It was a culmination of controversy and uncharacteristic enthusiasm, at Brooklyn’s largest yet possibly least known political body, the Democratic County Committee meeting, which took place in Brooklyn Heights, Monday night. A subsequent executive committee meeting also saw its longtime party leader Vito Lopez maintain his position with a resounding 47-3-2 victory over newly-elected 52nd Assembly District male leader Chris Owens. Despite allegations of improprieties and cases of wrongful termination at the Lopez-founded non-profit Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), and a lively and energized body full of vocal reform-oriented members determined to bring change to the party structure, the County Committee meeting ultimately unfolded as just another showing of Lopez’s entrenched influence over party politics.
In addition to keeping his post as party chief, Lopez held enough proxy votes to defeat every motion raised at the meeting. Even with obvious audible fervor behind motions such as a proposal to increase committee meetings that are biannual to quarterly, and to reject the addition of eleven “at-large” seats by Lopez to the executive committee, the oddly parliamentary-like results of the attendants were always overtaken by the 900 proxy votes Lopez held (presumably more than the 300-person venue, St. Francis College, could hold). The Brooklyn Democratic county committee has nearly 5,000 members, but many don’t appear, but choose to vote by proxy.
Several requests by committee members to read a roll call of the proxy votes to determine their accuracy were denied by speaker Jeff Feldman.
Reformers from around the county battled with the longstanding factions throughout the night, starting off with protesters against Lopez marching from a New Kings Democrats rally on the steps of Borough Hall to the meeting at St. Francis College. The addition of the eleven appointed, rather than elected, “at-large” seats, six more than Lopez had previously petitioned through the Department of Justice to add, was the biggest point of contention. Chants against the party boss and moans of “farce” and “injustice” voiced throughout the county committee meeting did little to dissuade Lopez’s pleasure of being re-elected party leader. “I’m very happy,” Lopez said.
When asked about the reform-minded audience and their objections to his leadership, Lopez was also appreciative of their participation. “Majority rules, but it’s healthy to have dissent,” he said.
None of the “at-large” seat holders on the executive committee voted against Lopez for county boss.
Leaving with a large entourage of cheering supporters, Lopez declined to comment on the various controversies surrounding him, including an impending city investigation regarding disproportionately high salaries being pulled down by board of directors at RBSCC, and recent tapes exposing Lopez’s heavily persuasive tactics that have been in the news recently.
With still hopeful candidate Restler standing beside him, a former Ridgewood Bushwick employee Cyril Joseph, just prior to the meeting, alleged that he was terminated from his position as building superintendent after endorsing Council Member Diana Reyna for City Council bid over Lopez-backed opponent Maritza Davila in last year’s election. In addition to holding the former position, Joseph has been a longtime member of the County Committee. After working with Angela Battaglia, Lopez’s girlfriend and Housing Director at RBSCC to support Davila’s campaign, he changed his endorsement to Reyna when Davila refused to canvas his district with him. “I told them straight up, if the candidate cannot walk with me [through my community], I have no reason to endorse her,” Joseph said.
Joseph was informed of his termination by RBSCC deputy Housing Director Scott Short, who, according to Joseph, explained the action was taken against him because [Joseph] “did not do his job properly,” Joseph said.
Joseph claimed he never received serious sanctions before his unexpected termination, and was later informed by another super, whom he declined to name, that Battaglia had disclosed that the order had come from the top, and that it was the direct result of Joseph’s endorsement of Reyna. As of now New Kings representatives have not taken legal action, but did not rule out the possibility of a lawsuit.
With Joseph, a longtime politically active Brooklynite and member of New Kings, it was another voice of discontent in the growing anti-Lopez, reform movement that hoped to topple the party leader at the executive committee meeting, during which any reference to Lopez’s alleged misconducts were avoided, according to Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Midwood). “Nothing was discussed,” Hikind said following the meeting.
Hikind independently echoed the reform coalition’s positions, and said that the growing anti-Lopez vitriol and the increasing severity of allegations surrounding the party boss could lead to an official investigation. “There are questions to be dealt with,” Hikind said.
The growing discontent with Lopez and the possibility, even if slight, of a tough legal road ahead for the Democratic chair, may have been the best outcome of the night for the coalition of reformers. The most outspoken politicians have been Owens, female leaders Jo Ann Simon (52nd District) and Joanne Seminara (60th District), and Restler, the young de-facto leader of the reform coalition who was forced to be a bystander for most the proceedings.
“There’s a new sense of uh-oh, what’s going to happen next,” Owens said after the meeting. “And I think that’s fair. I think more people, as they learn how this party works, are going to question [its structure].”
Owens, who fought off a challenge against a young Lopez-backed opponent for his seat, admitted after the numerous losses throughout the night, that the reformers’ main focus should be keeping such an unprecedented level of activism and engagement high.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a county committee meeting that really went like this one, not since I’ve been involved,” Owens said. “There’s a new energy, and we have to sustain it.”