Story by Benjamin Lozovsky
On a perfectly temperate August Friday evening, while most New Yorkers are outdoors at barbeques or gone on vacation, cherishing the last few glimpses of the summer sun, Lincoln Restler is indoors knocking on apartment doors.
As an untried candidate for New York State Democratic Committee person for the 50th assembly district, Restler, 26, has his work cut out for him. He is trying to uproot the Brooklyn Democratic system, competing against a family dynasty that hasn’t been challenged in nearly three decades. So every morning he greets commuters at train stations throughout the district, shaking hands and hoping to engage fuzzy-eyed straphangers about local politics before they’ve had their morning coffee. Restler reserves three hours every night for canvassing after full days at his real job, spending even more time campaigning on the weekends. “Door time is sacred,” he says.
Fridays are hard for electioneering in this particular area, largely due to Restler’s self-imposed directive of avoiding Orthodox Jewish households over the Sabbath. He feels mildly irritated after spending minutes speaking with an active campaign member he runs into on the street. When his 9:00 pm curfew arrives, Restler has covered two massive buildings within southside Williamsburg’s Independence public housing complex, but caught only a small number of residents at home and actually conversed in detail with even fewer. He seems unperturbed, and leaves eager to return.
Not many candidates vying for a non-governmental, part-time, volunteer position would throw as much vigor into a campaign. But for Restler and his associates, victory in the Democratic primary on September 14th is a crucial conduit to the far broader objective of toppling what many insiders see as a tainted party hierarchy in one of the most influential Democratic areas in the country.
Restler’s candidacy is representative of the small but growing number of youthful, politically active Brooklynites who are disaffected with the current structure of the Kings County Democratic Party. The Obama presidential campaign of 2008 was in large part the impetus for a new wave of activism, motivating political outsiders to become a force for change. Restler was one such participant, volunteering early in the 2008 campaign to register new voters and raise awareness for Obama’s progressive agenda. Through that effort Restler met fellow Brooklyn For Barack volunteers Matt Cowherd and Rachel Lauter, and the three instantly expressed a mutual interest in channeling the excitement and engagement of 2008 into a renewable resource.
The result was the formation of New Kings Democrats, a political club with the idealistic goal of increasing the ranks of younger voters in the Democratic party and involving activating them in local activism. The club grew rapidly, its ranks filling with older and more established reformers from around Brooklyn, as well as a new crop of activists. Enlisting help from Jeff Merritt, president of the non-profit election consultant Grassroots Initiative, the leadership of New Kings began exploring how to affect local politics at the most basic level, the county committee. Relatively unknown, the Democratic county committee is made up of over 5,000 seats, each one serving as a community liaison to the party for a one to two block voting radius. Despite its potential significance, the body only meets biennially, and nearly half of its seats remain unfilled (the rest go largely uncontested). Later that year, with guidance from Merritt on how to get on the ballot and run a successful campaign, New Kings entered over 70 newcomers to county committee contests around North Brooklyn. They eventually won over 50 seats.
New Kings’ inception and initial push for county committee positions were reported by Brooklyn blog BushwickBK.com, which cited an article by City Hall News in which current Democratic party boss, state assemblyman, and 53rd district leader Vito Lopez welcomed the nascent group’s involvement in Brooklyn politics (that article has since been removed from the City Hall News website). Cowherd and Lauter subsequently contacted Lopez and set up a meeting at the Bushwick Democratic Club, Lopez’s political stronghold. The couple offered their group up in any capacity, mentioning their current initiatives to educate the public and increase local activism. “We really tried hard to reach out,” Cowherd said. “[Lopez] shut us down all the way.”
According to Cowherd, not only was Lopez uninterested in their help, his staff advised the club to stay out of the political landscape altogether and instead take part in their respective community boards. Even after that rebuff, Cowherd and Lauter continued to pursue a relationship with Lopez, “over ten times, and it was hacked away by a machete,” Cowherd said. “In some ways we provoked [Lopez] by proposing that people pay attention to what’s going on in the governance of the party. It was unacceptable to him.”
Such flat-out rejection led to a deeper examination of the county political system by Cowherd, Restler, and other fellow club members. What they found was an archaic structure fiercely maintained by a select few. Political and judicial appointments have long been linked to nepotism and cronyism, and in Cowherd’s mind, any meaningful opposition or dialogue has been overwhelmingly suppressed. “Here we are ruled by these overlords, who are these inept, corrupt mobsters and hacks,” Cowherd said.
One glaring example: three out of the last four Kings County Democratic party leaders have been indicted for alleged illegal activity while in office, including Lopez’s predecessor, Clarence Norman, who is currently in prison for three convictions related to grand larceny and improper allocation and theft of campaign funds.
“Our current leader, Vito Lopez, is likely to find the same fate,” Restler said. “To many Brooklynites who are fiercely independent, and love their borough, it is shocking to realize that we still have a county machine in contemporary Brooklyn.”
To break the pattern of “abuse and exploitation,” Cowherd, a financial fraud lawyer with an astute knowledge of American political history and obscure dissenting opinions from recent Supreme Court decisions, has spurred his political club to undertake a “nerdy, wonky, rules-based revolution.”
Despite their distaste for much of the local Democratic Party leadership, New Kings members attribute the perceived problems within the local and state political system to the fundamental structure and by-laws of the county and state parties.
“Process oriented reforms are fundamental to creating a working democracy in New York state,” Restler explains. When the county committee met in November 2008, the New Kings candidates got their first glimpse into the realities of the party process. One of those representatives, Community Board #1 and New Kings executive committee member Esteban Duran, was dismayed by what he observed.
“That [meeting] was just an affront, that was not democracy at all,” Duran recollects. “You had Martin Connor, who had just been unseated by Daniel Squadron, chairing the meeting, and holding 700 proxy votes. So it didn’t matter how many people were in the audience, he could have done whatever he wanted. And it was all scripted, [full of] people who had prepackaged messages and motions.”
The experience led the New Kings leadership to refocus its political target. Just one small but vastly influential step above county committee membership is the position of district leader, technically known on the ballot as state committee person. Unique posts in most of New York state, Brooklyn is the only borough to combine the two distinct local and state positions. A male and female district leader run every two years and primarily serve as election overseers for each of Kings County’s 21 state assembly districts, appointing poll workers and election inspectors. The position is also meant to engage the local community and serve as an intermediary between the electorate and higher-level elected officials. Most importantly, district leaders decide which prospective candidates for public office and judgeships receive party endorsement, vote on the county’s party boss, and even play a roll in steering local Democratic policy.
Focusing predominantly on their North Brooklyn turf, New Kings backed Restler and Duran to run for district leader in their respective areas. Both are life-long New Yorkers. Restler was raised in Brooklyn Heights, and since graduating from Brown University has resided in Fort Greene, part of the area he is fighting to serve. Duran lives blocks away from his childhood home in south Williamsburg.
The two couldn’t have picked more symbolic races in which to compete. Restler, along with his running mate for female district leader and local environmental advocate, Kate Zidar, 33, were initially poised to challenge incumbents Steven Cohn and Linda Minucci. Strong allies of Lopez, the two have held their district leader positions unchallenged for 28 and 26 years, respectively, and have long been accused of a lack of involvement in the Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill areas they serve (sources allege that Cohn lives in Brooklyn Heights, while Minucci resides in New Jersey). When Restler refused to back down from political pressure to drop his candidacy, Cohn withdrew from the race and announced that his son, Warren Cohn, 23, would instead run for the position. Warren represents the third generation of Cohns with political ambitions in the area (his grandfather was an assemblyman for Greenpoint and Williamsburg from 1959–1968). With a short political resume (Warren has been a special assistant to representative Edolphus Towns for a year since finishing Tulane University), the younger Cohn has publicly cited his family-based connections with many of the Brooklyn Democratic elite as an advantage, while simultaneously stating on his Facebook Campaign page that “Brooklyn needs a new voice.”
Warren did not return calls from the WG News to speak about his candidacy.
In his contest to represent the 53rd assembly district, in Williamsburg and Bushwick, Duran is up against an even more entrenched competitor: Lopez himself. Duran is a former staffer for Democratic City Councilwoman Diana Reyna, with a Masters in public administration from Baruch College, and has also worked at the City Council as a policy analyst and the city’s department of education as an education council specialist. Education reform has emerged as the centerpiece of his campaign.
While not wanting “to discredit the good work that Lopez has done,” Duran emphasizes that his challenge to Lopez is based on holding “those [officials] accountable that have been there, and have manipulated the situation for their own gain or to consolidate power, which is what [Lopez] did a few months ago with adding at-large seats,” Duran says.
Duran referred to the recent successful move by Lopez to quietly add five “at large” appointed seats to the otherwise wholly elected Democratic state committee. First attempted by Norman during his term as boss, the plan was approved by the federal Department of Justice, which did not rule out future lawsuits to challenge the ruling’s validity, and thus far the seats have gone exclusively to Lopez faithful.
Lopez has since used the court system and Democratic by-laws unique to the local party to try to bar Duran, his former running mate in the 53rd, Barbara Medina (she has since dropped out of due to health issues), as well as Cowherd (who is running for a judicial delegate position), from entering the upcoming primary. The three were co-defendants in a suit by Lopez, who challenged many of the 2,019 signatures on their jointly filed election petitions and alleged voter fraud on Duran’s part. Five hundred signatures are needed from registered New York State Democratic voters within a given district to run for district leader, and even the simplest clerical error can result in one being invalidated. After initially losing at the Board of Elections level, Lopez appealed to the Kings County Supreme Court, which backed up the Board decision and found no evidence of fraud. Certain witnesses called by Lopez even admitted to improprieties by Lopez and his staff. Presiding judge Carolyn Demarest issued a 25-page decision, which stated how one female petition signatory’s testimony was “incredible inasmuch as she admitted, during cross examination, that two men told her to say that she signed the [Duran] petition for a man rather than a woman.”
Another subpoenaed witness, Brian Honan, director of New York City Housing Authority’s Intergovernmental Affairs office, disclosed in court that Lopez has specifically called him as a reminder to show up at court with the public housing leases of several of Duran’s volunteers.
According to lawyer Martin Needelman, a project director at Brooklyn Legal Services and an advisor for the New Kings, Lopez’s loss is a rare outcome in a frequently enacted play by incumbents to use connections within the court system to prevent opposition. “It’s very common, particularly on behalf of those who are in control,” Needelman observes. “Historically, the judges that were assigned election cases were totally under control by the political machine, and made totally political decisions.”
Lopez did not return calls in regards to his campaign and the allegations of witness coercion.
The suit’s result reflects some of the surprising success that the New Kings candidates have so far managed to achieve. Restler has out-fundraised Cohn by more than three to one, while he and Zidar have garnered endorsements from Representative Nydia Velazquez, as well as council members Reyna, Letitia James, and Jumaane Williams. Velazquez has also endorsed Duran, and all three district leader candidates have begun to form partnerships with more progressive minded state committeemen like Jo Anne Simon, Alan Fleishman, and Joanne Seminara.
Restler and Duran are confident that, should they succeed in being elected, they will be able to slowly form a coalition to challenge the power of Lopez and his allies and eventually unseat him from his party leader position.
In private, Restler balances his still-ripening idealism with the reality of the uphill battle progressives in New York face. Similarly, on the campaign trail he demonstrates the blend of self-assurance and pragmatism usually reserved for experienced politicians. He doesn’t bog voters down with the details and intricacies of the system he is fighting, instead choosing to speak about local issues such as transportation, housing, open space, and infrastructure, as well as Zidar’s focus on environmental policy. How much sway a district leader has over such areas is debatable, but his plea seems to resonate with the faces peering from behind half-closed doors.
It helps that Restler demonstrates a passion for connecting with people. He insists on conversing in fluent Spanish with Latino constituents. He gushes over infants in strollers and speaks to slightly older children like they are civic-minded individuals while they circle endlessly on tricycles or hover sheepishly behind their parents’ legs, and listens intently as grandmothers tell their life stories. At a friend’s apartment for a birthday celebration, Restler discusses the election with anyone who’ll listen, while other partygoers dance to R. Kelly. He mentions how on one occasion, he started playing dominos with a group of older Latino men outside a public housing building.
“I’m a dominant dominos player,” Restler said to the men. “Watch out.”
He determined that several of them were registered voters, and used the 45 minutes he spent losing before eventually winning a game to speak to them about his campaign. According to Restler, starting from the ground up and communicating with every last person holding the ability to punch a ballot is the building block of a progressive democracy, and the only way to “organize and mobilize delegations of votes to advance a real agenda.”
There have been encouraging precedents since 2008, like the Rainbow Rebels’ party takeover from the Rivera family in the Bronx (Jose Rivera was ousted as Bronx county Democratic leader by assemblyman Carl Hastie) and the ultimately unsuccessful but attention-grabbing fight against the Democratic establishment in southeast Queens by Donnie Whitehead and Clyde Vanel. Those uprisings were led by political veterans already holding significant amounts of power, so exactly how effective a grassroots strategy can be in reforming the Brooklyn political system is still unknown. According to Merritt, it’s still fundamental to progress. “Infighting within the party is part of democracy, part of what keeps the process healthy,” Merritt notes. “I get worried when I don’t see that type of activity.”
For longtime residents like Needelman, with a deep knowledge of the ongoing dark ages in Brooklyn politics, seeing the modest gains Restler, Duran, and their New Kings associates have made is a sign of hope.
“If you have a candidate, a young man who comes in, with no huge economic resources and political machinery, and generates a significant opposition in votes, then it definitely bloodies [Lopez’s] nose big time,” Needelman said. “Because it reflects the fact that even in his own district, he’s not as widely popular and powerful as he’d like to make out.”