“Running Against Vito Lopez” (The 44th Councilmanic, Part One of Two)

In a Brooklyn special election for City Council taking place in March, a candidate named Joseph Lazar is attempting so sell himself by telling voters (or at least certain voters) that he is “running against [Kings County Democratic Leader] Vito Lopez.”

Lately this has even taken the form of planted blog pieces, including one where the usually witty Mary Alice Miller, a writer who leans towards an Afrocentric but feminist perspective, hails Lazar’s ties to the late Satmar Rebbe, who performed Lazar’s wedding [impressive, I must admit--though I got Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman to speak at mine] . Another dead giveaway that this piece may be one “for hire” is Miller’s mention of “the diverse cultures of the district (Italian, Irish, Asian, Russian, and Latino)” --anything missing?

Given Lazar’s almost unbroken history of support for Lopez‘s candidates, and the donations to Lopez‘s County organization by principals of the Lazar Family consulting firm, the assertions of Lazar’s independence are pretty laughable on their own terms, but it cannot be denied that Lazar is not Lopez’s preferred candidate in this race, although Lazar’s sponsors surely wish, and tried to ensure, that this was otherwise.

Let us not then say that Lazar is the anti-Lopez candidate; rather let us only say that he is among the non-Lopez candidates, and surely not the most non-Lopez among them (that would be Republican Jonathan Judge). Moreover, odds are that Lazar will remain “non-Lopez” only until such time as he either attains election, or his prime sponsor deems otherwise.

Lopez’s candidate is a smart, ambitious and aggressive young man named David Greenfield, whom Lopez is extremely fond of. Given Greenfield’s checkered personal history with at least one former mentor and Lopez‘s checkered personal history with at least one of the person’s he’s mentored (ask Councilwoman Diana Reyna), it is by no means certain that such fondness will last, but there is no doubt that this is currently a relationship in which the honeymoon stage is not yet over.

Interestingly, Lazar’s main sponsor, Dov Hikind (in the manner of most men whose arrogance is exceeded only by their ingratitude) also has an extremely checkered history with those for whom he once served as mentor. These include at least two former Hikind Chiefs of Staff with whom the Dov has fallen out badly; one of those is Greenfield, the other, the former incumbent whose seat Greenfield and Lazar are now seeking, Simcha Felder.(before term limits were repealed, a carbon copy of this race was taking place, and Felder was backing Greenfield; his new job precludes him from making public endorsements).

Despite Hikind’s history of making mortal enemies of his former friends, there seems little chance that Lazar will join Felder and Greenfield in the Hikind dog house, which is surely ironic, because though Lazar has some admirable qualities, including an excellent record as regional administrator in the NYS Department of Mental Health during the otherwise dismal Pataki administration (which Lazar and Hikind both supported), in the politics of Borough Park/Flatbush, Lazar is best known for being Hikind’s lapdog, willing to fetch and kvetch on command (a fairly astonishing example of which will be provided in part two). On Hikind’s unaccountably popular radio program, Lazar serves as Hikind’s echo chamber.

A candidate’s political ties are surely one factor to consider when evaluating how one votes. Certainly, it is fair to consider Vito Lopez’s relationship with David Greenfield in evaluating Greenfield’s candidacy. Given the proclivity of the ultra-Orthodox Jews political leadership to flock to power like moths to light, I think that Lopez’s support of a candidate in this district may prove at least as much of a plus as it is a minus, if not more so. However, Lazar‘s campaign clearly sees Lopez’s support as a minus among those voters--mostly Flatbush and Kensington yuppies--likely to frequent places like Room 8. Though this is a small vote, it may indeed prove crucial.

So, with that in mind, I pose this question:

COMPARED TO WHAT?

I know there are some consider who me a reliable Lopez ally. As I first came to fame as a blogger
for posting a comment comparing Lopez to Sonny Corleone (and his predecessor as County Leader to Fredo), I think that this has never really been the case (although two of Lopez’s closest associates told me Lopez delighted in my assertion that “You could piss on the old boss's fancy Italian shoes in front of his wife, and he'd still come back to next year looking for a favor. The new boss carries an old grudge like a concealed weapon, except he doesn't conceal it.”).

I will admit though that my writings have been very far from the relentlessly anti-Lopez consensus one finds in the left of center NYC blogworld. In such a context, I may appear to be pro-Lopez Mole333 has actually criticized me for jumping into blog threads to correct damaging statements about Lopez which even Mole admits were proven to be demonstrably false. I will also admit that, for my own reasons, I have often supported the same candidates as Lopez.

However, the last two times Vito Lopez has seen me, he has berated me in front of rooms full of people for not supporting his candidates. Apparently, there is nothing Vito Lopez hates more than a sometime ally who defends him or supports his candidates for intellectual reasons, rather than out of blind loyalty to the Leader. It has become quite clear that if I ever was among Lopez’s favorite people, I no longer qualify as such. And as a friend once close to Lopez told me, “once you are on Vito's shit list, you are implacably on it. You may have moments when the veneer thickens, but down low it never changes.”

But despite having no particular brief for Lopez, I feel compelled to ask those who want voters to evaluate the candidates in this race on the basis of the candidates’ relationship to Lopez:

COMPARED TO WHAT?

COMPARED TO DOV HIKIND?

This is a race between Vito Lopez’s staunch ally and Dov Hikind’s sycophant. If one is going to make a judgment on the basis of who strongly influences or controls one candidate, one must do the same for all of the others. As such, I offer this comparison of Dov Hikind and Vito Lopez:

When I ask people what bothers them about Vito Lopez, certain issues come up again and again--anti-Lopez blogger Mole333 helpfully provided me with a list which I’ve drawn upon for this column. How does Hikind compare to Lopez on those issues? Let us look at them one by one.

SUPPORT FOR REPUBLICANS:

LOPEZ: As a mere State Assemblyman and (in this instance) more importantly, a member of the Democratic State Committee, Lopez repeatedly endorsed Republican candidates for citywide and statewide office: D’Amato, Giuliani, Pataki. Since becoming Democratic County Leader, he has stopped doing so; the closest he’s come since then is to endorse a Working Families Party candidate for City Council against the winner of a Democratic primary
(something for which I criticized him quite harshly). There have been complaints, some probably merited, that, as County Leader, Lopez has been less than aggressive in working for some Democratic candidates, and that he has actively discouraged challenges to the Borough’s one Republican officeholder (not counting a Staten Island Council seat with a small Brooklyn portion), State Senator Marty Golden. On the other hand, Lopez has never endorsed a Republican in either a Presidential race or a local Brooklyn contest.

HIKIND: Like Lopez, Hikind serves as both Assemblyman and as a member of the Democratic State Committee, and like Lopez, Hikind supported D’Amato, Giuliani (at first) and Pataki; he‘s supported other Republican statewide candidates as well. While Lopez may have been less than aggressive concerning the Golden seat, the same cannot be said of Hikind. Hikind has always been aggressive and active in Golden’s district--in helping to elect Golden, even supporting him against a Democratic incumbent. And unlike Lopez, Hikind’s often endorsed Republicans for President, including Reagan, Dubya and McCain (and where Hikind goes, Lazar has followed).

JUDGESHIPS:

LOPEZ: In evaluating Lopez’s record in making judges, one must consider both those he personally elevated to the bench, often from his home Municipal Court District, and those not out of his stable who ascended the bench while he was County Leader.

Locally, Lopez was personally responsible for such outstanding Judges as Wayne Saitta, Gustin Reichbach (once the lawyer for Abbie Hoffman and the Fugs), and the late Richard Rivera. To that we can also add Jack Battaglia, the sort of brilliant professorial legal scholar who rarely ascends the Brooklyn bench without being a County Leader’s de facto brother-in-law (which he is), as well as “reform” favorite Margarita Lopez-Torres who, though they later fell out badly, first went to Civil Court as Lopez’s handpicked backfill for a seat which opened up when the incumbent Judge up for re-election was nominated after the primary for a Supreme Court slot. If there is a Judge in Brooklyn affiliated with the leftwing National Lawyers Guild, there is about a nine in ten chance he came from Lopez‘s personal stable.

On the other hand, when Lopez has a less than outstanding candidate, he’s not been shy about bypassing the party’s judicial screening panel he used to brag so much about.

As to candidates Lopez has supported in his capacity as County Leader, there’s rarely been much issue over Democratic candidates for Supreme Court or County-backed candidates for Countywide Civil Court seats, all of whom have passed through the party’s screening panel.

The biggest dispute over a Lopez Judicial endorsement outside his local bailiwick came when Lopez personally endorsed the judicial candidacy of former Councilman Noach Dear.

Just before petitioning in 2007, Charlie Finkelstein, the indisputably qualified candidate backed by Lopez and the County organization in the Borough Park dominated 5th Municipal Court District, dropped out of the race for family reasons, leaving a contest between Karen Yellen, a Jewish, but non-Orthodox former judge who lived in Manhattan and had no connections in the local community and no hope of victory, and
Noach Dear, a bad tempered, sleazy, homophobic, ex-City Councilman who had probably never practiced law and had no discernable qualifications.

Dear was seen, not unreasonably, as the prohibitive favorite, and most of the local District Leaders, even some who hated him, decided to back Dear. Black District Leaders were violently opposed to any County support for Yellen because of the role she’d played as chief prosecution witness against Clarence Norman. Carefully checking the temperature, Lopez decided to join the parade he thought was unstoppable by appearing to be leading it and endorsed Dear.

There were many reason for this endorsement. Part of it was to bring out votes for Lopez’s candidate for Surrogate (though Lopez’s forces only used Dear’s name in those areas of the Municipal Court District where it was an asset, while supporters of the anti-Lopez Surrogate candidate also deployed palm cards with Dear’s name where it was helpful to them). Perhaps more importantly, Dear had twice run in primaries for State Senate trying to take advantage of a divided black vote. Another primary between two strong black candidates was looming on the horizon. If Dear won, he was almost certain to join Carl Kruger as another member of the Democratic conference actually controlled by Joe Bruno (and we‘ve now seen what that was going to entail).

The support by Lopez and his allies for Dear was all Kabuki. Those who backed Dear for cynical reasons delivered virtually nothing to him. Given the pathetic nature of the "help" Dear received from County (Dear got his clocked clean in the non-Orthodox areas, and could have handled the Orthodox without County’s help), their support did not change the results appreciably (although "clean hands" would have been nice). Orthodox Jews daven twice a day. They are easy to pull. Dear pulled them. No one else voted and Dear won, as he would have with or without Lopez and the others.

After the primary, Lopez and his allies suffered tremendous abuse in the press and blogworld, and with sweet and painful irony, were forced to deny the leading role they’d only pretended to have played. Pretty funny, actually

HIKIND: Hikind’s record on the judges out of his own personal stable is mostly OK; David Schmidt is not only an outstanding judge, but an outspoken liberal; if Eric Prus has an ideological bias, it is not apparent, as opposed to his unquestionable competence, which is quite clear; even Leon Ruchelsman, who was conservative enough to originally be a Pataki appointee, has never been an object of complaints based upon his performance.

There has been an unfortunate tendency to blame Hikind for every bad Judge who happens to be an Orthodox Jew, but that is unfair. For instance, brain dead 
former Judge Howard Ruditzky did not emanate from the stable of Dov Hikind, but rather from the stable of Hikind’s staunch allies, the Garson Crime Family (incidentally, Lopez opposed Ruditzky's elevation to Supreme Court).

But there is one judge who Hikind is absolutely responsible for, and that is Noach Dear. If Hikind and his followers (including Joe Lazar) had not backed Dear, neither would have Lopez.

Ironically, up to that point, Dear and Hikind had pretty much been mortal enemies; Hikind clearly regarded making Dear a judge as a form of pest control, and when asked to comment about Dear‘s lack of qualifications essentially said, “Since many qualified judges have been criminals, the solution is to elect the unqualified.”

So, if Vito Lopez’s greatest (not to say, “original”) sin was succumbing to the temptation (such that it was) of Noach Dear, then Dov Hikind was the Serpent in the Garden.

Incidentally, Dear
is now being hailed as an unlikely hero by the likes of the Village Voice for his sensitivity to debtors in collection cases. In fairness though, anyone who’s done a thorough study of Dear’s history would not find such empathy at all surprising.

NEPOTISM:

LOPEZ: Lopez has taken some heat over the years for helping (or attempting to help) to obtain positions for his daughter, her husband, his own longtime companion and his companion’s brother. As noted before, his companion’s brother is an outstanding judge, and no one has ever questioned the competence of the other persons mentioned.

HIKIND:
Hikind has, over the years, obtained jobs at the public trough for his wife Shani, and his brothers, Moshe and Pinchus (who plays Fredo to Dov’s Michael). This is not even counting friends like Jeff Reznik and Wolf Sender, who Hikind foisted upon Carl McCall, before putting the knife in Carl’s back and once again supporting George Pataki.

SOCIAL SERVICES:

LOPEZ: Lopez is personally responsible for building and obtaining funding for a multi-tentacled social service empire which seems to have an interlocking relationship with his well oiled political local political operation in Bushwick/Williamsburg and its vicinity. Most of the reason the social service agencies inure to Lopez’s benefit is that they actually and competently deliver social services to the communities they serve. What a novelty.

HIKIND: In the 1980s and 90s, Hikind obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money for the Council of Jewish Organizations of Borough Park (COJO) and its affiliates.
According to the New York Times, the Council and its affiliates showed their gratitude by doling out lucrative consulting contracts to Mr. Hikind's aides, political advisers and at least one of his relatives. COJO eventually collapsed after two of its executives were charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds. Eventually, the investigation led to Hikind’s indictment as well.

One of those indicted, COJO Operations Director Paul Chernick, pleaded guilty to using some of the stolen money to make illegal payoffs to Hikind in the form of a trip to Israel and school tuition for Hikind‘s daughter and niece. In the end, Hikind was acquitted, because while it was clear Hikind had accepted the gifts, the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hikind had known where the money was coming from.

ETHNIC FAVORITISM:

LOPEZ: Lopez has been accused of showing favoritism towards the Hasidic community (though in his earlier days he was accused of undue animosity towards it).

A social worker of Italian-American origin, before his election, Lopez worked most of his adult life delivering services to Latinos and African-Americans, and won their support again and again in an overwhelming minority district. While in his early days, Lopez may have traded on his Hispanic surname, virtually everyone who cares has figured out that he is not a Latino; he nonetheless continues to win every challenge by huge margins. Though there may be a slightly disproportionate number of Italian-Americans among his inner circle, Lopez’s entourage is ethnically, racially and religiously quite diverse.

HIKIND: Hikind is accused of showing favoritism to the Hasidic community; in fact, he brags about it.

The biography Hikind submitted in the 1983-84 and 1985-86 Legislative Red Books says:

“Dov Hikind was born in New York on June 30, 1950. As a child, he lived with his parent, who were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, in Williamsburgh, and moved to Crown Heights in 1965 because of the disintegration in the former neighborhood. Crown Heights, too began to decline, and after his marriage he moved to Flatbush. This personal history has made him keenly aware of the plight of neighborhoods in our city. Mr. Hikind is sensitive to the precarious position in which his district now sits, and he knows the fears of its citizens that it too will become a “changing neighborhood”.

Hikind is a strong supporter of racial and ethnic profiling.

Hikind’s political entourage is also a marvel of diversity; Satmar, Bobover, Belz, Munkatcher, and non-Hasidic black hats are all represented.

TUITION TAX CREDITS:

LOPEZ: Lopez favors them in some form.

HIKIND: Hikind favors them in any form.

CHILD SEX ABUSE:

LOPEZ: There are two bills to extend the Statute of Limitations for law suits concerning child sex abuse. Lopez’s bill on the matter doubles the current Statute of Limitations. Assemblywoman Margaret Markey‘s bill would do the same, but also create a one year window for any past victim to file a suit. The Catholic Church and several Hasidic denominations are quite fearful of the financial consequences a window may work, and while I favor the window, I must acknowledge that there is a rationale argument against it in that it may create an avalanche of litigation concerning ancient incidents (with attendant legal costs), many of which are likely to be of questionable justiciability or merit.

HIKIND: To his credit, Hikind has made it a personal crusade to persuade ultra-Orthodox Jews to report child sex abuse to authorities, something they are often reluctant to do, preferring to either keep quiet and avoid public shame, or to deal with it “within the community.”

On the issue of the statute of limitations though,
Hikind is a puzzle, having co-sponsored both the Lopez and Markey bills. He now has stated that he supports Markey’s bill, but opposes the year-long window. Huh?

ATLANTIC YARDS:

LOPEZ: “Progressives” like Mole333 have sought to vilify Lopez for the sweet deal developer Bruce Ratner got in 421-A tax abatement legislation passed in 2007, and there is no doubt Lopez, the Chair of the Assembly’s Housing Committee, acquiesced in that deal. As left blogger Daniel Millstone pointed out at the timethe 421-A bill also did a lot to benefit residents of poor neighborhoods, which was clearly Lopez’s priority. In Millstone’s words, “Lopez has been fairly good this year both in terms of getting important bills through the assembly (and sometimes, I gather, helping get bills through the Senate, too) and in acting as a progressive advocate.”

To get what he wanted, Lopez admitted he acquiesced to the demands of the Senate Republicans (represented in negotiations by Marty Golden), who cared only about the Real Estate Board’s #1 priority, the Ratner abatement (as they sold out hundreds of other landlords; I’d cry if it weren’t so funny). Having done Ratner’s bidding, Lopez did not turn away his subsequent contribution.

HIKIND: Hikind voted for the 421-a bill, but since it did not involve money for a favored group or a job for a relative, Hikind played no role in the deliberations. Hikind, who chooses not to serve on any Assembly committee, never takes a role in any Albany deliberations, although it could be argued that he helped advance the cause of Ratner by helping to elect Marty Golden.

OTHER ISSUES:

LOPEZ: Strangely, for a political boss, Lopez has a tendency more frequent than average to cast dissenting votes where the overwhelming majority of Assemblymembers are going the other way. However, Lopez votes a consistently liberal line on both economic and social issues. He is pro-choice, pro-gun control, anti-death penalty, pro sexual orientation non-discrimination and pro-same sex marriage. Lopez’s liberal stands on social issues are often in contrast to those of a majority of his constituents.

HIKIND: Though there are sometimes occasional dissents, Hikind votes a pretty liberal line on economic issues. However, he is a social issue conservative who is anti-choice, anti-gun control, pro death penalty, anti-sexual orientation non-discrimination (though, as often happens, Hikind missed the actual vote) and anti-same sex marriage. During the debate on same sex marriage, Hikind said, "If we authorize gay marriage in the state of New York, those who want to live and love incestuously will be five steps closer to achieving their goals as well." Hikind also opposed commemorating LGTB victims of the Nazis at a local Holocaust Memorial. To his credit, Hikind did support covering LGTB persons in the bias crimes bill

CONCLUSION:

On virtually every matter where reformers, “progressives”, or liberals have a problem with Vito Lopez, Dov Hikind is at least as objectionable and often far, far worse.

Joe Lazar’s campaign is urging people to support Lazar because his main opponent, David Greenfield, is supported by Vito Lopez. By contrast, on the Orthodox
”Vos Iz Neias” blog, s a local community leader says, “This is an indirect referendum on Dov Hikind, no question about it…If Greenfield wins, the era of Dov Hikind as the supreme ruler of Borough Park and the community is over.”

There is no doubt that Vito Lopez is David Greenfield’s mentor, and no doubt that Dov Hikind is the mentor of Joe Lazar. Further, there is no doubt that, by any objective measure, Dov Hikind is far more objectionable than Vito Lopez.

But my point is here is not to urge voters who agree with me to support Greenfield because of this (though I would be hard-pressed to blame them for doing so); my point is only to urge people to look beyond the false issue of who mentored who, and instead focus upon the individual qualities of the candidates in making their difficult decision.

In part two, I will focus on exactly that topic.

A couple of personal notes:

1) In order to minimize the character assassination and harassing phone calls (don’t try it again, I’ve saved the tape from last time) that are the calling card of one particular Lazar campaign consultant, let me announce in advance that I will be critical of all the candidates and will not be making any endorsement.

Unless the comments thread on this piece gets particularly abusive.

2) In the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to admit that, in 1994, I had my City job terminated by the Giuliani administration after a political operative named Alan Rocoff (currently under indictment) at the behest of his close friend, then Judge Michael Garson (currently disbarred after copping a plea), asked his close friend Dov Hikind (acquitted), to get me fired, which Hikind agreed to do. I know this because Rocoff bragged about it to every politico within a ten mile radius of 16 Court Street.