Thursday, September 20, 2007

Judge’s Loss Looms Large for Party Chief

Vito J. Lopez, the Democratic Party leader in Brooklyn, faced a setback Tuesday when a candidate he backed lost her race.

JONATHAN P. HICKS, September 20, 2007,New York Times

Since he became the Brooklyn Democratic Party leader two years ago, Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez has sought to develop a sense of unity among its disparate and competitive political players.

Go to City Room » And while there have been some notable successes, there have been setbacks. The most high-profile stumble came on Tuesday, when the candidate Mr. Lopez supported for a Surrogate’s Court judgeship in Brooklyn was handily defeated by one endorsed by reform-oriented groups and a wide array of politicians.

Normally, a surrogate race in a sleepy September primary is seen as a sure thing for a Democratic county leader. But ShawnDya L. Simpson, a Civil Court judge whom Mr. Lopez supported for the surrogate seat, lost decisively with about 40 percent of the vote.

Diana A. Johnson, a State Supreme Court justice, won the nomination with 60 percent of the vote. And in doing so, she proved that the coalition behind her could be a more effective force than the party organization. Although both candidates are black, the race had strong racial overtones. Most black elected officials had urged Mr. Lopez to support Justice Johnson, who had their overwhelming support, and felt slighted when he did not.

The surrogate position is vacant because Judge Frank R. Seddio resigned in May.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Lopez said the defeat should be seen in a larger context. The party organization’s record of successes in races for judgeships has been unmatched by his predecessors, he said.

“Since 2005, when I got this position, there have been 10 contested races for judges,” Mr. Lopez said. “And, altogether, we’ve won 9 of the 10. That’s unheard of prior to my being the county leader. And I’m proud of that record and of the work we’ve been doing.”

He also said that the Democratic Party in Brooklyn, the largest Democratic organization in the state, had been more inclusive in its endorsements than in the past — supporting an ethnically diverse field and an openly gay candidate — and that it was on far more solid financial footing than it used to be. Under his stewardship, he said, the party has gone from being in debt to having money to expand its staff.

Mr. Lopez said that the surrogate candidates were well qualified and that he would do everything he could to support Justice Johnson. She faces Theodore Alatsas, a lawyer running on the Republican and Conservative Party tickets, in November.

“It was a race, it’s over; I congratulate Diana Johnson and her campaign,” he said. “The important thing is now for us to move forward and to determine how we can become a solidly unified Democratic borough.”

Still, many politicians suggest that the loss of a surrogate race is a blemish that exposes weaknesses in the party’s leadership. Tuesday’s race was unlike other judicial races in the borough in the last two years. It was a high-profile contest that brought together a number of political clubs and labor unions — most notably the Transport Workers Union — and many politicians, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, to work against the organization.

“When I was growing up in Brooklyn, a surrogate race was considered a sure win for the organization,” Mr. Sharpton, the best-known supporter of Justice Johnson, said yesterday. “But clearly the election results show that the organization can be taken on and defeated. It showed that when the playing field is level, the organization can come up short.”

Gary Tilzer, Justice Johnson’s campaign manager, put it more bluntly, saying of Mr. Lopez: “He’s a county leader who can’t deliver votes. And if you can’t win a surrogate race in an off-year election, what muscle do you have with candidates running for mayor or other offices?”

Political analysts suggest that while Mr. Lopez’s candidate lost, some defeats are expected for a leader of a party as large as Brooklyn’s. Also, the party is still reeling from a scandal that culminated in February with the conviction of Clarence Norman Jr., the former Brooklyn Democratic leader, for extorting money from judicial candidates.

Mr. Lopez might well be encouraged because the forces opposing the party organization are not particularly unified. In fact, those coalitions tend to form on a contest-by-contest basis, with the characters changing from one race to the other.

“With everything that’s happened in the judiciary in Brooklyn, Vito’s loss shows that being the county leader in Brooklyn is a work in progress,” said Evan Stavisky, a political consultant who works primarily with Democratic candidates.

“Let’s face it,” Mr. Stavisky said. “The Brooklyn Democratic Party, though it’s the largest, hasn’t been a strong unified machine since the days of Meade Esposito,” who led the Brooklyn Democratic Party for a quarter century until he retired in 1983.

He added: “Being the county leader of any borough has headaches; being county leader of Brooklyn is an Excedrin headache.”

No comments: