Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the most powerful politician in Brooklyn, has had his share of battles with political opponents throughout his career, but he is facing an even more formidable foe — cancer.
A source confirmed that Lopez has been telling political allies this week that he believes his esophageal cancer has returned after being in remission for several years.
Over the weekend, Lopez met with several South Brooklyn state committee members for breakfast in Bay Ridge urging them to support him for another term as the county’s Democratic Party leader, despite his health concerns and a widening city investigation into the nonprofit he founded.
“His cancer is back terribly,” said Delia Schack, a district leader in south Brooklyn. “I understand he was in the hospital recently.”
Lopez has fought with cancer before — and won.
He was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1993, ridding himself of the disease three years later after doctors from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan saved his life.
His cancer reappeared in 1997, and he has been receiving periodic testing and treatments ever since — publicly urging his constituents to get tested themselves.
Speculation regarding Lopez’s health surfaced several weeks ago, when he appeared at his annual senior picnic in Long Island on Aug. 19, and at the funeral of a longtime political ally on Aug. 22 wearing a gauze bandage below his collar and looking exhausted.
But Lopez still made public appearances leading up to the primary, visiting seniors in nearly every senior center run by the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, the nonprofit that he founded 30 years ago.
The news about Lopez’s health has startled even his political opponents, including Marty Needelman, an attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services and a one-time friend.
“I visited him at Sloan Kettering with him a long time ago, it must have been early 2000,” said Needelman. “He had a rare form of leukemia. If it’s come back, that’s horrible.”
Lopez, the county’s party chairman for the past six years, defeated Esteban Duran in his state committee race last Tuesday by a 70 to 29 percent margin, but he has become embroiled in a widening fraud investigation that has ensnarled the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and its top executives.
Lopez was not the subject of the city’s investigation but remains its most public figure as its founder and chief advocate.
Lopez and his allies have repeatedly declined to comment about questions regarding his health.