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Brooklyn Heights assemblywoman raged within the machine

The Brooklyn Paper
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Longtime Brooklyn Democratic Party functionary Jo Anne Simon just got a big-time promotion to assemblywoman, but she didn’t get there without a fight.

Simon, a disability-rights lawyer and 10-year district leader, sailed to an easy victory against her Working Families and Republican party challengers on Tuesday night and will take the seat of retiring Brooklyn Heights Assemblywoman Joan Millman in January. The win comes after a heated primary against Working Families-backed union lobbyist Pete Sikora, who scored 22.5 percent of the general election vote despite asking people to vote Simon. And it follows a much longer, more epic battle against former borough Democratic boss Vito Lopez, before he resigned in disgrace over sexual harassment and groping allegations.

Before Lopez’s dramatic fall, Simon had few allies in opposing the Brooklyn kingmaker who used his power within the party to ostracize those who challenged him. Ultimately, she said, those tactics hastened his ouster, and not playing by his rules helped her carve out a base within the political scene he dominated.

“If the base of your power is fear, you might make some headway, but you won’t win hearts and minds,” Simon said in an interview last week. “I represented my district, not him. This was about him being in charge of all the districts.”

Lopez ran the party with an iron fist, expecting district leaders to side with him and punishing those who refused by ignoring their calls and anointing candidates to run against them in the primaries, Simon explained. The district leaders are key to the county leader’s power in a way that made Simon a threat: their votes decide who gets to hold the seat.

As a freshly elected district leader in the mid-2000s, Simon pushed for party reforms including streamlining the cryptic appointment process for judges and opening up other opaque party procedures. Soon enough, she faced Lopez’s scorn in the form of a Lopez-groomed challenger to her 2009 Council campaign, Steve Levin. Levin won by 19 percent in the six-way primary and credited “Lopez’s mentorship and his advice and guidance” outside his victory party.

Longtime political consultant George Artz, who worked on Simon’s Assembly campaign, echoed the description of Lopez as a bully, and commended Simon for pushing back.

“He certainly was an intimidating force,” Artz said. “And standing up to him shows that she has the courage to stand up for what she believes in.”

The support Simon did have against Lopez was among the county Democrats’ women’s caucus and the upstart New Kings Democrats.

“She was opposing him when it wasn’t popular and when it was dangerous for her career,” said Matt Cowherd, cofounder and former president of the New Kings Democrats.

The following year Levin’s spokeswoman, the late Hope Reichbach, ran against Simon. Reichbach called Lopez “a family friend,” but denied Simon’s charge that Lopez pushed her to run.

Simon kept her position and, with Cowherd’s reform-minded faction, pushed for transparency, increasing the frequency of meetings (which occurred only twice a year), and eliminating so–called “at-large” district leaders, who could vote on party business but were hand-selected by the county boss and not beholden to a specific district. The reformers eventually won the changes.

“She talks the talk and walks the walk,” Cowherd said.

But it was ultimately Lopez who did himself in by purportedly groping, trying to kiss, and saying lecherous things to female employees. The two staffers made the allegations in the summer of 2012 and the Assembly secretly paid them $103,000, with the authorization of the state comptroller and attorney general. The Assembly stripped Lopez of the chairmanship of the influential housing committee and, in the fallout that ensued, additional sexual harassment allegations came to light and Lopez left his party-boss post that August. He finally resigned from the Assembly in May 2013, ending 14 terms in that office, but ran a fall Council campaign without making a single public appearance. He lost the Bushwick seat to Antonio Reynoso.

Simon initially sought to replace Lopez as party boss, criticizing the party as having a culture that silences women. But she stepped out of the race when it became clear she was going to get creamed by Canarsie Democratic operative Frank Seddio — who Lopez appointed to his first party gig and who defended state Senator Carl Kruger when he was arrested for developer pay-to-play schemes in 2011. When Seddio’s chairmanship came up for a vote, Simon abstained.

Now that she has achieved a position of real power, the big question that remains is whether Simon has changed the machine or become a part of it. According to Seddio, the difference is negligible nowadays.

“Up until these last two years there has always been a distinction between the county and the reformers,” Seddio said. “We managed to overcome that.”

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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