Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman Vito Lopez has made a controversial move to bolster his own power base by packing an obscure, but powerful, state committee with unelected loyalists.
Lopez, who is also a longtime assemblyman from Bushwick, has appointed five “at large” state committeemen to an otherwise elected body that is comprised of two “district leaders” from each assembly district in the state.
Lopez filled the new spots with longtime supporters, including former Assemblyman Frank Seddio (D-Bergen Beach) and state Sen. Martin Dilan (D-Bushwick).
As a result of Lopez’s secret move, one longtime critic of the chairman who was planning to run for re-election as district leader dropped out of the race immediately.
“These [at-large committeemen] have been put in place to dilute our position,” said Alan Fleishman, who has represented Brownstone Brooklyn for eight years and was just ramping up his re-election race against Stephen Williamson, a newcomer who is backed by Lopez.
“It was bad enough that [Lopez] had complete control over every single move, but now there are five more seats loyal to him,” Fleishman added.
“There’s really no democracy under Vito. It’s always been his way or the highway, but now you can’t even fight it because he’ll win every vote.”
Lopez’s move to pack the state committee with loyalists began late last year, but needed the blessing of federal Department of Justice, which, since 1968, has reviewed all voting changes in Kings County due to the county’s history of electorial discrimination.
The feds gave approval, though stated in a letter that “the approval does not bar subsequent litigation” — which is likely.
Councilman Lew Fidler (D–Mill Basin), who is also a Democratic district leader, initially objected to Lopez’s power grab, but now is OK with it.
“[Disgraced former party chairman] Clarence Norman wanted to do the same thing, but people like myself and [former Assemblyman] Tony Genovese fought it,” he said. “But now that it’s here, at least Vito has distributed the positions in a reasonably diverse way.”
Other district leaders at large include Ingrid Martin, chief of staff to state Sen. Eric Adams (D–Fort Greene); Henry Bolis, a longtime party loyalist who is currently the president of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Canarsie; and Assemblyman Joe Lentol (D-Williamsburg), who had a falling out with Lopez, but has been mending ties, political sources said.
“I’m not crazy about [the new district leaders],” Fidler said. “Whoever’s in those positions will tend to support the status quo.”
Yet one of the new hand-picked leaders said he’ll remain independent when he’s called to vote.
“[Vito Lopez] and I have a relationship and we have a friendship, but at the same time we represent two different parts of borough,” said Seddio. “I’ve never been someone who voted the way someone tells me to vote. Expect me to vote for what’s good for Brooklyn.”
District leaders are unpaid party officials responsible for collecting candidate petition signatures, finding viable judicial candidates and hiring poll workers on Election Day, but their main job is selecting the party’s county chairman — a post that Lopez apparently wants to keep.
As a result, this year’s contests are turning into a desperate battle for the soul of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, with loyalists to Lopez squaring off against longtime incumbents, and insurgents preparing to pick off Lopez-backed incumbents. For example:
• In the neighboring 50th Assembly District, Lincoln Restler of the progressive New Kings Democrats, has challenged longtime district leader, and Lopez supporter, Steve Cohn. It now appears that Cohn has dropped out of that race in hopes of having his son succeed him.
• And in the same district as Fleishman, another Lopez-backed newcomer, Hope Reichbach, is challenging anti-Lopez district leader Jo Anne Simon.
• In Bay Ridge, Kevin Peter Carroll is savaging longtime leader Ralph Perfetto on the campaign trail, saying that Perfetto is too close to Lopez.
Lopez wants to retain his job so badly that he’s stacking the deck in his favor, some say.
“Nobody cares about [district leader] jobs except Vito,” said Restler.
Fleishman’s departure from the race does not mean that Williamson has an easy path to victory. Former Council candidates Bob Zuckerman and Gary Reilly, former Congressional candidate Chris Owens and attorney Jesse Strauss have also said they are interested.
Lopez has not returned calls.