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Politicians often speak of answering "the call to public service." Usually, this is invoked to suggest enormous sacrifice, as in, "If I wasn't running for this crummy elective office, I could be making megabucks at a big law firm."
Like certain dog whistles, this call is not audible to most people. If it were, a lot of us might stop yapping like obnoxious little border collies, come to heel, and do some good in the world. Alas, it is out of our hearing range. But there is no denying the call's powerful pull on those who are tuned in to that wavelength. Here now, from the streets of Brooklyn, comes the latest example: a selfless young woman named ShawnDya Simpson who is currently campaigning for a powerful city judicial post, even though it means forced separation from her loved ones.
Simpson, 41, is a former Brooklyn prosecutor who is already doing public service as a judge, having been elected to the bench in 2003. She is now running in a fierce election to see who will become the next judge of Surrogate's Court in Brooklyn (very complicated, it handles estates, details below). The problem is that Simpson's opponents have claimed that she doesn't live in Brooklyn, or even the city at all; hence she is ineligible to hold office. Another judge has been asked to consider these allegations, which he will certainly do later this month.
Simpson's supporters say that nothing could be further from the truth and that they will prove it. The source of the confusion, they say, is this: Simpson is the proud mother of four young children (she gave birth to an adorable baby girl just last fall). She and her husband, a wealthy hedge-fund manager, also have guardianship of a young nephew. Yet Simpsonï¿½heeding that ultrasonic public service callï¿½chooses not to live with her family in their comfortable home in a leafy town in Essex County, New Jersey. Instead, in order to comply with state rules that say judges must reside in the city where they serve, Simpson lives apart from husband and children in a lonely condo in Fort Greene adjacent to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway with its trucks thundering by all night.
"Look, you may not understand it, but it works for us," says husband Jake Walthour, who is running his wife's campaign. "She lives in Brooklyn. Occasionally, she visits us in New Jersey. Occasionally, we all come to Brooklyn. We make it work. People find this unfathomable, but we have an au pair."
If this still sounds fishy, Walthour says there are many documents that will be shown in court to verify the claim, including tax filings, utility bills, and credit card records. As for the $800,000 refinancing the couple did on the New Jersey home last yearï¿½for which Simpson told the bank the house would be her "principal residence"ï¿½that was meaningless legal boilerplate, says Walthour. "What does 'principal residence' mean? I don't even know what that means."
Walthour, who is the main financial contributor to his wife's campaign, says this residency business is a smokescreen for those who don't want a candidate with Simpson's "high ethical standards" to win. "If there is one thing Brooklyn's judiciary needs, it is honest people dispensing justice. When you are a prosecutor and a judge, you learn to hate dishonesty," he says. "You have to look it right in the eye. That is why I call this a crusade."
So there you have it. Elsewhere, people have elections for public office. In Brooklyn, they have crusades. As everyone knows, crusades entail great sacrifice, hopefully mostly by the other guy. In this case, the other guy is a woman, a soft-spoken Supreme Court judge named Diana Johnson, who has been on the bench for 16 years and who is making her second run for Surrogate's Court, having lost two years ago by just 102 votes. Johnson is black and, if elected, would make history as the first African-American to hold the coveted Surrogate's post. Actually, since Simpson is also black, whoever wins will make history.
Also like Simpson, Johnson is seeking the Surrogate's post out of civic duty. "I see this as my service," she says. "It is what I want to do for the community."
Let it be said, gently, that this is not exactly how Brooklyn's political leaders have long viewed this office. Surrogate's Court is where the estates of those unfortunates who perish in the borough are handled, and its judges regularly name private attorneys to handle such tasks as examining wills and selling property. In other words, the court is a much-prized feeding trough for political hacks.
The previous surrogate, Michael Feinberg, was removed in 2005 after he was found to have improperly awarded $8.5 million in fees to a crony. The judge before him also left under a cloud. The current surrogate, Margarita Lopez Torres, won the job by running as a reformer (thus inspiring the Democratic machine to create a second judge's slot that Simpson and Johnson are now seeking to fill). Lopez Torres has made reforms, cutting down on appointments and fees. Lawyers on Brooklyn's Court Street now refer to her as "that incompetent."
Judge Simpson's most influential supporter is the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss, Assemblyman Vito Lopez (absolutely no relation to Ms. Lopez Torres). Lopez won his leadership post after his own predecessor, Clarence Norman, was convicted (three times) on corruption charges. One of the things that Norman's trials revealed is that party leaders really like having judicial candidates like Simpson who come to the table with a lot of their own money. For one thing, it cuts down on expenses, and it also helps pay party-approved campaign consultants.
Lopez is mum on the allegation that Simpson really lives in New Jersey. A visit last week to his Court Street office at the Kings County Democratic Committee found Lopez not at home. But it was good to see, now that Norman's shady crowd is gone, that Lopez has spruced up the place, returning a large and handsome portrait of another former Brooklyn Democratic boss, Meade Esposito, to its place of honor on the wall, alongside those of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Esposito was most famous for being caught on FBI tapes saying, "I made 42 judges." This was shortly before his own corruption conviction.
Elsewhere on sweltering Court Street, Judge Johnson's campaign brain trust was hard at work preparing the residency challenge against Simpson. Veteran attorney B. Mitchell Alter was in his conference room wearing a day's beard growth, baggy blue jogging shorts, and a rumpled T-shirt captioned "Tour de Cape." "This is the most outrageous flouting of the election law I've ever seen," Alter said, smacking the table. "You can quote that."
Last year, Alter was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a pending bribery case against yet another Brooklyn elected official. The charges were lodged a few months after Alter lost another campaign, one that sought to unseat District Attorney Joe Hynes. "That was payback, that's was that was," said Alter.
Johnson's campaign manager is Gary Tilzer, a knowledgeable consultant who piloted Margarita Lopez Torres into office two years ago. "What can I tell you?" Tilzer sighed. "This is the state of things in Brooklyn. All spin, no democracy."