By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In 2008, flushed with the excitement of helping elect Barack Obama, two young Brooklyn residents decided to see what they could do to keep this drumbeat of democracy going.
Matt Cowherd, lawyer, and Rachel Lauter, law student, made an appointment to see Brooklyn's Democratic Party leader, Assemblyman Vito Lopez. They wanted to tell him about the wonderful group they'd started—New Kings Democrats—that had mobilized scores of Brooklynites in the presidential campaign. A call was made. Come on up, said Lopez.
The party boss met them at his political club, the Bushwick Democratic Organization on Wyckoff Avenue, several aides at his side. Last week, Cowherd spoke about the meeting: "We said, 'Look, we are a bunch of Obama organizers, people who would like to continue the "Hope and Change" movement, and take it local. Maybe you can put us to work?' "
First, they could register more voters. They also had another idea: "We'd noticed there is an elected position called county committee with lots of vacancies. We said, 'Maybe this is a chance for people to represent the two- or three-square blocks where they live, to get them plugged into their immediate neighborhood. Why not take all these folks who have been activated by the Obama campaign and give them a chance to do something for their community? You would also be developing a new generation of leaders in the party.' "
The way Cowherd remembers it, the county leader shook his head and told them what he thought of their marvelous ideas: "He said, 'You guys are a bunch of gentrifiers and newcomers. You think you are going to come in here and tell me how to run the party? It doesn't work that way.' "
The leader also gave his view on this county committee business. "He told us, 'It has no power. The members don't do anything, and they are not supposed to do anything,' " Cowherd said.
The meeting ended abruptly after Steve Levin, now a City Councilman but then Lopez's chief of staff, suggested they would be better off joining the city's local community planning boards. "We said, 'Actually many of our members are on the community boards.' Vito said, 'I know that's not true.' " Since the chairman of the Kings County Democratic Committee was now calling them liars, the pair decided it was time to go. "We said, 'All right, well, thanks for your time,' and we left."
Maybe Barack Obama, who came out of Chicago's hardboiled politics, should have given his young followers a heads-up about this sort of thing. Obama got his own lesson from Judge Abner Mikva, who told about the greeting he got from a Democratic ward heeler when he tried to volunteer in an election: "We don't want nobody that nobody sent," was the famous reply.
This is also Lopez's basic organizing principle. Party bosses are supposed to be a vanishing breed, but Lopez, who has headed Brooklyn's Democrats since Clarence Norman's conviction in 2005, does a pretty good imitation. Since he took over, he has used the party's biggest remaining clout—the ability to name judges—to put friends and cronies on the bench, regardless of ability or experience. His girlfriend's brother now sits on State Supreme Court, as does a disgraced former Councilman named Noach Dear who never practiced law. Last year, he put one of his oldest friends on the Civil Court, even though she was found unqualified by two bar associations. Since the courts are where New Yorkers go in pursuit of justice, this is not unimportant territory. Still, the party's district leaders rubber-stamped these moves, and for good reason. Most hold political jobs. One vote the wrong way and they could lose them.
Fortunately, even party bosses still must hold elections, and next week Lopez will find out if these nervy kids who came calling two years ago are as good at organizing as they claimed. One contest is taking place in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, where a leader of the New Kings Democrats named Lincoln Restler is running for the local district leader post. Restler, a Brooklyn native who works for the city helping poor people manage their funds, is up against a Lopez-backed candidate named Warren Cohn, whose father, Steve, held the seat for 27 years. Steve Cohn put his position to work by winning more lucrative court appointments from judges he helped elect than anyone else in Brooklyn. Restler, a tousle-headed young man with horn-rimmed glasses, says his race is about "building a new progressive coalition." It also wouldn't hurt, he adds, if he beats Lopez "right in his backyard."
There is a challenge in Lopez's front yard as well. In Bushwick, a 32-year-old man named Esteban Duran is running with the support of the New Kings Democrats for Lopez's own district leader post. Duran also doesn't exactly fit the outsider profile. He was born and raised on South 3rd Street in Williamsburg, where his father worked as a custodian and his mother in a day-care center. His first lessons came in Transfiguration Parish on Marcy Avenue from the great late pastor Reverend Bryan Karvelis. "Father Karvelis would tell us we had to get away from the 'me, me, me,' " said Duran last week as he sat in a coffee shop on Myrtle Avenue, the M train roaring past. "He said it's all about 'we,' not 'me.' "
Lopez's response to Duran's candidacy was standard-issue Brooklyn politics: Claiming fraud, he tried to get him kicked off the ballot. After Board of Elections examiners found Duran's petitions legitimate, Lopez filed suit in Supreme Court. This is a place where a county leader might hope to find a friend sitting on the bench. Instead, the case landed before Justice Carolyn Demarest, who gave the case five days of careful hearings.
Lopez's attorney called more than two dozen witnesses. The closest thing to fraud heard on the witness stand, however, was from a woman who admitted that two of Lopez's aides had told her to change her story about whose petition she thought she was signing.
There was also a remarkable moment when Lopez's lawyer subpoenaed the City Housing Authority in an effort to prove that some of Duran's signatories didn't hold valid leases. Instead of a records clerk, the Housing Authority sent its version of a two-star general, its chief intergovernmental affairs officer, whose job it is to handle elected officials like Lopez, who chairs the Assembly's Housing Committee. On the stand, Housing Authority representative Brian Honan was asked by Duran's attorney, Leo Glickman, if he had spoken to Lopez about the leases.
"Yes," answered Honan. "I spoke to him. He said that we were subpoenaed—[he] just asked that we would answer the subpoena."
The episode clearly rattled Honan. "I wanted to know as little about this as possible," he told Aaron Short of The Brooklyn Paper after he testified. "I'm involved in government work, not political work." Demarest later dismissed Lopez's suit. Lopez appealed. The decision was upheld.
Asked last week why he'd called the Housing Authority's governmental liaison about his election problems, Lopez insisted that the call never happened. After he was read the testimony, he exploded: "I talk to him probably every three days about different public housing matters. That's the end of this interview."
It wasn't, though. An hour later, the assemblyman, who has been in poor health lately, called back, not to answer questions, but to rage against the unfairness of anyone who would write about his leadership race. "I hope you can sleep nights," he said. Not always, he was told.