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Victor L. Robles: City Clerk Is Single, But No Wet Blanket On Love


July 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

LOVE and marriage never did perform a horse-and-carriage dovetail for New York's city clerk, Victor L. Robles, whose office opposite City Hall churns out 70,000 marriage licenses each year and is host to 40,000 nuptials in its revamped chapels of love. He is divorced and shuns remarriage despite being surrounded by starry-eyed couples who haunt the hallway outside his office waiting to be hitched officially. "I'm a bachelor now and I intend to stay that way until the day I die," he states, his cuff links and golden apple tie tack twinkling.

But except for the half-dozen unsentimental entrepreneurs arrested last week after he blew the whistle on them for accumulating marriage licenses and selling their spousal services to men in search of green card benefits, he's no wet blanket on love. Many civil ceremonies are conducted by Mr. Robles himself in front of a bouquet of fake flowers and his favorite stained-glass window, the one depicting a dove of peace. When the formalities are finished, he even tells a joke, and always hands the marriage certificate to the bride for safekeeping. An elected official for two decades before his appointment as city clerk, he knows a little bit about keeping the clientele happy.

"I didn't survive 23 years as an elected official because I'm cute," exclaims Mr. Robles, lost in the depths of his leather armchair at One Centre Street, where he prefers working the counter in the records department – he likes to mingle – to holing up in his office. "Usually they get sick of electing you after 10 years. But I worked for the little people. And I'm doing the same thing now. I'm not some bureaucrat pulling in the big salary and doing nothing: I'm earning my stripes."

He says he makes around $155,000 a year and keeps his office immaculate: fresh flowers on the desktops, cork coasters on the conference table. "My mother taught me to be neat," he says, eying her photograph with reverence.

A career politician who counts Gilbert Ramirez and Shirley Chisholm as his professional parents and, just as fervently, a son whose fondest wish is to be buried next to his mother in Puerto Rico, Mr. Robles finally moved out of her house in Brooklyn to marry at 40 but was divorced, tempestuously, at 50. He is, he says, still recovering from it, bunking in Brooklyn with his nephew's family, and vowing, at 58, to stay solo.

Marriage was, for him, the single negative blip of his life; he suspects, in hindsight, that it was doomed because he could not put his bride ahead of his constituency. Or ahead of his mother, Aurea M. Blanco, a community activist in Williamsburg: she used him as her translator at neighborhood meetings and protests the minute he learned to argue in English. His rhetoric reached the ear of Mr. Ramirez, and through him he met Ms. Chisholm, and spent 10 years working for her in Washington. He and Ms. Chisholm, who coaxed him into running for office on his own, still chat monthly on the phone.

"When I went to the State Assembly in 1977, there were only five Puerto Ricans, and I was the only one from Brooklyn," he recounts. "In 1985, I was the only Puerto Rican on the City Council. Hey, I don't flaunt it. I grew up on welfare. I heard racist comments. I could have been bitter, could have been a militant; instead, I chose to use my brainpower. My mother always told me you can't complain about the system if you're not willing to change the system."

He is, as city clerk, doing that. The records backlog – two years when he took over – has been trimmed to one month. The office generates $4 million a year in revenue. He is the city's main marriage-monger, with chapels in all five boroughs and a satellite outpost planned for the Empire State Building. Think of the revenue those tourist weddings will generate, especially once the cost of the license goes from $30 to $45! He alone is authorized to swear in mayors; the standard fee for that, 9 cents, has been raised to $9 with his blessing. City bonds hold two signatures: his and the mayor's. He certifies the city budget. He handed Rudolph W. Giuliani and Judith Nathan their wedding license; same went for Liza Minnelli. "And next week I've got Donna Hanover coming in," he chortles. "I'm on the mountaintop!" And on track, he hopes, for renewal in 2006. So it isn't the sour grapes of the lovelorn that nagged Mr. Robles, a councilman chased from his old job to this one by term limits, into apprehending the city's so-called career brides – a species he had never heard of until assuming the clerk's office in October 2001 – like some bounty hunter. Quite the opposite.

He is after them, with major help from the Manhattan district attorney, Robert B. Morgenthau, because they're making a mockery of the law: "We're not out to be Sherlock Holmes, but the fact is, no one should be able to get 27 marriage licenses unless they can prove they were divorced. They've turned it into a business and they're profiting from it: this gets my Latin ruffles up! I'm an immigrant myself; my mother and my grandparents struggled to make a good life here. That's where this thing turns moral with me; when I think how people struggled for the right to citizenship, no way is my office going to let someone abuse it."

It's not, he says, that he's such a stickler. It's more that his mother taught him the difference between right and wrong.

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