Only translucent panels and sliding doors of clear glass divide the backroom at the Park Plaza diner in downtown Brooklyn from the rest of the restaurant. And throughout the 90-minute meeting there last Wednesday night of the executive committee of the Kings County Democratic organization, members threw frequent, anxious glances over their shoulders at those watching intently from outside the room.
They had good reason to worry about who was out there.
The business of the evening was to select the party’s choices for five open seats on the State Supreme Court. At $136,700 a year, and with 14-year terms, the seats are the highest and most sought-after prizes the party can award. Those names are then placed before a much larger body of judicial delegates later this month when, with all the unanimity of a politburo-style election, they are declared as the official nominees of the Democratic Party.
Exactly how those seats are doled out has become the subject of a much publicized grand jury investigation by Charles Hynes, the borough’s district attorney. Hynes was long a loyal ally of the Democratic organization, employing its expert election lawyers and its savvy consultants in each of his campaigns for D.A. as well as in races for governor and attorney general. But, prompted by two embarrassing judicial bribery cases involving handpicked products of the organization, Hynes outraged his former allies this spring by saying he suspected corruption in the political process. Since then, his probers have questioned everyone from candidates for judicial office to those who received condolence flowers from party officials.
Over Labor Day weekend, rumors were rife along Court Street that indictments were imminent, that Hynes was poised to charge party chairman Clarence Norman Jr. with campaign fraud, expense account cheating, and squeezing would-be judges for payments to favored consultants. The timing of the charges, the rumors held, was to prevent Norman and his cohorts from proceeding with their latest judicial picks.
By primary day, however, the rumors had receded, and most of the party’s 40 district leaders gathered at the diner on Cadman Plaza, ready to proceed in the manner to which they have grown accustomed, by giving overwhelming endorsement to the slate put forward by the organization.
Despite the closed doors, there was little mystery about the goings-on inside. Norman, resplendent in a black pinstriped suit, could be seen addressing the group, a fistful of papers in his hand and his aide-de-camp, party executive director Jeff Feldman, at his side.
Thanks to agitation by a group of reformers within the party and persistent press criticism of the usual lockstep method of judicial selection, Norman had already allowed several changes that made the process at least less opaque than usual. The names of those serving on Norman’s handpicked judicial review panel, which passes on would-be candidates, were revealed for the first time. So too were those of the names of judicial candidates themselves found “qualified” by the panel. In mid July, Norman announced that 27 contenders had been so approved.
Armed with this information, reform leaders invited all 27 to a forum—the first ever—which was held a week before the executive committee meeting at the YWCA in Downtown Brooklyn. Seventeen of the candidates showed up to present their credentials and openly address issues facing the courts. Norman also attended, saying he was pleased with the new “openness.”
In the days after the forum, Norman got down to the business of calling individual district leaders, asking each for their choices among the contenders. The specific votes in that “straw poll,” as the organization refers to it, are a closely held secret, however, and after the glass doors were pulled closed on the diner’s backroom, Norman announced the results to the members.
There was an overwhelming “consensus” among them for three candidates, he told them. Each of these were current Civil Court judges (as were the majority of the contenders). Each of the three also happened to be a white, Jewish male. They were Bruce Balter, a former Surrogate’s Court assistant known for his vociferous conservative views; Arthur Shack, a former Major League Baseball Players Association attorney whose wife is a district leader; and Martin Solomon, a former state senator and another conservative who once angered many Brooklynites by distributing an anti-gay flyer during an election.
“They are a study in mediocrity,” summed up one party official who has observed each of the three in action over the years.
The two remaining vacant slots, Norman told the group, would be split between a Latino candidate and an African American one, and there were two close contenders for each position. Brooklyn has a 65 percent African American and Latino majority, but Norman didn’t bother to explain the ethnic arithmetic that allotted them just two seats, while three appointments went to whites. He didn’t have to. The clear understanding in the backroom was that, in spite of their declining numbers, whites in southern Brooklyn still command a strong hold on the borough’s politics, and Norman’s political future, however bleak it may be, is tied to their continuing support.
Vying for the “black” seat was Norman’s own candidate, Bernadette Bayne, a Civil Court judge who once put a Legal Aid lawyer in handcuffs for “making faces” in court. Opposing Bayne was Katherine Smith, a candidate of Norman’s frequent foe in black east Brooklyn, Congressman Ed Towns, who was so convinced he would lose the contest that he had an aide hand deliver a letter of resignation as district leader to Norman moments before the meeting began. The aide told reporters that Towns “didn’t want to be associated with a process that is tainted.” A Norman loyalist noted, however, that Towns asked in the letter that his son, Assemblyman Darryl Towns, be appointed to take his place. “Towns knew he was going to lose,” said the insider. He was right. The vote went overwhelmingly to Bayne. There was a different kind of showdown for the “Latino” judgeship. One candidate was Civil Court judge Raymond Guzman, whose initial backer was ex-councilman Angel Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty in June to shaking down a developer for bribes but is now backed by assemblyman and power broker Vito Lopez of Bushwick. The other candidate was Margarita Lopez-Torres, a Civil Court judge backed by the party’s reform wing, who had angered Norman and Lopez by spurning their demands that she hire their allies as judicial assistants.
Last year, Lopez-Torres was forced to wage her own campaign for re-election after Norman, for the first time in party history, refused to back a sitting Civil Court judge. Lopez-Torres won anyway and quickly began campaigning for a Supreme Court post. Alone of the candidates, she showed up early outside the diner to greet leaders as they arrived. Assemblyman Lopez (no relation to the judge) arrived with his protégé, Councilmember Diana Reyna, who had beaten back a strong primary challenge the day before. “I’d like your support,” the judge told him. “Likewise,” snarled the assemblyman, walking past her into the diner.
During the meeting, it was proposed by reform leaders Alan Fleishman of Park Slope and Joanne Seminara of Bay Ridge that it would make sense to verify Norman’s straw poll with a paper ballot by the assembled leaders. Other leaders quickly shouted down the idea.
“I was democratically elected and I don’t see any reason why that body can’t act in a democratic way by putting their will to a vote,” Seminara explained later, adding that she had even brought ballots along with her to use if the idea passed. If Norman was going to present a slate that purportedly represented the group’s will, Seminara told the group, then they owed their constituencies a real ballot. “The judiciary is an indispensable part of our democracy,” Seminara said. “We have a responsibility to prove the process is fair and democratic.”
The reformers’ proposal was resoundingly defeated. Lopez-Torres also lost, by a two to one margin.
“I think it was a good night for democracy,” said Norman after the meeting was over.