Everything You Know About Brooklyn Politics is Wrong (Part One)
This is the first part of a (at least) two-part series on the topic of why almost everything you know about recent events in Brooklyn politics is wrong.
I think the narrative one hears in the press and among “reformers” goes something like this.
“Vito Lopez is still alive and somewhat well, trying to continue his control over the Brooklyn Democratic Party through proxies. Last week’s election proves it. The machine, embodied by the likes of Lopez’s handpicked puppet, Frank Seddio, proved its resilience by stealing an election from Lincoln Restler, and Lopez tried to steal a judgeship in Brownstone Brooklyn with an unqualified hack.
The rule of Frank Seddio as County Leader is only going to be more of the same”
Almost none of this resembles the truth.
Let’s start with that judicial campaign.
Former Judge Sarah “Sallie” Kraus, elected in to the Civil Court in 1994 from the Brownstone Brooklyn-based First Municipal Court District (and re-elected in 2004), until recently served as an Acting Supreme Court Judge, sitting in Family Court (got that?).
Most Civil Court seats in Brooklyn are elected countywide and a white candidate has not won a countywide primary for an open seat in Brooklyn since 2004 (and then by being mistaken for a black candidate).
However, a number of seats are allocated to Municipal Court districts drawn at the time the 19th Century morphed into the 20th.
They are malapportioned.
Most of the eastern part of white southern Brooklyn is in a huge district (the better part of four Assembly Districts, with significant pieces of a few others) allocated one slot.
By contrast, the First Municipal Court District is little more than coastal Brownstone Brooklyn, and dominated by one AD (Joan Millman’s 52nd). It has two slots.
There are eight Municipal Court districts in Brooklyn. Three, including the First and the massive, but under-allocated Eighth, are sure shots for a white candidate, but one of those, the Fifth, is basically an Orthodox Jewish sinecure.
In two other districts, a white candidate with some luck might win, but it is by no means certain.
And that is it for white people in Brooklyn who might want to be a judge.
Since white candidates can probably not win a contested countywide primary for Civil Court, 52% of the Civil Court sets in the County are held by blacks, who constitute 32% of the population, and the only Countywide seats held by whites are now occupied by incumbents, who’ve only remained unchallenged for re-election because of the heavy hand of the County Leader.
So, if you are white person who wants to become a judge, you run in one of those local seats, even if you live elsewhere, or your friends do.
By contrast, Latinos and Asians are almost entirely shit out of luck.
Latinos can sometimes win in one of these local seats, and sometimes accidentally slip through countywide if there is no black candidate.
Asians probably can’t win at all.
Or as “reformer” Chris Owens describes the situation:
Anyway, this is why open seats in Brooklyn capable of electing whites attract outsiders, which, under the law, is perfectly permissible.
In the approved narrative of the “reformers,” one of the candidates in the recent primary was indigenous to the seat, while the other was an outsider.
But what you know to be the truth is actually the exact opposite of the facts.
On election day, I heard a worker for “reform” candidate Richard Montelione tell a voters that Montelione was from the neighborhood, while his opponent, Lara Genovesi, was from Bergen Beach.
In fact, Genovesi, who
It was a scene from a Hollywood "B" movie. A judge decides to retire. The local political machine engineers the resignation so that an "insider" candidate can get on the ballot to fill the vacancy unopposed -- with no one else knowing what's going on”
Justice Kraus did not have warm relationships with the County Democratic Organization, which did not initially back her election, and did not support her efforts at advancement.
In fact, in 2004, Justice Kraus took the unusual and brave step of challenging the County choice at the Party's Judicial Nominating Convention), which surely ended any chance she had for future advancement.
It was a scene from a Hollywood "B" movie… The local political machine engineers the nomination so that an "insider" candidate can get on the ballot to fill the vacancy unopposed -- with no one else knowing what's going on.
"...As an eminently qualified and experienced jurist...Judge Diana Johnson decided this year to… seek a Surrogate Court judicial seat…When it became clear that Judge Johnson was in a strong position to win the upcoming Democratic Primary election without depending upon the Party structure… Civil Court Judge Shawndya Simpson…decided at the last minute to work with Lopez and campaign for Surrogate against..Johnson. Most importantly, Judge Simpson is also African American…Judge Simpson and her husband obviously perceive assisting Lopez as being in her best interest in the long run….
…If the Coalition for Community Empowerment existed today, no County Leader would dare to make such a move as Lopez has made. And no Black candidate – particularly a less-inexperienced Judge with a bright future -- would dare to simply toss aside the past and potential future support of Black elected officials and community leaders for a higher office.
….Judge Simpson should withdraw from the Surrogate Court race...and Brooklyn's communities must, once again, empower themselves and find real leadership to protect their interests..."
“Lara Genovesi and some of her people came to me and asked for my support and I said I would,” said Lopez.
Presented with a copy of the clip, Genovesi looked sad, exasperated and a bit miffed.
“Why can’t that guy just keep his mouth shut?”
It was bad enough before his troubles, but when Lopez became Gropez, it was pretty much the end.
A Montelione operative admitted he would have used Lopez against Genovesi regardless, “But having the quote made a huge difference.”
Not that the quote was the only arrow in the Montelione campaign’s quiver.
The piece with the Lopez quote went on to boldly state that if Genovesi won, Lopez would use her election to extend his control.
This is an assertion exceeded in its absurdity only by its repugant nature.
Imagine, the entire future of Vito Lopez is staked upon one little Civil Court Judgship, but we can exterminate him once and for all by defeating this evil witch.
I do not exaggerate by much. that is pretty much the message which was delivered under Montelione's name.
Then there were the attacks on Genovesi’s supporters:
"Vito Lopez backed Hakeem Jeffries early against Ed Towns and the boss of Brooklyn's power base is the Thomas Jefferson Club in Canarsie where Lara Genovesi served as law chairman so we know Assemblyman Jeffries had no choice but to endorse Lara Genovesi."
Not only had Jeffries endorsed Lopez’s archenemy Lincoln Restler before Lopez’s troubles, but if Hakeem were all about payback, wouldn’t he have endorsed the only one of the two candidates who had ever given him money?
The Daily News stooped to dumping on Genovesi’s boss, a non-political judge with a considerable reputation for scholarship and integrity.
Even some Montelione supporters professed shocked. Some may have even meant it.
One would never know from the dirt piled upon Lara Genovesi’s character that it was her, and not Montelione who got was rated “Highly Qualified” by the Independent Judicial Qualifications Commission (Montelione was rated as merely “Qualified”).
As Chris Owens noted “We need the BEST judges, however, not merely "decent" judges.”
But in truth, reformers are exactly like regulars on this topic. They define merit as who one’s friends are.
I thought about writing most of this before the primary, but one day, a third party connected to me got a call from someone associated with the Montelione campaign (almost certainly acting on their own volition) to give them a heads up that people might soon be complaining to them about my (virtually non-existent) efforts on behalf of Genovesi.
I tell that story (to the limited extent I tell it) only to explain why I did not write this piece during the campaign.
It was not worth the almost certain schtuss which was sure to follow (I’m not sure it is worth it now).
Someone wasn’t trying to give the third party a head’s up; they were trying to give me a head’s up.
I got the message. There were other stories to write anyway.
Anyway, once Vito’s shit hit the fan (or should I say, “Vito’s hand hit the panties”) even the little pro forma support that usually came without his breaking a sweat did not emerge from Lopez’s camp for Genovesi.
All hands were being diverted to beating Lincoln Restler.
Lara Genovesi had actually helped Lopez protégé Steven Levin get elected to Council. She did not need Vito Lopez to get a favor from Levin, but, in the end the needs of Lopez prevented Levin from doing Genovesi the favor she wanted.
When Genovesi’s campaign asked for a few people in Gowanus Houses and Wycoff Gardens, NYCHA projects where Levin was regarded as a hero and had the Tenant Associations in his pocket, Levin gave them names of a couple of people who might worked if they got paid.
The real hands on deck were being diverted to places like Cooper Park in East Williamsburg and being told they were working all day for free for Chris Olechowski—Lara would be lucky if they were given time to vote in the morning.
The Genovesi/Montelione primary was the September 2012 race Frank Seddio cared most about—he had know Lara since her childhood.
But that day on the street, a person thisclose to Vito Lopez told me that Lopez and Seddio were no longer speaking.
While I don’t think Steve Levin would have helped Genovesi regardless, Levin’s conduct is certainly consistent with such annoyed apathy.
At Genovesi’s “victory party,” many people were openly rooting for Lincoln Restler to win.
Others were only slightly more circumspect.
Asked about his sentiments, Lew Fidler, a strong Seddio supporter said “I think we should find a way to include Lincoln Restler and his supporters. We could use the dynamism that they bring to the party. That is not something we should be afraid of, it is something we should embrace. You might have noticed we have some Republicans we need to beat, and we could use the help.”
Fidler added that, when he lost his recent State Senate race, he had probably received more help from Restler’s club than from Lopez’s.
When defeat finally came for Genovesi, in a race far closer than the lay of the land should have allowed, sentiment was nearly unanimous that Lopez, who’d done almost nothing in the way of help, and who affirmatively inflicted direct and uninvited damage, was primarily at fault.
Despite his despicable campaign, which barely seems to have had anything to do with him, Montelione appears to be a good guy, who will surely make a good judge.
This is all prelude to my real point, which I will amplify in Part Two:
Frank Seddio had nothing to do with the race against Lincoln Restler and does not regard the ultimate result of that election as a defeat or victory for himself personally.
Frank Seddio’s ascension as County Leader is not the dawn of “reform,” but it is the end of autocracy.
“Reformers” can have as many seats at the table as they can win at the ballot box, and will be welcome. Their voices will be heard and reflected in the policies adopted.
As John Lennon once said, “war is over, if you want it.”
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