Brooklyn's New Top Dem: Freddy Who?
The new leader of the city's largest Democratic organization had a tough time saying the name of his own party's standard bearer last night.
Vito Lopez, a veteran assemblyman from Bushwick, was elected county chairman of the Brooklyn party at a closed-door meeting of party district leaders at a downtown Brooklyn diner Thursday night, replacing fellow assemblyman Clarence Norman, Jr. who resigned after his conviction for campaign abuses last month.
In a press conference following the vote, Lopez twice stated that the party's leaders had also voted to endorse "all of the Democratic candidates" on next month's ballot. But Lopez, who has a history of personally backing Republicans, managed to avoid mentioning the name of Democratic Party mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer out loud.
Pressed by the Voice about his apparent reluctance, Lopez said: "I can't name all of them." How about the guy at the top of the ticket, he was asked. "Yes, we endorsed him," said Lopez. Was that Freddy Ferrer? "Yes."
Lopez's past willingness to embrace GOP candidates was one of the hesitations voiced by several leaders prior to last night's meeting which saw Lopez elected easily on a 28-7 vote with 5 leaders abstaining. Lopez twice endorsed Governor Pataki for election, and also backed Rudy Giuliani for mayor in 1997. He even supported former Senator Al D'Amato over Brooklyn's own Chuck Schumer in 1998.
Lopez added fuel to doubts about his intentions to back the Democratic mayoral candidate when he appeared twice in recent weeks with Mayor Bloomberg at a pair of high-profile, good-news announcements by the mayor regarding his housing policies. Lopez chairs the assembly's housing committee and controls one of the city's largest nonprofit housing development groups, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, which has received more than $10 million in city funding in the past two years.
Asked Thursday night about his appearances with the mayor by the Daily News' Hugh Son, Lopez said they were part of his assembly responsibilities - but still managed to avoid mentioning Ferrer's name.
A Ferrer campaign aide said there have been no discussions so far with the new leader. "There have been zero conversations with Lopez," said the aide.
Among those who helped Lopez corral votes for the leadership post were city councilman Domenic Recchia who has endorsed Mayor Bloomberg and whose Coney Island district has been promised a $50 million city rebuilding effort by the mayor. Recchia, along with a dozen Lopez aides and longtime Greenpoint assemblyman Joe Lentol, waited patiently for more than two hours outside the meeting of the Democratic leaders in a back room at the Park Plaza diner on Cadman Plaza. When Lopez finally emerged after 8 P.M., he was greeted with cheers and applause. In a veiled reference to the numerous scandals that have plagued the Brooklyn Democratic organization under Norman's leadership in recent years, Lopez said he would bring "political respectability" to the organization, as well as "transparency" to its finances and operations.
But Lopez ducked a direct question regarding his views about Norman's conviction. "I learned from my parents, don't dance on people's graves," he said. Lopez said that he tried but failed to reach Norman immediately after his conviction four weeks ago. "I haven't been able to communicate with him," he said.
The new leader said he was "a little superstitious" about jinxing his election and had refrained from bringing a "more formalized statement" of his proposals to the proceedings. But the assemblyman apparently wasn't all that worried. Moments after his election was announced, an aide distributed a prepared press release stating that he'd been elected with "an overwhelming majority." The statement declared that Lopez would order an audit of party finances, and establish an "independent Blue Ribbon commission" to review the procedures for nominating judicial candidates.
Lopez declined to offer specifics on the proposals, saying he would consult "experts" for their opinions. "I'm told the party is almost bankrupt," he said. "The worst thing for the county would be to have the party evicted."
Lopez said that one of his first political activities would be to help reelect Democratic councilman Vincent Gentile who faces a tough GOP challenger, and whose Bay Ridge district has often elected Republicans. Noting that Brooklyn has the largest city council delegation with 16 members, Lopez also said that he hoped to reestablish the county organization's political clout by influencing the selection of committee chairmen, as well as the next council speaker. "My ultimate goal is to have the next speaker come from the borough of Brooklyn," he said. Lopez declined to say whether he has a candidate, but his words brought a grin to the face of one of his key supporters, councilman Lew Fidler, who is seeking the speaker post.