Restler’s match: District leader faces challenge from CB1 chairman

It’s a shameless money grab
Community Newspaper Group / Aaron Short

A high-stakes political chess game between an old-time Democratic party boss and an upstart youngster is heating up in North Brooklyn, and a little-known, unpaid position hangs in the balance.

Incumbent Democratic district leader Lincoln Restler is being challenged by Community Board 1 chair Chris Olechowski — pitting a 28-year-old with powerful allies from Williamsburg to Washington against a longtime Greenpoint activist who has the backing of influential Democratic boss Vito Lopez.

They’re battling for a chance to hire poll workers, finagle support for the party, elect judges, and choose the party boss — and with Restler’s past as an outspoken opponent of Lopez, the September election is becoming a proxy war between new and old factions in the Democratic party.

It’s not a glamorous job, but both candidates think it is worth fighting for.

“This is a highly lucrative, unpaid office,” said Restler.

There was no masking the political grudge match at a stacked Restler press conference earlier this week, where 13 Brooklyn Dems, including Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–Williamsburg), Borough President Markowitz, and state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D–Brooklyn Heights), offered their support to the self-described reformer, who earned the esoteric position in 2010 after trouncing the Lopez-backed Warren Cohn, the son of retiring district leader Steve Cohn, who held the job for 27 years.

Though it’s not part of the job description, Restler framed his two years in office as a position of constituent services.

“Government is confusing and confounding and residents often need help navigating the process,” said Restler, who takes partial credit for bringing community gardens and farmers’ markets to the district.

“I’ve done my best to make myself available and make sure that local residents can achieve their objectives.”

Olechowski says his campaign is a means to ensure North Brooklyn’s neediest residents have representation in the local Democratic party.

“I have a great deal of experience knowing problems and concerns that affect this community,” said the 65-year-old, who started his public service career by creating programs to help Polish new immigrants. “I know what happens to people when they’re disenfranchised.”

Olechowski said he sees the tensions created by the spreading gentrification in North Brooklyn.

“As a community, there are some populations that are worse off than others,” said the aspiring Democratic district leader, who has been a CB1 member for more than 20 years. “My goal is to look out for those who can’t fend for themselves and are more likely to have a lack of representation because of their ethnic group, or because of a language barrier, or because they are elderly.”

Veteran political watchdog Hank Sheinkopf said the battle between the two civic activists isn’t just a race for a position most voters don’t understand — it’s another litmus test of Lopez’s power after two rough years plagued by scandals and bad press.

“Every district leader enforces the Democratic organization and every race they lose makes them look silly,” said Sheinkopf.

But Chris Olechowski, at right, wants to be North Brooklyn's new male Democratic district leader.
The Brooklyn Paper / Ben Muessig