The Kings County Democracy: The Lay of the Land 2010
“It has seemed that each time someone attacks Vito you are there to disagree...though perhaps with only a lukewarm defense.” Mole333 11/24/2006
“Here's what I'm curious about, Gate: you're clearly a smart guy; why do you go to all this trouble to defend a decaying machine that doesn't deserve you?” Nick Rizzo 09/16/2008
This summer brought the death by puddle jumper of former Alaska Senator Theodore “Ted” Stevens, one of the last examples of a Republican Senator of the old non-ideological school, and for those immune as I am to bleary and teary-eyed nostalgia, one of the most despicable persons to occupy a seat in Congress.
For those who do not recall, Stevens had an endearing habit of publicly threatening people with revenge right from the floor of the US Senate.
Stevens’ career had been a monument to systemic corruption, but he lost his seat after being convicted of the pettiest personal kind (the conviction was subsequently overturned).
The man who beat Stevens was Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. Begich’s dad was Congressman Nick Begich. In 1972, Congressman Begich, along with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (father of Cokie Roberts), died in a plane crash eerily similar to the one which killed Stevens 32 years later.
This is how the trip was described in Jimmy Breslin’s book, “How the Good Guys finally Won”:
“In October of 1972, Hale Boggs went to Alaska to assist in the Campaign of Congressman Nick Begich. Boggs went this far because Begich had voted against him in the 1970 election for House Majority Leader. The theory of Hale Boggs, and any other politician who has more than a cabbage for a head, is that you immediately try to win over the man who voted against you. Go to any lengths. In this case, Anchorage, Alaska.”
Vito Lopez does not have a cabbage for a head, but he operates by a different theory.
For years, Brooklyn Height’s “reformers” would go against Williamsburg regulars for the City Council seat they shared, and mostly they would lose.
Invariably, the “reformers” would continue to dislike the regular who beat them, but they would accommodate. The regular victor, whether Lenny Scholnick, Fred Richmond, Abe Gerges or Ken Fisher would vote a liberal line on social issues, talk the reform talk (if not walk the reform walk), usually endorse the “reformers’” electeds, shower their neighborhoods with goodies, and avoid turf battles with the “reformers,” mostly rendering unto them what was their’s. It was a cold peace according to the model of Hale Boggs.
Vito Lopez would have none of it.
Lopez is, to paraphrase Pat Buchanan’s description of a different leader, a political organizer of the first rank, a leader steeped in history, whose genius is an intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that is in the hearts of those who stand in his way.
Thank to a five way split in the reform/liberal/left flanks, and thanks to working harder and smarter than the opposition, Lopez’s Council candidate Steve Levin, like Gerges, Fisher and the others, beat the “reformers” in their home turf, but, in stark contrast to the way Ken Fisher treated “reform” District Leader Joan Millman after he beat her for Council, Levin did not get on the puddle jumper with his runner up, “reform” District Leader Jo Anne Simon, to tour the Gowanus Canal.
Instead, he ran his Chief of Staff against her for her leadership, and found a candidate against her co-leader as well.Lopez and Levin have already taken casualties. As I described in detail a few months ago, events Lopez and Levin set in motion led to a decision by Simon’s co-leader, longtime Lopez critic Alan Fleishman, to retire.
I am betting that come Wednesday morning, Vito Lopez will control at least one District Leadership in the 52nd Assembly District. And while Lopez and his team will deserve some kudos for their smarts and hard work, mostly the victory will be the reformer’s own fault, as they acted exactly as Lopez knew they would.
I know there are some consider who me a reliable ally of Vito Lopez, though Lopez is surely not among themI 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 did not intend this as either compliment or insult, but rather as an accurate portrayal. Nonetheless, at least 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.”.
Perhaps the fact that Lopez so delighted in the observation should have told me everything I needed to know.
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 of The Daily Gotham 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. I’ve surely not been Vito’s reflexive enemy; I’ve merely been fair, and for a while it seemed that that was enough to make me the County Leader‘s favorite blogger.
But, in the Catechism of Vito Lopez, nothing was more dangerous than someone who was with you some of the time, on what they thought were the merits, rather than out of loyalty. One could not abide that, because it might set a bad example to others.
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.”
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. He almost looked like Ted Stevens.
Things were changing.
Last year, Vito set out to oust to win two City Council races. In his home turf of Ridgewood-Bushwick, where he’d previously played Geppetto to Councilwoman Diana Reyna, only to discover one day that she could not only walk and talk on her own, but that it was Christine Quinn, rather than he, who was playing the role on Jiminy Cricket.
Though he was usually a reliable Quinn ally, nothing infuriated Lopez more than the idea that Quinn could obtain Reyna’s vote directly, rather than through his good offices.
Diana Reyna had got to be got.
In Brownstone Brooklyn, it was the Simon v. Levin v. Et Al race. Et Al took the lion’s share of the votes, bringing Lopez and Levin their victory.
Like Jesus Christ, Vito’s new slogan was “he who is not with me is against me.”He went one for two on the council races, but emboldened by victory on the “Reformer’s” own turf, he upped the ante, and actually rallied his troops to support Davilla in the general election on the Working Families Line against the duly nominated candidate of the Party he led.
This was unprecedented hubris, even for Lopez. So much so that usually reliable Lopez allies like Williamsburg District Leader Steve Cohn, Councilman Lew Fidler, and Assemblyman Joe Lentol were not making a secret of their dismay. Fidler was also making known his distress over Lopez running a local judicial candidate in his Bushwick home turf who had by-passed the Party’s screening process.
Vito was on a roll.
Sometimes even his critics enjoyed it.
For example, though I did not specifically endorse Lopez’s candidate for City Council, David Greenfield, in a special election for the Borough Park based seat vacated by Simcha Felder, I took great delight in explicating how the other main candidate, Joe Lazar, was Dov Hikind’s personal sock-puppet, and how, what ever his flaws, Lopez was superior in virtually every way to Dov Hikind.
And when Lopez, to even my surprise, used his first rate skills as an organizer, his knowledge of history and his intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws and the weakness of Dov Hikind to thoroughly kick his ass and expose his supposed hegemony over the Borough Park area for the fraud that it was, I was reminded of the scene from Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah,” where one of the leaders of Mayor Skeffington’s opposition laughs off the offer of help from a labor leader Skeffington’s just succeeded in dethroning:
“‘You got nothing’’ Garvey said contemptuously. ‘Nothin’ at all. And after what happened on the docks this morning’, the most you’ll deliver’ll be a pound and a half o’ dog meat from the butcher shop! By God, he fixed you good…I hate the sight of the murderin’ scoundrel, but I give three cheers for the man when he knocked you arse over teakettle off of your perch. He done a grand thing there. I only wisht I’d done it myself.”
Brooklyn District Leaders had long gotten used to County Leaders who served the function of Paul Sorvino in "The Goodfellas." When the organization was in a non-war setting, local crews were allowed a great deal of autonomy, paid the boss his tribute and came to him to settle disputes. An effective leader kept the peace and divided up the pieces, and was usually allowed a second helping for his troubles.
The prior leader, Clarence Norman, was thought a little too accommodating, perhaps because primaries were seen in the Leader’s shop as generating profits for the "operations" run by the Leader’s friends. Lopez was seen as more effective on behalf of incumbents. Sitting judges no longer had to engage in unseemly fundraising to pay off parasitical “consultants” who would otherwise run primaries against them. The quashing of such activity served a good government purpose, though this fortuitous by-product was probably just an inadvertent bonus rather than the real intent.
In the Vito Lopez catechism, it seemed that one could not suffer a slight deviation from the County Line and still be considered 99.44% pure, anymore than one could suffer a touch of pregnancy and still be considered chaste.
Emboldened first by the obsession to put his protégés into the local City Council seats that most impacted his home turf, then by his victory in one of those races, and later by the Borough Park victory, this spring Lopez embarked upon what at first looked to be a Stalin-like series of purges, in which not only enemies were targeted, but friends as well.
One purported target, in this new war to acquire fewer but better friends, Councilman Lew Fidler, had been sent his dead fish during the City Council reorganization. For awhile rumors abounded that Lopez was going to send the Garson Crime Family (aka "The Gang that Couldn’t Steal Straight") to finish the Fidler job, which was like deploying a less effective Faisal Shazhad, armed with natural rather than chemical fertilizer.
Eventually, Lopez, realizing that a race against Fidler was only going to result in the loss of the one leader he did control in the AD (Laurie Garson), backed off .
So as in the case of Fidler, Lopez, as he almost always does, let his self-interest trump his spite.
At least for the time being, the veneer had thickened for Joe Lentol.
Steve Cohn had always had an uneasy relationship with Lopez; who regards Cohn as too casual and far too weak on the ground; to Lopez, there is no critique which is more damning. Lopez could have easily taken Cohn out years ago, but he hadn’t for reasons best explained by Michael Kinsley:
“…every great capital probably has a Mr. Fixit, a self-promoting middleman who is a friend of all sides no matter how mutually opposed they may be. In Tehran, when you’re in need of “judgment,” you look up the elder statesman Manucher Ghorbanifar. He doesn’t have much in common, spiritually, with the ruling ayatollahs. They let him make his millions and keep his body parts in one place because he’s useful to them’
Steve Cohn is a lovely man who thinks all the love he’s given will be returned because people will remember all he’s done for them. In his one run for public office, he believed he’d done so many favors he need not even ask for them to be returned.
Cohn had the promoters fatal disease of believing his own press.
The saddest interval I’ve ever suffered with Steve Cohn was the moment of realization during a meeting where I was asking him to take a dive at a local political club endorsement meeting so his votes could strategically be delivered where it would do him the most good. Cohn was resisting, saying he had plenty of votes.
I asked him to tell me who his votes were. One of his names was Richie Leotta, “I got him his job.”
I pulled out David Yassky’s endorsement letter. Leotta’s was the first name on it.
But, with Lopez studiously trying to leave no corner of the County with out an enemy, Cohn, known for easygoing generosity and an ability to agree with everyone about everything while freely bestowing checks as if they were dollar bills being handed out to beggars at an Hasidic wedding, was widely considered the one person in the Party capable of serving as the figurehead of any anti-Lopez coalition.
Lew Fidler would have to give up his Council seat to be County Leader and had no interest in doing so. Darryl Towns was interested in going to Congress or the Borough Presidency, and a failed attempt at becoming leader would not help him attain these goals, and neither would a successful one.
To beat Lopez, one needed a candidate, for you couldn’t beat someone with no one.
Further, you couldn’t beat someone with someone when no one trusted each other. As the sage political boos John Gorman put it in “The Last Hurrah”:
“Many’s the time in the ward and in the City too I’ve seen all the boys all split up and without a chance to win, and still you couldn’t get them to join hands. And that’s because no man is willing to give up his enemies unless he’s a saint or unless he’s sure of the payoff...I don’t know what we can eliminate the saints from our discussion here today. As for the payoff, there’d be no payoff unless they won.”
There were other problems, one was that Vito’s power didn’t emanate from his position as County Leader, Vito’s position as County Leader emanated from his power. Eliminate Vito, and one still would have Vito to deal with, only he’d be angrier.
If the leaders ever stopped being too afraid to share what they actually all thought with each other, then a coup would actually be a lively possibility; and once those barred from the race by position or personality were eliminated, Cohn would pretty much be the last man standing.
And once again, the leadership would go from dictatorship to figurehead. It would be the restoration of Clarence Norman, except the organization would probably not restore its extortion operation, instead leaving it entirely to the freelancers. Still, for the process junkies a weak leader would surely be preferable to a strong one.
So, of course, the reformers had to give Cohn a race.
And like Fleishman, Cohn dropped out. In his place is running his son Warren, who Domestic Partner called “the prettiest boy in Brooklyn; his looks obviously came from his mom.”
DP’s observation was not a specious one; at a party, I recently introduced Cohn’s opponent Lincoln Restler (who resembles Al Franken) to her as “the kid running against the prettiest boy in Brooklyn.”
A total stranger turned towards us, and looked at Restler and asked, “you’re running against Warren Cohn?”
Truth be told, though he might not know it, Lopez had his victory in the 50th when Steve Cohn retired.In a way, this is my fault, two years ago, after New Kings Dems ran a few County Committee candidates and then tired to make a scene at the County Committee Meeting, I joined a Room 8 thread about their inconsequential efforts.
My critique of New Kings Dems, was “If you wanted to change the party, why didn't you run District Leaders, instead of county committee (or both)
You are playing tennis; the other guys are playing football. In the end, party control is determined at the Leaders' meeting. Not only did you not have a seat at that table, you didn't even try to obtain one…Once again, I recommend to NKD that, to the extent they find the local leaders inhospitable, they go and organize their own clubs, and run candidates for District Leader. As people like Chris Owens would undoubtedly tell them, until they elect a few leaders, nothing they do will have any real impact in changing the party organization.”
As I once told Mole, “If you really are serious about changing the way the party operates, you need to gain a foothold in the corridors of power, meaning the party Executive Committee. The way to do that is to organize organizations to win AD by AD. If you insist on showing up for a football game with your tennis racket, you can't beat the other side at the game they are playing. It is like trying to win a presidential election by going for a higher popular vote, rather than by securing an electoral college victory. You may not like the rules, but they are important for a reason.”
So congrats to NKD for growing up.
Lincoln Restler, a smart and interesting young man (with some bizarre ideas--he told me he thinks District Leaders should not be allowed to practice law in their home counties, I wonder if he’s told that to his supporters “reform” Leaders Jo Anne Simon and Joanne Seminaria, both of whom do exactly that) is more likely than Warren Cohn to oppose Lopez at all costs.
Warren Cohn, another smart and interesting young man (who should really take some lessons from his dad about being cool under pressure--he responded to an endorsement of Restler by Tish James with a blistering attack on her character, ignoring the fact she polled 80% within his AD in a three-way primary the year before), is more likely than Lincoln Restler to be useful to such an effort in the event that it is actually viable.
But both Restler and Cohn are genuine products of the local political zeitgeist in their district (albeit far different aspects of that zeitgeist) and neither is an outsider being opposed from above.
The same can be said about the Female Leader’s race.
Incumbent Female Leader Linda Minucci is so much a product of the local environment as it once existed that she was once pinched decades ago for bookmaking (or was it numbers? I forget. I also forget whether it was Ken Fisher or Vito who found it convenient to expose this back in 1991]; unlike Warren Cohn, she is likely to be a reliable ally of Lopez’s unless and until his defeat seems inevitable, when she will likely jump into the parade in an attempt to seem like she‘s leading it. Restler’s running mate Catherine Zidar is, like Restler, a genuine representative of the community as it will look in the future, while Jasmine Velasquez is the running mate of political loon Andre Soleil, in an area where such loons are part of what has made politics in the area so much fun for decades.
Similarly, NKD’s candidate against Vito Lopez for District Leader in the 53rd AD, Esteban Duran, is not some kid who arrived from Brooklyn Heights ten minutes ago (which in the 50th AD would make him quite representative of the community). Duran grew up their an was a protégé of longtime homegrown Lopez’s antagonists. No matter how one feels about Lopez, one must give the kid credit for political courage.
As I’ve noted, no doubt controversially, I think the question of whether it is Cohn or Restler who wins in the 50th will be of little moment to whether or not Vito Lopez is ever dumped as County Leader.
The question whether such a result would be a desirable is a different matter. My question, as always, is “compared to what?“Not every challenge to Lopez will necessarily yield improvement. As I’ve outlined here and here, those who argue for a return to the days of Clarence Norman should refresh the memory of what they’re wishing for. Maybe they’re right, or maybe they’re not.
And barring a revolution seemingly impossible from this years line up of primaries, if an alternative to Lopez does become viable in the next two years, it will almost certainly be a choice of some modified variation of the Norman-model.
The reason Lopez may be vulnerable includes the fact that many black leaders want changes to eviscerate the County’s Judicial Screening panel, because the current arrangement has not inured to the benefit of the ambitions of some of their friends. Such changes, which I would not put past either Lopez or some of his potential opponents, would be CHANGE, but they would not be REFORM.
As I think I’ve implied in my less than passionate assessment of the 50th, the best policy seems to me to make sure that each local area has indigenous local representation, who represent that area’s views, and emanates from the community rather than being imposed from above by County. The 50th is an evolving polity, and my guess is that, as of today, especially given the area’s large Hasidic population, Cohn still is more representative of the vote which will come out. However, I would not be shocked to be proven wrong. Further, Minucci has surely been a less aggressive candidate than her running mate, so it would also not shock me for there to be a split decision.
In my home area of the 52nd on the other hand, indigenous local representation not imposed from above means Leaders who are not afraid to criticize Lopez, who has often times been proven capable of behavior modification when there is someone around to keep things honest.
Perhaps that’s why Lopez want to win the races in the 52nd so badly.
It would also be nice if candidates for Leader were committed to ideas and values, rather than to particular men and/or women, that were committed to being loyal Democrats cognizant of their fiduciary duties to the Party, that they were smart, and had the ability to build coalitions, and make compromises, but that they remembered what they stood for when they did so.
While I’d like to say I know the lay of the land everywhere and can provide some guidance to all who require it, this is, sadly, really not the case. Sometimes all I’ve got is instinct.
In the 55th AD, for instance, it appears that an unlikely clusterfuck including the Boyland Family, the Barron Family, the Clarke Family, and the WFP has gang-banged up to go medieval upon Councilwoman Darlene Mealy in her District Leader’s race. Instinct tells me that the gentlemanly thing to do here would be to endorse Mealy over her opponent, and I would do so, were it not for one thing:
Her opponent is running against Darlene Mealy.
Outside of my home area of the 52nd , I think I often know too little, or sometimes too much, to comment, or it may be I just don’t wish to express my opinions out loud. Thirty years in Brooklyn politics is surely enough to build up too many prejudices and friendships to always be a useful observer.
Especially in races where prejudices and friendships are often the only issues.
However, in dealing with these races, even to the very limited extent that I do, I will not be using only the lens of pro or anti-Lopez, or pro or anti “reform” (whatever that may mean in this context).
For instance, in the 40th AD, my concern is that one of the candidates for Female Leader, Assemblywoman Inez Barron, has already endorsed the candidate for Governor of another political party, specifically her husband Councilman Charles Barron’s “Freedom Party.”
This would be disqualifying even if Inez Barron were not also a homophobe who voted against same-sex marriage. If elected to State Committee, Barron should be thrown off it, as should 48th AD Leader Dov Hikind, who has so far raised money for at least 20 Republican Congressional candidates around the Country
DON’T RUN FOR A PARTY OFFICE, UNLESS YOU ARE COMMITTED TO THAT PARTY!
As such, In the 40th AD Gatemouth endorses for Female Leader Carol Faison and, for Male Leader, her running mate Earl Williams.In the 57th AD, Olanke Alabi (along with her co-leader Walter Mosely, who is unopposed) is perhaps the black leader most in line with the sentiments of her white liberal neighbors, and thus often an ally of process reform. Alabi is being challenged Renee Collymore, the girlfriend of political crazy Geoffrey Davis. Davis and Collymore seem to spend an inordinate amount of time attacking the integrity and the personal affairs of Room 8 blogger Mary Alice Miller, and have crossed the line of decency far too often.
Gatemouth endorses Olanike Alabi.
And though I will admit that sentiment may be overcoming reason here, in the 60th AD incumbent Ralph Perfetto, one of Brooklyn’s great local characters, and an independent who calls them as he sees them and then does not duck, deserves another shot.
When I catch my breathe, I will some back and address the matter of the 52nd AD in a bit more detail.
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