Two candidates in a tight three-way Assembly race to be settled today say that they are not being allowed to campaign in senior housing projects run by allies of Democratic Party Boss Vito Lopez — a courtesy that’s regularly extended to Lopez’s hand-picked candidate.
Both aspiring pols — Jesus Gonzalez and Deidra Towns — say that the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a Lopez-founded charity that manages several senior facilities in the district, has made it nearly impossible for them to meet constituents in those buildings.
Gonzalez, a Working Families Party candidate, called to schedule visits at senior buildings three times in the past month, only to be repeatedly rebuffed.
One Gonzalez canvasser was kicked out of a senior home at 1145 Gates Ave., and Gonzalez himself was booted out of the Roundtable Senior Center a block away after showing up during its lunch hour last Wednesday, less than one week before the election.
Minutes after nabbing Gonzalez and escorting him to her office, the center’s director Susan Bayo immediately called Ridgewood Bushwick CEO Christiana Fisher, who told her to show Gonzalez the door.
By coincidence or design, Fisher moonlights as Lopez’s campaign treasurer.
“It’s pretty obvious what’s going on,” said Gonzalez. “For too long, these seniors have only been exposed to few perspectives and machine politics.”
Good government groups call the practice “objectionable.”
“Seniors should not be walled off from the world for political reasons or any other,” said Common Cause’s Susan Lerner. “Seniors want company, they want to feel a part of current events.”
Blocking political opponents from visiting Ridgewood Bushwick sites dates back to new political protocols adopted in December, 2009, that require all candidates and public officials to schedule a visit with Fisher one week in advance. The rules also ban campaign materials from being distributed inside its sites.
A spokesman for Ridgewood Bushwick denied the notion that some candidates are allowed to skirt the protocols.
“RBSCC developed a policy that it abides by for ALL CANDIDATES running for elective office,” the spokesman, Edward McDonald, said in a statement.
McDonald added that all three candidates have been blocked at various times for not following the protocol, though Rafael Espinal, who is backed by the Lopez machine, did gain entry to one building after requesting permission to campaign.
Espinal’s campaign manager Mike Olmeda said that his canvassers “probably” got into other senior housing buildings.
Towns once showed up at Roundtable on the invitation of a supporter who eats lunch there. But her campaign has had difficulty entering other buildings.
“In terms of the center being an open, welcoming environment to speak to seniors, it doesn’t work like that,” said Towns. “Staff at other senior centers are very welcoming, but Ridgewood Bushwick isn’t that way.”
Lopez built his political empire by providing housing and senior services to constituents through his charity and legislative gifts.
As a result, seniors have proven extremely loyal to Lopez and his allies.
Seniors typically vote in high numbers and nine polling sites in Lopez’s Bushwick district are located in Ridgewood Bushwick buildings.
Meanwhile, Lopez’s political opponents are stymied.
Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D–Bushwick), one of Lopez’s main rivals, has not been inside a Ridgewood Bushwick center since the 2009 election — even though her office has made have a dozen requests.
Fisher has either ignored or canceled all of Reyna’s invitations, according to a source familiar with the inquiries.
And two years ago, Reyna staffers even tried dropping off two turkeys for each facility during Thanksgiving — but the birds were refused because Fisher was not present at the site.
The councilwoman has not given any funding to the charity since 2009.
Reyna made formal complaints to the Department for the Aging about the issue, but the agency told her that they do not police senior centers. A spokesman for the agency said that each center implements its own policy regarding candidates.
One Brooklyn political operative says keeping opponents out of senior centers is shrewd political strategy.
“They’re hoarding votes like cattle,” said one source. “At the end of the day, what matter is that they only know Ridgewood Bushwick and nothing else.”