By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
"I didn't even know [Lippman] lived in Westchester," says Alpert, who was accustomed to promoting attorneys and county judges who had done their time for the party to Supreme Court slots. "I had breakfast with him, and the first thing he told me was that he and Shelly were raised together. He said he wanted to be cross-endorsed and that he wanted to go on to be an appellate judge." Alpert was just one of a legion of county leaders Lippman had to deal with over the years as he sought a Supreme Court seat—five counties with five parties occupy the 9th Judicial District—but Alpert says "we tried twice" (in 2000 and 2002, he believes) to deliver a multi-party cross-endorsement deal and couldn't.
Joseph Ruggiero, the Democratic leader from Dutchess County in 2002, said that on the day of the judicial convention when Democrats picked their Supreme Court nominees, Silver placed a conference call to a group of party leaders gathered at the Westchester headquarters and asked them to support Lippman. "We all said yes," recalled Ruggiero. How could they say no? With a Republican governor and Senate majority leader at the time, Silver was New York's top Democrat, and Denny Farrell, Silver's right hand in the assembly, was the state party chair.
When the current Westchester Democratic leader, Reggie LaFayette, finally did deliver a deal for Lippman in 2005, he explained Lippman's unusual candidacy—clearly more top-down than the typical grassroots designation—to his executive committee this way: "I told them I don't create judge seats. It was created higher up than me, by the two houses of the legislature. And someone yelled out, 'You mean Assemblyman Silver,' and I said, 'Well, he had to vote for it.' " But the bigger problem for LaFayette was cajoling his fellow leaders into giving up a seat in a cross-endorsement deal and backing a Republican. Cross-endorsements are easy when the two parties are competitive and no one knows who will win, but Democrats had won five of six judgeships in 2004, without any deals, and felt no need to give the GOP anything.
The executive committee understood LaFayette's argument and signed on, but a few weeks later, the price of the Lippman package deal got much steeper. The leaders could live with cross-endorsing the initial Republican candidate, a respected county judge named Stewart Rosenwasser. But just days before the September judicial conventions, the Republicans replaced Rosenwasser with a candidate that horrified many Democrats: Joseph Alessandro, also a county judge.
Alessandro had been found "not qualified" by the Bar Association and was dogged by tawdry tax and lawsuit charges. The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct is still investigating those charges, and Alessandro, who did become a Supreme Court judge, is now facing possible severe sanctions. Yet it was Lippman's demands that would put Alessandro on the bench.
Lippman wanted to be endorsed by all five parties, and that insistence created an opening for the county's most voracious party boss, Dr. Giulio Cavallo, who controlled the Independence Party. He wanted Alessandro, not Rosenwasser, to become Lippman's opposite number in the multi-party swap and get the cross-endorsements. LaFayette and the Republican leader, RoseMarie Panio, eventually decided to back Alessandro, but fights against the deal broke out on the floors of both of these ordinarily scripted and staid conventions. Challengers ran against Alessandro and, had he lost at either convention, Lippman's precious deal—and ultimately his route to the Court of Appeals—would have died.
The inclusion of Alessandro so offended Working Families party chair Pat Welsh that he endorsed Lippman but refused to back Alessandro, telling the Voice that the deal was "unconscionable." (Lippman ran on five ballot lines; Alessandro, apparently unconcerned about the Working Families Party, four.) A disgusted Rosenwasser wound up quitting the bench altogether.
At Lippman's January 2006 induction ceremony for Supreme Court in White Plains, Silver regaled the audience of bigwigs—at a special celebration separated from the swearing-in of the other new judges—with "our gang" stories from their first meeting at the age of six. Saying, "We have shared a common path," Silver joined in celebrating "with my colleagues in the legislature," many of whom were there, "who I say had a good hand in making today happen." While Lippman is now said to be downplaying Silver's role in his rise, he called him "family" in his speech and praised him for "marshaling the troops, and, boy, can he marshal the troops."
Lippman called himself "basically an apolitical person," and then thanked 16 party leaders, referring to each of the five from Westchester, including Cavallo, as "my leader," singling out Spano, who, he said, "vouched for me on the Republican side." Judge Gail Prudenti, the presiding justice in the Appellate Division covering Westchester, spoke on behalf of what she called "the many, many, many campaign advisers to the seemingly never-ending 'Lippman for Justice' campaigns."
The unexamined side of the Lippman saga is revealed in these salty Westchester tales, where the judge who pretends he is above self-serving politics played it as skillfully as his sidekick from the neighborhood who does it for a living. Lippman created the state's Judicial Campaign Ethics Center to guide candidates for elected judgeships, but he told Alpert, and many others, that he wanted the seat handed to him without the inconvenience of an election because it would be unseemly for the chief administrative judge to solicit contributions.