Monday, June 16, 2008

Voting Lopez social programs ensure political victory

Lopez’s social programs ensure political victory
By Julie Cirelli

At 9:21 pm Tuesday evening, the first of what would be more than a dozen phone calls – early counts from the 53rd Assembly district’s polling sites – pierced the nervous clamor of Democratic candidates at their clubhouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

As other candidates scoured the Internet for early forecasts of wins and losses, Assemblyman Vito Lopez sat quietly, the very picture of calm and composure, as he watched the local television stations broadcast early results of the national elections.

For Lopez, it was not a matter of whether he would win. Of course he would win. The only question would be, by how much?

Angela Battaglia, a city planning commissioner and longtime companion of Lopez, intercepted the call from the first poll.

“Vito!” she shouted, cupping the phone receiver with her hand.

“You got 212. It was 212 to 2.”

She winced at the “2,” as though conceding two votes to Lopez’s Republican competitor, Ameriar Feliciano, was an insult.

Lopez heads one of Brooklyn’s strongest political operations in the recent history. In Bushwick, the ubiquity of his community programs inspires deep feelings from his constituents. Many are fiercely devoted. Others are deeply frustrated.

Over the din of ringing telephones, someone shouted jokingly, “Hey Vito, do you know who those two people are?”

“Sure,” he nodded, flashing his signature grave, grandfatherly smile. “Of course.”

In a community like Bushwick, which is largely composed of poor and immigrant families, affordable housing is a constant issue.

Under the blanket organization of his Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), Lopez opened at least 50 organizations to serve the young, the old, and practically everyone in between. These are senior housing facilities and community centers, tenant advocacy and educational programs for teens and young adults.

“He has a lot of senior citizen support because of all of the services he provides to them, especially housing,” Mercedes Viera Serrano, a city health worker and volunteer poll monitor, said election afternoon at the RBSCC senior housing facility Hope Gardens.

“I voted for him,” said Julia Fernandez, a 62-year-old resident there.

“And I’m going to vote for him,” 82-year-old Hope Gardens resident Antonia Fernandez chimed in. “I’ve known him for a lot of years.”

At Hope Gardens, Lopez garnered all 141 votes. His opponent did not receive even one.

Lopez takes seniors from his centers on regular picnics, and mans the barbecue with a smock with his name on it in big letters, according to Msgr. John J. Powis, pastor of St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick.

In the entrances to many poling sites in Bushwick, large florescent yellow and orange posters remind seniors in English and Spanish that they are invited to Thanksgiving dinner with Vito Lopez later this month.

“Even if he’s not running, people will come in and look for his name,” said poll worker Mary Ann Lebron. “We’ll explain that he’s not running, but that he supports a couple of parties.”

Lebron added that Lopez recently fought for an after-school program at her son’s school.

“From the time they can vote – from all ages – as soon as they turn 18, they come out to support him, because his programs touch all ages.” Lebron said.

Nicole Marwell wrote, “He has the political clout to deliver significant financial resources to the community…In return, he demands full support from those who benefit,” in her study “Social Networks and Social Capital as Resources for Community Revitalization” for the non-profit watchdog and research group Nonprofit Sector Research Fund.

During the first election of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani – whom Lopez crossed party lines to endorse – Marwell followed the actions of the Ridgewood-Bushwick Housing Coalition’s employees on Election Day for her research.

“All the RBSCC offices were closed, and employees were ‘strongly encouraged’ – or, depending who you asked, ‘expected’ – to come out to the Assemblyman’s political club, and participate in the effort to blanket the district with Giuliani literature,” she wrote.

The RBSCC office was also closed this Tuesday.

Some of the RBSCC’s employees did volunteer their time to work on election activities, said poll worker Louise Cunningham.

“If you need help, he’ll be there. When he needs help, well, they say, ‘One hand washes the other,’” she said.

Lopez’s popular support in the community, particularly by those touched by his programs, has translated into political clout.

“Who does Vito support?” asked Powis. “Whoever it is, will win. There’s no way anybody could win without Vito’s support.”

Of the polling sites in 53rd Assembly District that are not located inside public schools, more than half were located within the RBSCC centers themselves.

“It doesn’t mean he’s controlling the vote, but he’s certainly influencing it,” said the Rev. James Kelley, pastor at St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick.

When Vito Lopez came on the political scene in Bushwick in the 1970s, weeks of continuous arson fires and looting had ravaged the community. Politicians known as “poverty pimps” exploited anti-poverty programs for use as their personal piggy banks.

A left-wing social worker, Lopez formed progressive clubs and organizations, and was funded extensively as a result. His programs were successful, and as they grew, so did his political power.

“Vito Lopez has helped build one of the most impressive and substantial social and legal services operations in the city," said Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School University in Manhattan. "It's a model a lot of politicians use to build their base."

“This is standard New York City politics,” White said. “Vito Lopez is just very, very good at it.”

Others feel that Lopez has gone overboard. Despite devoting his life’s work to providing affordable housing to the poor, elderly and disabled in Brooklyn, Lopez is loathe to allow others to do the same, Powis said.

Community leaders who do not align themselves politically with Lopez say that they are more likely to hit walls, particularly when it comes to funding for public housing initiatives.

“If you play the game, you’ll be taken care of,” Powis said. “If you don’t play the game, you have to be very careful, or you’ll lose your funding.”

But Lopez supporters shrug off such criticisms.

“Where do you think all the houses going up come from?” asked Eileen O’Brien, a member of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club and Lopez supporter who was at Lopez’ club election night. “He’s raised money for them. That’s what you hope your assemblyman does.”

Julie Cirelli can be contacted at

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