Vito Lopez Night in Brooklyn: Re-elected Party Leader But Faces Health Fight
Bad headlines and investigations have never carried much weight with Brooklyn's Democrats. Party officials stood by past bosses Clarence Norman and Meade Esposito right up until a jury said the word "Guilty" in their respective criminal cases. They carried on that grand tradition last night by re-electing Vito Lopez as chairman despite two weeks in which he's gotten some of the worst press since Tiger Woods had his emails surface.
The vote, reports The Brooklyn Paper's Aaron Short, was a near shut-out: 47 for Lopez, three for Chris Owens, the newly elected district leader from downtown Brooklyn.
The tabloid tirade on Lopez got another boost last night, when a soft-spoken former custodian for Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council -- one of the city's largest social service groups and Lopez's power base -- showed up outside the Democratic Party meeting at St. Francis College on Remsen Street to tell how he was fired from his job after supporting a Lopez rival in last year's council race against Lopez's chosen candidate.
Cyril Joseph, 66, told the News' Erin Durkin that the morning after he publicly supported councilwoman Diana Reyna at a meeting, he got a warning call from a fellow super for the massive housing group. "You turned on Vito," his pal told him. He soon was told by a Ridgewood Bushwick official that he was fired, on direct orders of Angela Battaglia, the group's housing director and Lopez's longtime live-in girlfriend whose giant salary boost last year to $330,000 sparked the recent round of stories.
The vote to reinstall Lopez as county leader came a few hours after a remarkable rally was held on the steps of Brooklyn's Borough Hall. About 50 Brooklynites -- a joyous mix of hipsters, Hasidic rebels, and veteran reformers -- held signs urging the party to "Veto Vito." The rally was organized by the insurgent group, New Kings Democrats, whose candidate for the district leader post in Fort Greene and Williamsburg, Lincoln Restler, leads a Lopez-backed candidate by 85 votes, with more than 200 absentee ballots yet to be counted.
A lone Lopez defender -- former assemblyman and ex-judge Frank Seddio -- came to watch the show and soon became a one-man heckler. "Brooklyn's doing just fine without you," he shouted to the crowd on the steps.
After the rally, the group marched down the block to the meeting, accompanied by a bull-horn wielding reverend, Taharka Robinson, the former political consultant-turned-reformer. Robinson wore a long black, judge-like, cloak. "If Lopez can make all these other clowns judges, why not me?" he said.
The tabs also got a chuckle out of the return of one disgraced former judge: Ex-Supreme Court Justice Michael Garson who pled guilty in 2008 to stealing $600,000 from his own aunt. Garson is an elected judicial delegate, the body that will gather today to rubber-stamp Lopez's designated judicial nominations.
The real bad Lopez news, however, is deeply personal: The Brooklyn Paper's Short also reports that Lopez told friends last week that his cancer -- long in remission -- has returned. The assemblyman, who beat leukemia in the 1990s, was hospitalized this summer.
Lopez wasn't talking about it last night, but discussions of his health are always a tricky proposition. When I spoke to him two weeks ago for a story about his efforts to knock an opponent off the ballot (Lopez beat him handily last week), he berated me for even raising the subject. "If you didn't know I haven't been in the best health recently," he said. "Stress doesn't help. They tell me it's a contributing factor."
He also brought up a 2006 story I wrote about how he had routinely routed $50,000 a year in state money to the cancer clinic at Sloan Kettering Hospital headed by his own doctor. "Even other reporters have told me that article was despicable," he said. Maybe so, but it seemed fair to point out that, for a decade, he had funneled his largest single member item -- after taking care of his friends at Ridgewood Bushwick -- into his own treatment at an Upper East Side clinic when his district is one of the poorest in the state with its own severe health problems.
Vito Lopez is a complicated man, and he always make it tough for his critics to wish him well in his health battles. But despite juvenile name-calling by other writers on this Website, I hope he beats it this time, just like he did the last one.
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