Power Plays by Party Boss Vito Lopez
The Lord of Brooklyn, a Democratic powerbroker who is flexing his
political muscles these days like a gym rat pumping the free weights
By Tom Robbins - September 01, 2009 - The Village Voice
Say this for Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic powerbroker who is
flexing his political muscles these days like a gym rat pumping the
free weights: He is not one to let a few silly scandals knock him off
the game plan that has served him so well for so long.
Even as the investigation of politicians alleged to have steered government money to relatives and cronies is fast becoming a cottage industry for local prosecutors, Lopez has stayed the course. This year, the veteran State Assemblyman allocated another $350,000 in state funds to the organization he helped found back in the 1970s, the sprawling Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. This was only the latest of many millions in taxpayer monies that Lopez and his political allies have sent the group's way. Given his many and tangled ties to the group, lesser politicians might hesitate to be so openly generous. But that is why they are not Vito Lopez, and not the leader of the Kings County Democratic Party, nor the powerful chairman of the Assembly's Housing Committee.
Yes, it is true he cohabitates with Ridgewood Bushwick's $190,000-per-year housing director, Angela Battaglia, the love of his life...
Yes, he personally makes sure that the city and state spend some $170,000 on the group's massive annual picnic at Long Island's Sunken Meadow State Park...
And yes, this year, Lopez is pushing the envelope even further, promoting not one, not two, but three of Ridgewood Bushwick's allies into elective office. He is seeking nothing less than a sweep, a kind of Vito-fecta that will further extend his political influence...
Lopez protégés are running for election in two adjoining City Council districts, and the assemblyman is pulling out all stops and twisting all arms to make sure his surrogates win office.
In the 33rd District, which skirts north Brooklyn from Union Street to Williamsburg, Lopez's current chief of staff, Stephen Levin, 28, is running to fill the seat being vacated by David Yassky. Levin's complete résumé is this: Brown University, B.A., classics and comparative literature; two years, Ridgewood Bushwick; three years, Lopez legislative aide. As soon as Levin went to work at Ridgewood Bushwick, he immediately enlisted as a campaign aide on various Lopez elections, the dividing line between politics and social work being remarkably thin in these precincts.
For those who aren't familiar with the Brooklyn machine, keep in mind that the former boss, Clarence Norman, is in prison for corruption and Vito Lopez should also be in prison. Steve Levin, as Vito Lopez's right hand man, cannot have been innocent of the corruption Vito Lopez is known for (for more info, see here here, and here).
So we start with Steve Levin, the machine candidate personally put forward by Vito Lopez. My first encounter with Steve Levin was when he came to the CBID dinner, where he quite simply behaved rudely towards Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez. At that first meeting I wondered whether Steve Levin has anything else going for him other than the support of the corrupt Party Boss? After that first meeting, Steve Levin skipped most of the candidate forums held in the Park Slope area of the district. The Presidents of both CBID and IND felt outright insulted by his behavior in regards to these forums. Later I met Levin while he was campaigning and he was in better form than previously, acting graciously even though he knew I was a critic. But the fact remains, Levin has NOTHING in the way of experience other than a few years doing Vito Lopez's bidding. He's personable and bright, and the machine is pulling out all stops (and money) to get him elected. But this is the same machine that put Noach Dear (a known homophobe who has never practiced law in his life) in as a Civil Court judge. This occurred while Steve Levin was working for Lopez, so he was part of this effort to foist an unqualified homophobe on Brooklyn as a judge. This is really the only kind of experience Steve Levin has. I consider Levin one of two candidates in the race who has the least qualifications. Add to that coming from the center of corruption in Brooklyn, it is pretty important that he is defeated.
Part of Levin's strategy to win is to use political connections (and Vito Lopez is an expert at political connections) to win enough votes in the conservative Haidic part of the district to balance out the anti-machine vote in the bulk of the district. I have found that in Park Slope the name of Vito Lopez tends to be anathema, so Levin has to get conservative votes from the Hasids to balance this.
Competing with Levin for the Hasidic vote in the 33rd district is Isaac Abraham, a Satmar Hasid who is running on a combined platform of opposition to Vito Lopez (hence technically reform) and what, for the district as a whole, would be extreme conservativism. Isaac Abraham has been a supporter of Connectitcut Senator Joe Lieberman, the former Vice Presidential candidate who became a McCain supporter in 2008. Abraham, who is running in the Democratic primary, has gone on record urging Jewish Democrats to re-register Republican. Abraham supports tax-payer funded school vouchers for private schools, a tradtionally Republican stand. Abraham is also opposed to gay rights and is anti-choice. These stands put him at odds with most of the voters in the district but is in sync with the orthodox Jewish and old-school Catholic neighborhoods. I have seen Isaac Abraham speak and he is a dynamic community activist and entertaining speaker. So he combines a certain odd charisma with activism and...extreme social conservativism.
Levin is using Vito Lopez's extensive political connections and is exploiting personality conflicts among the Hasids to siphon away votes from Abraham. So Hasids have the choice of voting their values (and so voting for Abraham) or voting according to political alliances and exchange of political favors (and so voting for the machine's Steve Levin). It should be noted that Levin's boss has had a history of supporting Republicans over Democrats before he became Party Boss, and even after that has had a history of actively discouraging challenges to Republicans in Brooklyn, so Vito Lopez certainly has his connections to conservatives.
With Levin and Abraham competing over the conservative votes, the remaining candidates are battling hard over the progressive and reform voters in the district. All four of the other candidates are liberals and have little appeal in the Hasidic part of the district and are far more suited for the majority of the district which is mostly progressive and reform minded.
Among these four are two candidates that have little money and few endorsements. Ken Baer is former head of the local Sierra Club chapter. A nice guy and great environmentalist, he simply has been unable to appeal to many voters. He may come in last in the end. Competing with Baer for last place is a complete newbie, Doug Biviano. When I first met Doug I thought he was an earnerst, intelligent guy who, with some time and experience, would become a great asset to local politics. I just figured he was too new and unlikely to get any support. Of all the candidates, Biviano has run the nastiest and most negative campaign, largely alienating anyone who might support him now or in the future. His hope is that if he bad mouths enough people he will win. This is a losing strategy plain and simple and amounts to a crash and burn. Biviano will not only lose big, but will almost certainly ruin all future chances of getting any support in local politics. He claims to be someone with fresh ideas, yet most of what he says I have heard from others long before he came along. He has done absolutely nothing to show he has the skills to accomplish anything in the city council. His concept of the issues are caricatures of reality. One friend said of him in an exasperated tone, "he thinks he invented the word 'reform.'" His ideas are good and he is on the right side of pretty much all issues, but he thinks just because he says good things everyone will flock to him and he attacks you if you don't. I really wanted to like him and look towards future alliances with him. But he has basically claimed credit for ideas people have been advocating for years and he then attacks everyone who doesn't support him. Not only is this unappealing, but it is politically stupid. No one wants to play with the kid who offers nothing buy insults. And no one will give Biviano the time of day after September 15th. It's a pity because he definitely had potential and could have been a great ally. But you don't form alliances by being a dick. And Biviano has been a genuine dick.
Evan Thies is the guy I know the least about in the 33rd even after meeting him several times campaigning. My wife and several others say he reminds them too much of the uber-weasel David Yassky. I think the term used was "the shadow of Yassky hangs over him." But Yassky has not endorsed Thies, somewhat distancing Thies from his sleazy mentor. Looking over his questionaire for CBID, and from what I hear from others, he doesn't sound that bad. Meeting him on the street I find him personable and appealing. There is the real concern that he is exactly the way Yassky was when he was running for City Council, with strong potential but may ultimately become the same sell-out that Yassky has become. CBID found him too reminiscent of Yassky with all his baggage. I have the same bias, but I think this might not be fair. In my book, the fact that Yassky betrayed him is a plus for him. But his only experience is working for Yassky, so I would like to see more before I would support him. Among his endorsements Thies lists the Smolenski Democratic Club which I was unfamiliar with. A political friend (usually as an opponent) did know it and describes it as "reactionary." I doubt reactionary represents Thies' views, but I do take notice when ractionaries endorse a candidate and wonder why. Most of Theis' other endorsements are reasonable, though there aren't many. I think once Yassky betrayed him, he lost some of his appeal. But he has been endorsed by the Freelancer's Union, Citizen Union, Brooklyn Downtown Star and Brooklyn Paper.
My two favorite candidates, who unfortunately seem to hate eachother, are Ken Diamondstone and Jo Anne Simon. Ken Diamondstone essentially is very similar to Doug Biviano on all issues, but actually has years of community activism behind him to show his mettle. Biviano offers a warmed over platform right from Diamondstone, but has done nothing to show his abilities. Diamondstone has been fighting for the community for years. Anyone considering voting for Biviano should really be supporting Diamondstone. Unfortunately, Diamondstone also shares with Biviano a tendency to run a negative campaign. Diamondstone, who could campaign based on his history of fighting for reform and for progressive issues and his excellent ideas (which are so good Biviano wants to call them his own), but instead he has often favored attacking his opponent. This does a diservice often not just to his opponent, but often to himself. In essence, Diamondstone receives great respect among many reformers in Brooklyn, but has a hard time turning that respect into an alliance that can win an election. He came close against Marty Connor once, but Marty Connor is a sourpuss who wasn't very popular. Most of Diamondstone's opponents this year are far more personable than Connor, so Diamondstone has failed to get several key endorsements that he would have gotten had he been better at forging lasting alliances. CBID and LID could easily have endorsed Diamondstone. Instead they found Jo Anne Simon the candidate they feel can best stop the machine even though they both have long standing ties with Ken. WFP also, in my mind, SHOULD have endorsed Diamondstone, but instead have opted to side with the Vito Lopez machine this time around. NY ADA is the only long standing ally of Diamondstone who remained loyal. Had Ken been able to unite these four groups, he would have been the frontrunner. But instead, Jo Anne Simon has become the champion of the reform movement in this race. Ken does, however, have a respectable set of endorsements including Pride Democrats and Stonewall Democrats.
Which brings me to Jo Anne Simon. Of all the candidates, Jo Anne is by far the most experienced. As a lawyer specializing in disabled rights and as a district leader, she has been serving the community for many years. She argued and won a landmark disabled rights case. She has been one of very few district leaders who has reliably stood up to Vito Lopez (despite the claims of some negative campaigning). She is less inspiring than Diamondstone, but this is because she is far more cautious in her approach. This loses her some support because she doesn't have the fire that Diamondstone has, but it gains her the ability to forge the coalition that I think is likely to win. She has the endorsements of the three strongest clubs in the district: Independent Neighborhood Democrats, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats and Lambda Independent Democrats. Now whatever I have said about one or more of these clubs (and IND can be a real disappointment when it comes to reform), what I have seen is that when all three unite against the machine, they usually beat the machine. When these three clubs go separate ways, all bets are off. But when they unite, they are formidable. And Jo Anne Simon has all three clubs. I greatly respect CBID. I don't know enough about LID to judge. And this year I consider IND a disgrace. But the fact is, when they unite behind a candidate, they do very well. Add to this the fact that Jo Anne Simon also has the New York Times endorsement and I believe she will win. I may not personally respect the NYT that much anymore (like IND they have done better when it comes to reform in the past). But they are influential. More respeactable to me are CBID, Brooklyn-Queens National Organization for Women (NOW) PAC, Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, State Senators Eric Adams and Velmanette Montgomery, Assembly members Joan Millman and Jim Brennan, and Councilwoman Tish James, all of whom have endorsed Jo Anne. Jo Anne Simon has united the reformers and the anti-Ratner forces in the district and added the NYT to boot. Her experience and the impressive alliance of reform and progressive endorsements will win out in the end I believe. Now I have been wrong before, but I think Jo Anne will pull it off.