and a half. Elena’s mother was named the boys’ legal guardian, and her family relocated to the village in 1978.
That gave her a glimpse of what makes Sea Cliff special, Villafane said, as villagers helped her family during a difficult time. Other residents, she said, were constantly asking if there was anything they could do to help, offering car rides, cooking meals or providing emotional support.
“It’s really what Sea Cliff is,” Villafane said. “It’s a community that rallies around families and steps forward to help each other.”
She graduated from Mount Saint Vincent in 1980, and enrolled in Albany Law School. She has always been a problem solver, she said, and the essence of practicing law is helping people stay protected as they solve problems. She also met Dan Kelly in Albany, and they married in 1983, right around the time she received her law degree.
While she and Kelly were deciding whether to stay in Albany or live on Long Island, Villafane came home to ask Francis Deegan, her parents’ attorney and a former mayor of Sea Cliff, about the job market for lawyers in the area. After she went on a few interviews, Deegan hired her to join his firm, where she stayed until it split in 1994. At that point, Deegan started his own firm with his children, and Villafane stayed with his other two partners, forming a firm that became known as Polin, Prisco & Villafane.
Villafane and Kelly moved to Glen Cove in 1984, and relocated to Locust Valley to start a family two years later. Their first daughter, Taryn, was born in 1988 and their second, Dylan, was born in 1991. They finally settled in Sea Cliff in 1993.
Looking beyond the law
Villafane’s first venture into public service came in 2003, when Eileen Krieb, a good friend and a Sea Cliff village trustee, became mayor, which gave her the chance to appoint a new member of the board to take her seat. Villafane told Krieb she would love to join, not only to serve the village she loved so much, but to do it alongside a friend from whom she could learn much about serving the community.
“This is something I’ve grown up with my whole life,” Villafane said. “In my family, you’ve got to pay your ticket for being here. You have much to be grateful for, so pay up, basically. It’s a real family philosophy.”
Krieb chose Villafane, and when her term was up, she was reelected in 2004 and 2006. She decided not to run again in 2008, however, with a busy law practice and teenage daughters required extra attention.
She returned to the board in 2014 under then mayor and current village administrator Bruce Kennedy. She wanted to run again in 2016, but that plan changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer that January. She was lucky to catch it early, she said, and underwent chemotherapy from February to June before having surgery that summer. As of this month, she has been cancer-free for five years.
Villafane was re-elected to the board in 2019, under Mayor Edward Lieberman. Over the course of her tenure as trustee, she has been part of several renovation and revitalization projects, and helped plan new and recurring village events. She has also been at the forefront of the community’s fight for municipal water and the successful implementation and planned expansion of the Sea Cliff sewer project, and has worked to help the village recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
She has also served as the board’s liaison to the village Fire Department. Chief William Koopmann said that Villafane has played a vital role in the department’s success in recent years, pursuing state grants that have allowed it to update its equipment and renovate the firehouse’s exterior. Koopmann believes she will bring the passion that she has for ensuring the department’s success to the mayor’s office, to the benefit of the entire village.
“She’s very well-liked in the village, in the community, and she’s going to do a very good job,” Koopmann said.
The top job
Running for mayor was the next logical step in her public service career, Villafane said, having served on the board for so long and been appointed deputy mayor twice.
“I felt that I really had the underpinning to understand the ins and outs of budgeting and liaison work and what the various departments need,” she said. “I think there’s some really big work that’s coming up in front of us, and I wanted to be in a leadership spots to help move us through the next stage.”
Lieberman said that Villafane benefits from the experience of working with three different mayors. He appointed her deputy mayor last September, he said, because of that experience, as well as her ability as an attorney and her vision for Sea Cliff’s future — qualities that will help her succeed as mayor, Lieberman said.
“She brings with her not only her legal expertise but the vast experience in governing and, specifically, the needs and welfare of our residents,” he said.
Lieberman said he was excited to watch Villafane become the face of Sea Cliff as it fights for the municipalization of its water district. He added that he was confident that she would ably oversee the purchasing of New York American Water’s former property, at 325 Prospect Ave., and help turn it into a recreational and cultural center for the community. Finally, Lieberman said he had faith in her ability to lead the village through the pandemic and help it revitalize its economy.
“She knows how to run it — she knows how to lead,” Kennedy said. “There’s really no learning curve for her. She’s hitting the road running.”
Villafane said that serving the village she loves is her chief priority. She has had a wonderful life, much of which can be attributed to her time in Sea Cliff, she said, and she hopes she can use her role as mayor to help others find the same happiness.