By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
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By Jon Campbell
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Say this for Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic powerbroker who is flexing his political muscles these days like a gym rat pumping the free weights: He is not one to let a few silly scandals knock him off the game plan that has served him so well for so long.
Even as the investigation of politicians alleged to have steered government money to relatives and cronies is fast becoming a cottage industry for local prosecutors, Lopez has stayed the course. This year, the veteran State Assemblyman allocated another $350,000 in state funds to the organization he helped found back in the 1970s, the sprawling Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. This was only the latest of many millions in taxpayer monies that Lopez and his political allies have sent the group's way. Given his many and tangled ties to the group, lesser politicians might hesitate to be so openly generous. But that is why they are not Vito Lopez, and not the leader of the Kings County Democratic Party, nor the powerful chairman of the Assembly's Housing Committee.
Yes, it is true he cohabitates with Ridgewood Bushwick's $190,000-per-year housing director, Angela Battaglia, the love of his life. What business is that of yours? Yes, his Bushwick United Democratic Club rents its offices from the organization. What of it? Yes, he has allocated more than $50,000 to the group's newspaper, and yes, the paper regularly carries his photo and features extensive reports on his good works. What? You think that's not news?
Yes, he personally makes sure that the city and state spend some $170,000 on the group's massive annual picnic at Long Island's Sunken Meadow State Park. Are you anti-picnic? Yes, the day-long extravaganza chiefly serves as happy hunting grounds for Lopez-friendly politicians who bring their campaign flyers, banners, buttons—and even their mothers—to press upon the assembled citizens of north Brooklyn. Only the mean and spiteful would deny these folks their day in the country.
And yes, this year, Lopez is pushing the envelope even further, promoting not one, not two, but three of Ridgewood Bushwick's allies into elective office. He is seeking nothing less than a sweep, a kind of Vito-fecta that will further extend his political influence. Again, what exactly is the problem here? It only shows what a magnificent training ground for public service he has managed to create.
Lopez protégés are running for election in two adjoining City Council districts, and the assemblyman is pulling out all stops and twisting all arms to make sure his surrogates win office.
In the 33rd District, which skirts north Brooklyn from Union Street to Williamsburg, Lopez's current chief of staff, Stephen Levin, 28, is running to fill the seat being vacated by David Yassky. Levin's complete résumé is this: Brown University, B.A., classics and comparative literature; two years, Ridgewood Bushwick; three years, Lopez legislative aide. As soon as Levin went to work at Ridgewood Bushwick, he immediately enlisted as a campaign aide on various Lopez elections, the dividing line between politics and social work being remarkably thin in these precincts.
In the adjoining 34th District, which encompasses a swath of Williamsburg and Bushwick, Lopez is pushing the candidacy of a young woman named Maritza Davila, currently a project director at Ridgewood Bushwick. Lopez is such a Davila fan that he allocated $45,000 in funding for her job there. The money, according to Lopez's legislative initiative form, pays for Davila to take residents to museums, aquariums, and sporting events. She also does double duty: In addition to her day job, Davila serves as a Democratic district leader in Lopez's political club.
Bushwick is Lopez's home base. OK, not his actual residential home. He lives blissfully with Battaglia far from his district in a Queens condo. His political home. He has long controlled the local Council seat, but sometimes, his protégés disappoint him and he is forced to seek their removal. For instance, the incumbent Council member in the district is Diana Reyna, whose training came—where else?—from being a Lopez aide.
Reyna, however, ran afoul of her mentor when she dared to disagree about a large tract of undeveloped land known as the Broadway Triangle. Thanks to his great clout with city and state officials, Lopez arranged to have all of the housing development opportunities there routed to Ridgewood Bushwick and a kindred group, the United Jewish Organizations, which controls social service funds in the Orthodox section of Williamsburg and whose executives happily carry Lopez's election petitions. Lopez has long been a big booster of Mayor Bloomberg, and his influence is such that the city didn't even bother holding its usual competition among would-be developers. It simply designated Lopez's chosen groups.
Reyna sided with other organizations not controlled by Lopez—including accomplished housing providers like Los Sures and St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation—who believed that the low-income area would be better served by more affordable apartments. Lopez immediately went looking for her replacement.
He held a big rally at City Hall this spring to introduce Davila. "We need a team player!" he cried to cheers from the crowd filled with Ridgewood Bushwick employees.
The third candidate on Lopez's team is a bit of a sleeper. Even inside the district, few are aware that the county Democratic leader has placed an old friend named Pam Fisher on the ballot to be a civil court judge. Fisher lives in Whitestone, Queens, but her local ties are golden. Her sister is Christiana Fisher, the executive director of Ridgewood Bushwick, who pulls in $234,000 a year from the main group and an added $89,700 from its home-care division. She has her political duties as well, serving as records custodian for Lopez's campaign organization.
Pam Fisher, also a Ridgewood Bushwick alumna, has no primary opponent, so her name will automatically appear on the November ballot. This is lucky for her, since she was declared unqualified for the bench by both city and Brooklyn bar associations after she refused to submit to screening. Not that it matters. She is guaranteed to win since Republicans don't even bother running candidates for such posts.
Making judges is just one of the glories of being a Democratic county leader. Another is the joy of being able to bend others to your will. Among the able candidates for the 33rd District seat sought by Levin, Lopez's mini-candidate for the post, is Evan Thies, who was long David Yassky's chief of staff. Yassky—desperate not to antagonize Lopez in his own race for the city comptroller's post—didn't even endorse his own aide.
Even more craven has been the performance of the Working Families Party, which is backing Levin at Lopez's behest in exchange for the county leader's backing for party favorite Bill de Blasio in his bid to become Public Advocate. The party could have chosen any of three other stellar candidates: Thies, affordable housing builder Ken Diamondstone, or veteran civil rights attorney Jo Anne Simon.
De Blasio and Yassky are both Brooklyn products, and it is unlikely that Lopez would have gone against either of them. But the county leader has mastered the art of the bluff.
In fact, Lopez hasn't won a significant borough-wide contest since becoming county leader. Last year, for the second time, his candidate for surrogate's court went down to defeat.
"He is just a paper tiger," says Luis Garden Acosta, the veteran Williamsburg community advocate who is supporting Reyna. "It is all about the aura and the pretense of power." Kind of like those pumped-up weight lifters who get knocked out the minute they step into the ring.