Catherine M. Abate, a former New York state senator and commissioner of New York City’s Correction Department whose campaign for attorney general was derailed by questions about her father’s connection to organized crime, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 66.
The cause was cancer, her family said.
Ms. Abate (pronounced ah-BOT-eh) was known for her commitment to human rights and gained the notice of the political establishment as a young lawyer at the city’s Legal Aid Society.
In 1986, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo appointed her executive deputy commissioner of the State Division of Human Rights.
The move surprised many in Albany who expected Liz J. Abzug to be named to the post. Ms. Abzug was the daughter of Bella S. Abzug, an outsize figure in New York politics who served in Congress.
Ms. Abate continued her swift rise, and in 1988, she was named to head the state’s Crime Victims Board.
However, when she was appointed correction commissioner by Mayor David N. Dinkins in 1992, questions were raised about her father’s possible involvement in organized crime. She not only denied that her father was involved with the Mafia but also told supporters that any suggestion otherwise was the result of bias against Italian-Americans.
The matter seemed to fade into the background, and after leading the Correction Department for several years, she ran for State Senate in 1994, representing Greenwich Village. She served until 1998, when she ran for attorney general.
One of her main rivals for the Democratic nomination was Eliot L. Spitzer, who went on to become governor and resigned in disgrace after a scandal involving his association with prostitutes. His aides provided reporters with information about her father, Joseph M. Abate, linking him to the Lucchese crime family.
Mr. Spitzer, who apologized for his aides’ actions, said they were only responding to requests from reporters.
But in contrast with her response in 1992, Ms. Abate did not issue a blanket denial. Instead, for the first time, she acknowledged that the allegations might be true, based on recent newspaper articles.
“I don’t want to believe them, I just don’t want to believe them,” Ms. Abatetold The New York Times. “These are still allegations, I can’t prove or disprove them. I’ll never know the truth. The allegations don’t describe the father I knew.”
It was a stunning reversal that damaged her candidacy and forced her to confront details about her family’s history that she said she could not bring herself to contemplate. She added that she regretted her denials in 1992.
Ms. Abate’s father died in 1994, and she said she could never know the details of his life or the truth of the charges leveled against him.
She had acknowledged that her father was arrested in 1938 for bootlegging. But Ms. Abate said that as a child, growing up in Margate, N.J., where she was born on Dec. 8, 1947, she never knew that he was anything other than what he said he was: the head of a company that manufactured military uniforms for the government.
In the 1960s, the family fell on hard times, she recalled. Even so many years later, she said, it was hard for her to tell the world that her father had struggled financially.
Ms. Abate lost her bid for attorney general and went on to work in health care, becoming the president and chief executive of Community Healthcare Network.
For the last 15 years of her life, she worked to bring programs related to reproductive health to teenagers, to provide services for people with multiple chronic diseases and to help deliver medical care to the uninsured and the poor.
Ms. Abate is survived by her husband, Ron Kliegerman; a son, Kyle Kliegerman; a stepson, Kip Kliegerman; a brother, Joseph; and three stepgrandchildren.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who worked with Ms. Abate during Mr. Dinkins’s 1989 campaign for mayor, issued a statement praising her work on behalf of the city and the state.
“She never shied from a good cause and a good fight,” he said.