Thursday, June 21, 2007

Turf War Over a Brooklyn Patronage Prize

June 21, 2007, 1:15 pm By Jonathan P. Hicks
It seems as if there is always some political battle within the boroughs of New York City where, on center stage, is either race and ethnicity. Or a turf war waged by one political club or another, or the party organization seeking to flex its muscles.

But every now and then, you might get all of this in one race. Such political theater is being played out for a surrogate judgeship in Brooklyn.

Once upon a time, the New York City Surrogate’s Court was informally called the Widows and Orphans Court. For the most part, it’s a mystery to most voters, unless they deal with estates and adoptions. But politicians know it well, as a last bastion of patronage, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to lawyers who serve as guardians and conservators in thousands of estate cases.

One of Brooklyn’s two surrogates, Frank R. Seddio, stepped down in May. And the race to succeed him has attracted two candidates with major support among the leaders within Brooklyn Democratic-elected officials.

Albert Vann (Photo: Angel Franco/The New York Times)One is Diana Johnson, a State Supreme Court justice who lost an incredibly tight race — by 102 votes — for Brooklyn surrogate two years ago. The other is Civil Court Judge ShawnDya L. Simpson, who is a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney.

This year’s race could well make history, by electing Brooklyn’s first black surrogate. But while both candidates are black women with strong résumés, their support comes from different quarters of the borough. (A third candidate, Leo D. Beitner, who has strong support among Orthodox Jews, is in the race, but he does not have support among the political clubs that wield the most influence in the race.)

Now there are two political camps telling voters “we have the better black woman.”

There is Ms. Johnson, who has been endorsed by a number of the so-called reform political clubs in Brooklyn, such as the Independent Neighborhood Democrats and the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. But also, she has been supported by a large group of black elected officials, particularly from central Brooklyn.

“She is very well qualified and is probably more knowledgeable about the Surrogate Court than anyone I’ve met,” said City Councilman Albert Vann, who is widely considered to be the current dean of Brooklyn’s black politicians.

Vito J. Lopez (Photo: Michael Nagle for The New York Times)On the other side is Ms. Simpson, who is backed by the head of Brooklyn’s Democratic organization, Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez as well as one of the legendary political clubs of the borough, the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. The T.J. Club was the home not only of the late Assemblyman Anthony J. Genovesi, the onetime Brooklyn political powerhouse, but it is also the club that helped make Mr. Seddio the successor to Mr. Genovesi in Albany, before becoming surrogate.

Several black politicians have applauded the fact that the county leader and the T.J. Club were endorsing a black woman for surrogate. But they contend Mr. Lopez, who is white, should have consulted black elected officials about which black woman to endorse.

“He should have involved some of the black elected officials, in his decision,” Mr. Vann said. “I certainly wasn’t contacted. And I know a lot of other black leaders who weren’t.”

Mr. Lopez said that his decision to endorse Ms. Simpson was the outcome of a vote among the party’s 42 district leaders. “It was decision based on leaders’ choice,” he said. “About 20 leaders didn’t participate in the vote. And Diana Johnson didn’t meet with me, even though I attempted to reach out to her.”

The third candidate in the race, Mr. Beitner, is the chief attorney in the Surrogate’s Court. He is supported by many leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community. “I’m apolitical and I’m looking for community support, not political support,” he said.

With petitioning — the collection of signatures for candidates to qualify for the ballot — now in full swing, it should be an interesting campaign leading up to the Sept. 18 primary.

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