The Court Street Regular

Brooklyn Machine Wants One of Its Own Atop the New Council

There are 300 candidates running for slots on the new City Council in this wide-open, post-term-limits election year that is supposed to help bring a surge of fresh faces and citizen activists into office.

But the single largest campaign war chest of any council candidate has been amassed by a veteran Brooklyn politician whose entire career is the product of holding an inside edge in party politics.

Attorney Steven Cohn, candidate for the 33rd District representing Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and a swath of Park Slope, has raised $303,000—more than double that of the next-highest council candidate. The rich haul has come from the landlords and nursing-home owners he has long represented, his associates in the legal industry, and the businessmen who have always clustered around the Brooklyn Democratic party machine like moths at a streetlight.

Steve Cohn, say those who have watched him in action for years, wants to be everyone's best friend.

The son of a popular former assemblyman and judge, Cohn is a longtime Democratic district leader from Greenpoint with a string of political appointments on his résumé. He has been law clerk to a Brooklyn judge, counsel to the two prior council members from the district, and a part-time staff member of two Assembly subcommittees. This is Cohn's first tilt at major elective office, and if he's elected, both his age (52) and his experience will make him a formidable power amid a sea of novices and second-termers. His supporters have openly advanced the notion that Cohn could well be the next Speaker of the Council.

The idea isn't an enormous stretch.

For 25 years, Stevie Cohn has been a Court Street fixture, a good man to know around the courthouses and law offices of downtown Brooklyn. Rail-thin, bespectacled, and soft-spoken, he is no one's image of a powerbroker, but as executive secretary of the Kings County Democratic Committee he helps decide who becomes a judge in that borough and who doesn't. And as things work on Court Street, judges have recognized his legal talents, awarding him court appointments as guardian, receiver, or referee that have earned his law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

After the New York Post in 1997 named him the largest single recipient of courthouse patronage, collecting $550,000 in fees for his firm over the previous five years, Cohn insisted the appointments were all on the merits. But, he said, if the receiverships were disturbing to some, he would no longer accept them. Court records show, however, that seven more appointments fell his way from Brooklyn Supreme Court judges over the past two years. Through a spokesperson, Cohn said he had only meant to refuse appointments from Surrogate Court.

Such hairsplitting is a way of life on Cohn's Court Street, where it has always been more important to know the judge than to know the law.

When the owner of a Brooklyn adult home was charged last year with swindling Medicaid out of tens of millions of dollars, he quickly hired three lawyers to represent him: a former deputy mayor, a law partner of Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Clarence Norman, and Cohn. As it happened, the Supreme Court judge who was given the case had only just sent out invitations to his son's bar mitzvah. Cohn and Norman's partner were two of the invitees. Prosecutors objected, and Cohn and the partner quietly dropped off the case.

Almost all the fixtures of Brooklyn politics can be spotted at Cohn's annual preelection-day breakfast at Junior's Restaurant on Flatbush Avenue that is part fundraiser, part meet and greet. The political expenses of serving as a party district leader are almost nil, but Cohn has made it into a high-rent office. The Friends of Steve Cohn, headed by his law partner, Richard Goldberg, annually pulls in more than $60,000. The money in turn has gone to newspaper ads and contributions to political committees and organizations, ranging from orthodox Jewish yeshivas to Al Sharpton's National Action Network.

Steve Cohn, say those who have watched him in action for years, wants to be everyone's best friend.

But some friends are best forgotten.

In 1984, Cohn served as campaign manager for a lawyer named Samuel Weinberg in his race for civil court judge. It wasn't much of a race, since Weinberg was given the party designation by Democratic officials and he beat his Republican opponent 5-1. Although Cohn's spokesman insists the men had no personal relationship, Weinberg listed his official residence as 235 Adams Street, the same downtown Brooklyn apartment building where Cohn lives.

But a couple of years later, something very unjudicial happened with Judge Weinberg: He was arrested by federal authorities, charged with a slew of disturbing crimes stemming from his real estate business. Weinberg was alleged to have hired a torch to burn a building he owned. The resulting fire had scorched a sleeping tenant, causing third-degree burns, and injured several firefighters.

Weinberg pled guilty to one count of racketeering, but prosecutors asked the judge to consider Weinberg's full array of criminal activity in determining sentence, what they described as "a veritable laundry list of crimes against vulnerable individuals." Weinberg had solicited "henchmen to assault and rape tenants," the lawmen said. He had exposed his genitals to an elderly female tenant he was trying to evict. He had hired vandals to wreck apartments, withheld services, evicted tenants by force, and defrauded insurance companies.

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