Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez has strengthened his control of the borough’s political establishment by more than doubling the number of hand-picked loyalists in party leadership positions.
The appointment of six more “at-large” members of the party’s county committee on Monday night brings to 11 the number of unelected Lopez supporters who run the Democratic Party’s Brooklyn operation — and the move is being criticized by members of the committee who were actually elected by the people.
“It’s a real attack on us, and an expression of insecurity on the part of the county leader,” said Chris Owens, who has promised to challenge Lopez’s leadership of the party.
Even some Lopez loyalists object that unelected members now comprise more than a quarter of the party leadership.
“Some of [the at-large members] are good friends and good Democrats, but the process by which they were brought in is outrageous,” said Councilman Lew Fidler (D–Mill Basin), who is also an elected district leader. “The power to vote [in the county committee] was bestowed upon me by the Democrats in my district who voted for me. But that’s been turned into rubbish by these 11 people who do not have to get re-elected.”
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 — which is exactly what they did on Monday night, re-electing Lopez as chairman in a Soviet-style 47–3 landslide.
Given such a margin of victory, it’s unclear why Lopez feels that he needs more loyalists on an already compliant county committee. That said, such “party packing” is common and legal.
Every other county Democratic organization in the city has at-large members. Staten Island, for example, has 14 such unelected district leaders, the same number as their complement of elected district leaders.
But the Richmond County Democratic Party also capped the number of at-large members at 14, something Lopez’s party machine has not done — meaning Lopez can bring in more unelected members if he wants.
The only check on that absolute power is the United States Department of Justice, which reviews all voting changes in Kings County as part of a four-decade-long repair of the county’s history of electoral discrimination.
The feds approved the first five unelected district leaders last year, though told Lopez that “the approval does not bar subsequent litigation” — an option Owens and other district leaders are considering.
The new at-large members include Lopez loyalists Kevin Ying, a former intern in the chairman’s Assembly office; Johanna Castro, a former aide; and Maria Viera, a housing assistant director for the Lopez-backed Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, which is embroiled in a widening corruption investigation that, for now, does not directly involve Lopez.
Besides the Lopez insiders, other Lopez supporters were appointed, including retiring District Leader Steve Cohn; Mary Hobson, a former Flatbush district leader, Mary Rose Sattie; and Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny (D–Brighton Beach).
The original five unelected members were Ingrid Martin, chief of staff to state Sen. Eric Adams (D–Fort Greene); Henry Bolus, a longtime party loyalist who is currently the president of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Canarsie; Assemblyman Joe Lentol (D–Williamsburg), state Sen. Martin Malave Dilan (D–Bushwick) and former Assemblyman Frank Seddio, who was removed from the list so he could fill an elected district leader vacancy left by the death of longtime Canarsie state committeeman Bernie Catcher.
Lopez says that his critics have it all wrong about his appointment of unelected supporters — it’s not a power play, but an effort to expand the diversity of the party leadership’s team.
“[The at large members] are a microcosm of Brooklyn,” Lopez said, adding that Ying is the first Asian-American district leader while Brook-Krasny is the borough’s first Russian-American district leader. “The objective is to have an effective organization that represents the diversity of the different communities it represents and because of the at large members, almost every community is now represented.”
But Lopez is overstating his rainbow coalition building; Russian-born District Leader Mark Davidovich was elected in 2002, making him the first Russian-American on the panel.
In the end, Lopez said that he wasn’t solely responsible for picking the at-large leaders, but merely “took into consideration” the opinions of now-jilted elected district leaders such as Cohn.
“We’re still a democracy,” he said.