Vito Lopez's Grip Slips Some More: Whose the Fidler on the Roof?
Since 2004 my wife and I have had the dubious pleasure of being elected (let me emphasize elected, not appointed) members of the Kings County Democratic County Committee and been privy every 2 years to the circus of the Brooklyn Machine's inner workings...or should I say the shoddy facade to those inner workings which are actually reserved mainly for the Party Boss and his Cronies alone.
Our first County Committee meeting was then Party Boss Clarence Norman's last before going to jail. My son, Jacob, was nearly born during those proceedings. He was already overdue and my wife went into labor soon after. My wife regrets that Norman's last County Committee meeting wasn't upstaged by her going into labor...she imagines the machine chastising her for not following the script (yes, there is a real script people read off of).
Since then Clarence Norman went to jail and his replacement, Vito Lopez, has continued the corruption that Clarence Norman went to jail for, and furthermore has been losing a series of high stakes elections by increasing margins. The first was the Surrogate Judge race between Diane Johnson and Margarita Lopez Torres which was so close that it went into a costly recount (note to former Surrogate Judge Seddio...YES, democracy costs money but is worth it...more on that later). Vito Lopez had a grudge against Lopez Torres (who refused to hire one of his cronies) and pulled out all stops to block her...he lost, but barely.
Next came the next Surrogate Judge race after then Judge Seddio was forced to resign under threat of censure (more on Seddio later...I won't forget you Frank!). This pitted Diane Johnson (after a falling out with Vito Lopez so that she was now on the reform side) against Shawndaya Simpson. Vito Lopez had a grudge against Diane Johnson and pulled out all stops to block her...he lost by a pretty good margin.
Then there was a City Council race that meant a great deal to Vito Lopez. Seems former ally Diana Reyna hadn't toed the line so Vito Lopez (allied with the Working Families Party, to their discredit) ran someone against her. Vito Lopez had a grudge against Diane Reyna and pulled out all stops to block her...he lost by a good margin. Though to be fair this was partly compensated for by the election of Vito Lopez's aide, Steve "Vito's Kid" Levin (more on him later as well) to a traditionally reform City Council seat.
Most recently Vito Lopez and Steve "Vito's Kid" Levin teamed up to run Hope Reichbach and Steve Williamson for the two District Leader/State Committee positions in the same general reform region that Levin had just won a year before. Vito Lopez had a grudge against incumbent Jo Anne Simon and wanted to flex his muscles against her and the reformers running for the other seat (longtime reformer Chris Owens and newcomer Jesse Strauss) and pulled out all stops to win the seat...he lost against Jo Anne Simon soundly and got his ass kicked big time for the other seat. Chris Owens won but even Jesse Strauss got more votes than the Lopez/Levin candidate Williamson. Williamson was expected to win on Hope's coattails, but Hope campaigned well and had all the money behind her...yet she couldn't even get 40% of the vote. Make no mistake, added to the other losses above, these were serious setbacks for Vito Lopez. Add to that one race that remains up in the air. Lincoln Restler barely edged out Vito ally Cohn (by 20 votes as of the day after election day), but by so close a margin that every ballot is being examined and counted before the winner is declared. A couple of days ago I was told that Cohn was claiming he was winning by 40 votes. Yesterday someone told me that Restler was ahead by 85 votes. But even the very fact that it is a nail biter shows that Vito Lopez with all his money and connections (which he claims on tape runs based on some complex exchange of patronage, votes and "respect") can't easily win elections these days.
I should note that all these races involved good candidates on all sides. It was the taint of the machine that did more to defeat Vito's candidates than anything. Two good candidates head to head and the voters tended to pick the one who was most distant from the stink of corruption.
Make no mistake. Vito Lopez's grip on power has been slipping ever since he became The Boss.
What are the justifications for a Democratic Party Boss to be in power?
1.) strengthening the party and electing Democrats over Republicans in the general election.
Well Vito Lopez has NEVER fulfilled this role. He has actively discouraged Democrats from challenging Republicans in Brooklyn (according to several people I know who experienced this personally), he makes no effort to register Democrats unless they are within his own area of influence, he has backed members of other parties AGAINST Democrats both before AND AFTER becoming party leader...in short he has done nothing for the Democratic Party but rather acts only in the interests of himself, his girlfriend (a major recipient of his patronage) and his other cronies...until he gets angry at them and runs someone against them and loses.
2.) winning elections: although he clearly still wins more elections than he loses, the ones he loses are critical ones that he has a large personal stake in that batter his image of strength each time he loses. No one can look at Vito Lopez today and say he is at the top of his game when it comes to dictating who will win primary elections.
3.) helping out the community and allies: here is Vito Lopez's strength, and many of his supporters last night were clearly there because of his patronage of themselves or their community. But his patronage is also done in a way that is leading to scandals AND he has become so notorious for turning on friends at the drop of a hat and challenging them (and generally losing) that I suspect many of his closest allies are wondering if they should get him before he gets them. With scandals and probable criminal investigations on going, there is much room for his "friends" to get him before he gets them.
Vito Lopez is very likely to go down...the question is when and how. Now I don't underestimate Vito's ability to hold onto power against all odds...but all signs point to a boss prime for prison, toppling, a gentle push aside by less tainted names, or some combination of those.
All in all, the machine is tense and nervous...and it showed last night.
The reform movement in Brooklyn is almost always fragmented, and that has been the case recently most obviously in the conflicts between the club IND with the other three reform clubs in the area (CBID, LID and the new NKD). However, last night they all were together, united in the effort to make the County Committee meeting more than just the scripted rubber stamp that Vito Lopez and his cronies want it to be.
The first sign that the machine is tense and nervous and senses its grip slipping is that rather than being welcoming of everyone, even us hostile but harmless reformers, as in past years, the machine had thugs to intimidate the reformers (go here to see a photo of a couple of these thugs, including the intensse, balding guy who seemed most avid in trying to intimidate us, and most baffled and emasculated when we weren't intimidated).
The reformers had a genuine protest going on just outside the venue. The cops seemed unsure what to do since most (not all) of the protesters were also participants in the event. One of the signs being held up by the protesters read "Stop the Cronyism." Illustrating this sign's importance, two of Vito's prime cronies, Dominic Recchia and Frank Seddio, were standing right in front of the sign...go here for a rather unflattering photo of Recchia whispering sweet nothings in to Seddio's ear in front of the protesters and Seddios, shall we say, none too respectful response.
The relatively united front of IND, CBID, NKD and LID was aiming to accomplish a few things. First was to challenge the stack of proxies that Vito Lopez's cronies always invoke to justify their blocking all objection and reform. In the past the machine refused to let these proxies even be examined (so we don't even know if in past years this was a stack of blank cards). Second was to call attention to the fact that each and every year the machine violates the rules of the County Committtee by not giving a treasurer's report. Given the mismanagement of money at Vito Lopez's so-called "non-profits" it is a fair question whether the money of the County Committee is being managed as loosely as in Vito's other possessions. And third was to enact a series of genuine reforms that are for the good of the party. One such reform was championed by District Leader Jo Anne Simon who wanted to repeal the appointment of non-elected cronies of Vito's to the Executive Board of the County Committee, thus diluting the actual representation of the voting public. Three others were championed by the New Kings Democrats as outlined by them:
The three reforms which NKD and its allies intend to bring to the floor for a vote are for the County Committee to meet quarterly, as opposed to its current biennial schedule; for County Committee Meetings to be open to the media; and for the activation of the body’s sub-committee responsible for boosting voter participation and enrollment in the Democratic Party.
“We think these are three very sensible, important reforms that every member of the County Committee can agree on,” said NKD President Matt Cowherd. “Unfortunately, the Brooklyn Democratic Party suffers from a reputation for shady backroom dealing, cronyism, and an utter lack of transparency. These reforms represent a small but significant step in restoring the faith of Brooklyn Democrats in their party, and to welcome new civic-minded borough residents into the fold.”
I'd say these all can be summed up under: increased transparency, increased participation within the Democratic Party, and increased strength of the Democratic Party.
We expected the machine to oppose all of them. Because, hey, they hate transparency, participation and a strong Democratic Party...all they care about is their control of patronage and elections and judges. And they didn't disappoint.
The chair of the meeting tried to keep everyone on script, but the sheer absurdity of the whole proceedings, comparable to the absurdity I have described at the previous County Committee meetings I have attended (this time without even the apologetic little speech they used to give justifying the scripted farce), raised the ire of the reformers, particularly the newcomers who hadn't seen what a disgusting farce it was. All attempts were made to stonewall any reformer and when stonewalling didn't work (this is the first year they couldn't completely stonewall) they merely invoked the proxies to outvote the reformers.
And here's the crux of the farce. When the proxies were challenged, and a roll call vote called for, the chair of the meeting pointed out that the room (which was posted as only, according to fire codes, being able to hold 350 people) couldn't hold the quorum that would be necessary to call a roll call vote to challenge the proxies (the quorum would be more like 450 people). To which I pointed out they need a bigger room and that it seems astonishingly stupid to hold the meeting in a room that wasn't even big enough for a quorum. The machine was forced to allow an examination of the proxies (Chris Owens took the lead on this, followed by Jesse Strauss and a third person whose back was to me) The machine member forced to hand over the proxies for examination stood stone faced and angry the whole time they were examined and was audibly rude to Chris Owens (note to Seddio...this was disrespectful to an ELECTED representative of the voters).
So the largest local Democratic Party in the country doesn't even have the brains to meet in a hall big enough for a quorum. A true challenge to the proxies could paralyze the local party. An embarrassment that shows just how shoddy the Brooklyn party structure is.
The machine insisted on approving "without objection" the proxies and using them repeatedly BEFORE the examination was complete. In all more than 60 proxies were found to be improperly filled out and thus invalid. The response of the chair was "but they have already been approved!" I think realizing how stupid this sounded, he rapidly reversed this and said (with no visible action being taken) that those 60 proxies would be discounted.
The call for a treasurers report (which is REQUIRED by the by laws of the Brooklyn Democratic Party) was ignored. But they did produce a balance sheet instead and offered a copy to anyone who wanted one (more than they have ever been forced to do in the past). Beyond this, it was like pulling teeth to even get them to publicly state that the Kings County Democratic Party had, as of the latest figures, over $600,000. But I am getting ahead of myself here...that number was finally publicly revealed, after much pressure from committee member Lucy Koteen (whose name the chair may not forget after last night), near the end of proceedings.
The machine managed to push through most of the rest of the script (with frequent interruptions from the reformers) to elect a new executive committee and adjourn the meeting so that executive committee could meet. The executive committee was the same as before...with the addition of a slew of new members APPOINTED by the machine. It was asked how many of the new appointees were ELECTED members of the county committee. It was reluctantly revealed that 11 were NOT elected members of the county committee, which is permissible but makes a mockery of the voter's even voting for county committee.
Lew Fidler, who stood up two years ago against the previous expansion of the executive board with Vito Lopez appointees, stood up against the current expansion as well. Fidler is a machine member, but, like Diane Reyna, was not a lock step member of the Vito Lopez fan club. Still, he scathingly called to task his fellow machine members for diluting the representation of the voters and diluting their own representation in favor of the Boss. Fidler was brilliant in his attack on this particular machine abuse and was roundly cheered by the reformers. Reform District Leader Jo Anne Simon backed him up on this. The machine regulars in front of me looked displeased and those behind the table in front looked distinctly uncomfortable and there was much whispering among them as Lew Fidler castigated them.
Here is Lew Fidler standing up for what is right (video courteously provided by Raul Rothblatt):
Of course the proxies, representing Vito Lopez's single voice, overruled Lew Fidler, Jo Anne Simon, the reformers, and common sense. Vito has now FURTHER extended his unilateral control over the County Committee to a tune of 11 appointed votes on the executive committee. This strikes me as the act of a desperate man...if his control is as strong as he'd like, why the need for such ham-handed tactics?
During debate over this things got heated, inspiring newly elected District Leader Frank Seddio to explode and yell at the reformers for their lack of respect (note this is after the thugs that met us, after his disrespectful attitude outside to the reformers, and after the machine was audibly rude to Chris Owens as he was objecting to proxies that were improperly filled out). Seddio seemed particularly incensed when one reformer didn't know his name and Seddio emphasized that he had been around a long time and his name should be remembered (particularly since he is trying to make a comeback).
So, in honor of Seddio's request that we remember his name, let me remind people of who Frank Seddio is. From the Daily News:
Is that the stink of corruption I smell in Brooklyn?
Thursday, June 14th 2007, 4:00 AM
The mighty Kings County Democratic machine, lately brought low by a series of judicial scandals - and the spectacle of ex-party boss Clarence Norman being sent to prison last week - is trying to recover from its past and run a clean race this summer for Brooklyn surrogate.
...another surrogate, Frank Seddio, resigned this year after coming under investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Seddio, in apparent violation of rules governing candidates for the bench, gave more than $31,000 in campaign funds to political cronies and to his home base, the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club.
And via JudicialAccountability.org
The Rules Apply to You Too, Judge
New York Daily News
February 5, 2005
Frank Seddio opened his checkbook for the Brooklyn Democratic organization three times last summer, contributing a total of $17,500 to a legendary clubhouse just as the party was deciding whom among the faithful to reward with a powerful judgeship. And wonder of wonders, Seddio got the post.
The purchase of a judgeship? Close, but more likely Seddio, then an assemblyman, was simply complying with party etiquette. Generosity is expected, the way restaurant patrons know to tip for service. Even so, Seddio's transfer of money from his Assembly campaign to the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club smells to high heaven.
On one level, Seddio's donations reveal how becoming a judge has been an insider's game in Brooklyn. On another, he may have violated ethics rules in one of the donations, and he clearly broke the rules in two subsequent gifts to fellow pols. From where we sit, there's a slam-dunk case here for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Seddio, who spent seven years in the Assembly, is based in Canarsie and was once president of the Thomas Jefferson Club that produced bosses like Meade Esposito and Tony Genovese. Last summer, he was one of the Brooklyn Dems intensely interested in whom the party would choose for a new surrogate judgeship. Surrogates preside over the estates of the dead and give patronage assignments to lawyers, accountants and others. Thus, the posts are coveted. The party's first choice, Assemblyman Joe Lentol, bowed out in early August. Eighteen days later, Seddio wrote a check for $5,000 on his Assembly campaign account and gave it to the Jefferson Club. On Sept. 1, he gave the club $7,500 more from the account, followed by $5,000 on Sept. 15, campaign filings show. That day, the organization anointed Seddio as its candidate, ensuring his election.
While declining to comment specifically about Seddio, Robert Tembeckjian, administrator of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, said "the rules of judicial conduct prohibit a judicial candidate from, directly or indirectly, contributing to a political organization or candidate." That means the propriety of Seddio's Sept. 15 check may hinge on the razor-thin technicality of whether he wrote it just before or just after the party designated him its candidate.
But no such technicality would protect him regarding later contributions. Campaign filings show that Seddio gave $3,000 to the Assembly campaign of his long-time chief of staff and soon-to-be successor Alan Maisel, on Sept. 16. On Oct. 15, records show, Seddio gave $2,000 to state Sen. Carl Kruger. Seddio says he has an ethics advisory opinion that puts him in the clear. Uh-huh.
All this comes to light only because, under prodding, Seddio sent his disclosure records to the state Board of Elections two weeks after they were due. Trying to check the records of the Thomas Jefferson Club was impossible because, in blatant violation of the law, it files no disclosure reports with the city or state elections board.
As we said, there's fertile ground here for the judicial conduct panel. And, for good measure, DA Joe Hynes ought to take a peek into the secret books of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club.
So, now I hope we can all remember who Seddio is, as per his request, and give him the respect he deserves.
The official business was ended and adjourned. Last time that meant an end to everything, but this time the reformers had during the meeting raised the desire to bring up new business. This forced the machine to recognize new business, unlike last time.
Two of the four reforms were brought up thanks to the previous request for new business before the machine successfully ended new business. Chris Owens introduced the motion to hold meetings quarterly instead of every two years, thus increasing the unity, participation and dialogue among Democrats in the borough. Only one person spoke against the motion...Frank "I don't get no respect" Seddio. His argument against meeting more often than every two years was: "we all have better things to do" and "it costs too much money."
I challenged him that democracy was worth spending some money and he reiterated that it was too expensive to have a local Democratic County Committee that met more than every two years. I should note that this was before the reformers forced the machine to reveal that the machine had more than $600,000 on the books.
My wife and I both chastised Seddio for considering democracy and participation as lacking value. Many spoke in favor of this motion. Of course the proxies voted no, defeating the motion. The machine has publicly admitted that it opposes the duly elected County Committee meeting more than every two years to discuss Democratic Party business. THIS is the respect that the machine gives the voters and the national Democratic Party. Participation of the duly elected county committee members beyond rubber stamping Vito Lopez's dictates is too boring and too expensive. Vito Lopez and his proxies have spoken.
Here is video of the debate (courteously provided by Raul Rothblatt):
The second motion was made by Jo Anne Simon to effectively reverse the actions this year and two years ago to expand the executive board with Vito Lopez appointed cronies rather than restricting it to duly elected members as it was before. Lew Fidler again spoke strongly in favor of democracy and against the packing of the executive board by the Party Boss. And again he and his common sense were voted down by Vito Lopez and his proxies.
The meeting was then adjourned completely.
On the way out Councilman Steve "Vito's Kid" Levin made the mistake of being on hand and visible. He was assaulted by the duly elected representatives of his district, chastising him for the embarrassing farce that the local Democratic Party has become. His face was ashen and he looked like a naughty school boy caught doing something wrong (much like his predecessor, David Yassky, used to do). I suspect his smart mind is making calculations between the value of a Party Boss whose grip has slipped so much and the actual people in his district he is supposed to represent and who he will face in elections. He looked unhappy and uncomfortable as if he had an inkling that he was on the wrong side of things all of a sudden. Will Steve "Vito's Kid for Now" Levin have to recalculate and realign himself? I suspect Vito Lopez may be looking with some suspicion on his golden boy and Steve Levin, who was important enough on Lopez's staff to know too much even if he wasn't actively involved in corruption himself (an open question), may well be wondering how to save what could be a promising political career. Being associated with the declining Party Boss did his candidate Hope Reichbach no good. What will it do for him next election? Will the seemingly united reform movement take him on and win this time? Is his future better served turning on his former boss? Steve Levin may have some sleepless nights ahead.
And then there is Lew Fidler. Lew Fidler, make no mistake, has been part of the Vito Lopez machine. But he has a better sense of right and wrong than most machine members. He refused to turn on former ally Diana Reyna just to satisfy Vito Lopez's ego. Vito Lopez already threatened revenge upon the disobedient Lew Fidler. Lew Fidler laughed at the challenge...itself another sign of Vito Lopez's slipping grip. Now Lew Fidler has stood up against the machine he is part of yet again. This is not the behavior Vito Lopez likes. It is the kind of behavior that got Diana Reyna a challenge and a threat of a challenge against Fidler himself. Fidler is smart...probably as smart as Levin and infinitely more experienced. I wonder if he is seeing the writing on the wall well before Levin is. The Boss is slipping and the smart members of the machine know when to create a distance between themselves and the falling Boss lest they be caught in the collapse. Lew has successfully started creating that distance. It is the equivalent of Japanese businessmen turning their back on a disgraced colleague who is about to receive the boot.
Lew Fidler and Steve Levin, each in their own ways and at different stages of the process, are in my opinion recalculating the odds in Brooklyn politics and Vito Lopez will be eying them both with suspicion. Fidler is in the open about his independence. Levin still seems to be juggling both sides, but I think the machine cronies were watching him as much as or more than the reformers were eying him, both sides knowing his very career depends on navigating the rough waters between the reformers and the machine. He knows he will have to unequivocally pick a side eventually and picking the wrong side could mean defeat...and possibly (given his very close association with Vito) prosecution. Anyone investigating Vito should be and will be looking closely at Steve Levin as possible target and/or source of information. Vito knows that as well or better than Levin himself.
Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as... as a fiddler on the roof!
Whose position is as shaky as the proverbial fiddler on the roof? Is it Steve "Playing Both Sides For Now" Levin, Vito "are you wearing a wire" Lopez, or Lew "Challenge me at your Peril" Fidler. The reformers are players in the game, more so now than before this year. But the main players are always the insiders...and the insiders are now the ones Vito is becoming scared of.