Brooklyn Court Insurgent Wins Round as Foes Rally
A judge yesterday upheld the election of avowed reformer Margarita Lopez-Torres who won the race for the highly-prized Surrogate's Court judgeship in Brooklyn last month by a slim 120-vote margin. Queens Supreme Court Justice Leslie Leach ordered the Board of Elections to certify Lopez-Torres' election, ruling that lawyers for runner-up candidate Diana Johnson had failed to substantiate their claim that some 1200 challenged affidavit ballots should be counted.
Hours after the ruling, more than two dozen supporters of Johnson, most of them leaders in the regular faction of Brooklyn's Democratic Party, rallied to protest the decision. The rally was held outside the Park Plaza diner on Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, the frequent gathering place for former Brooklyn Democratic leader Clarence Norman, Jr., who lost his post after his conviction last month for campaign abuses. The surrogate's court job became vacant after Judge Michael Feinberg, a Norman ally, was removed for improperly awarding millions in fees to a crony.
The small crowd occasionally broke into chants of "Count the votes," as speakers invoked the 2000 presidential Florida vote recount controversy. "This is a repeat of what occurred in Florida," said state senator Carl Kruger of Mill Basin. The rally was led by state assemblyman Vito Lopez of Bushwick, who is seeking to replace Norman as head of the embattled party. "We are going to appeal this case and take it to federal court," said Lopez.
Unlike the Bush-Gore Florida battle, however, where Democrats insisted that thousands of votes had been improperly invalidated, Johnson's attorney agreed early in the recount process that the 1200 uncounted affidavit ballots were flawed and should be disregarded. Attorney B. Mitchell Alter said he made that call when Johnson was leading by a small margin. "I don't know anything about that," said Lopez at the rally. "So what if he did? Lawyers sometimes make mistakes," said city councilman Lew Fidler.
In recent years, Brooklyn's Democrats have fought bitterly over the control of the patronage-rich surrogate's court position which carries a 14-year term and oversees lucrative appointments to hand-picked lawyers. If Lopez-Torres prevails, it would snatch away a key party plum, one of the last remaining perks for the once-powerful Democratic organization.
In a deal with Governor George Pataki this summer, state legislators created a second surrogate's position for the borough. The maneuver allowed Democratic leaders to choose one of their own for the new post, without having to submit their choice to the voters at the polls since the new position didn't take effect until after the filing deadline for elections. Party officials last month chose Assemblyman Frank Seddio, a longtime Norman ally from south Brooklyn, for the seat.
At the rally, Assemblyman Lopez repeatedly refused to discuss the second surrogate's slot. "We're not here to talk about that," he said. The contested surrogate's court race has also become the latest battleground between Lopez and Lopez-Torres, a civil court judge who is no relation but who was first elected with the assemblyman's support. Lopez-Torres later broke with party tradition by rebuffing demands from both Lopez and Norman that she appoint law clerks they recommended.
"I am going to do what I pledged to do during the campaign whichis to bring new reforms and open this office up for the people," said Lopez-Torres after yesterday's court ruling in her favor.
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