Williamsburg’s Democratic district leader fight was too close to call on Thursday night thanks in part to Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the embattled party boss who political insiders say got Northern Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities to come out in droves and vote for Chris Olechowski, the candidate he hand-picked to take out one-term incumbent — and longtime Lopez critic — Lincoln Restler.
By midnight, Olechowski was beating Restler by 200 votes, but the incumbent refused to concede, claiming that there were still plenty of absentee ballots to go through.
“This race is too close to call yet again,” said Restler, who went through a lengthy re-count before winning the obscure, unpaid party position two years ago. “We’re going to make sure every ballot is counted.”
Political insiders say that all but 17 percent of Olechowski’s votes came from Williamsburg’s Orthodox communities — and were quick to point out that Lopez (D–Bushwick) still has some clout in that part of Northern Brooklyn, even though he’s being investigated for groping, trying to kiss, and having sexually charged conversations with at least two female staffers.
Restler was one of the first to demand that Lopez resign when the scandal broke — a growing rallying cry that led to Lopez’s decision to step down as party boss.
Yet some claim the embattled pol isn’t responsible for the huge turnout that put Restler’s re-election bid in jeopardy — Orthodox Jewish groups may have wanted to use this opportunity to flex their own political muscles.
“The number of votes for Chris Olechowski in our neighborhood will clearly show the following and support that the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and Satmars have in Williamsburg,” an Olechowski supporter wrote in an email found by the Observer’s Politicker blog. “Right or wrong, this is precisely how the political world and the media will analyze it and this will form the basis as to how the new democratic party of Brooklyn will form their alliances and loyalty. This election turnout will guide the 2013 Citywide candidates in their quest for Williamsburg support.”
Neither Lopez nor Olechowski could be reached by our midnight deadline.
Restler, who had painted himself as a “reformer” bent on taking down the party boss, has been seen as a harbinger of Lopez’s downfall ever since the Assemblyman agreed to step down as party boss.
Olechowski, in turn, has tried to distance himself from Lopez, calling the Assemblyman’s alleged actions “reprehensible.”
Early in the election season, Restler racked up a number of endorsements, including Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–Williamsburg), Borough President Markowitz, and state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D–Brooklyn Heights).
Both candidates has positioned themselves as agents of change in North Brooklyn, with Restler touting his accomplishments in helping secure parkland and community gardens in the neighborhood. Olechowski positioned himself as a warrior fighting against the forces of gentrification.
Lopez was censured and lost a key Albany committee seat as a result of the sexual harassment allegations, which are currently being investigated by Staten Island DA Dan Donovan.
Restler’s absentee ballots may not be counted by Sept. 19, when Brooklyn’s Democratic district leaders vote for a new chairperson, but the Williamsburg Democratic district leader will be there anyway, since his term in office doesn’t end until December.
Candidates to succeed Lopez include Canarsie district leader Frank Seddio, a longtime member of the old guard Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, Brooklyn Heights district leader Jo Anne Simon, and Assemblyman Karim Camara (D–Crown Heights).