12:10 pm Jun. 19, 20123
Her meeting with Brooklyn's Democratic boss Vito Lopez had been a friendly one, as far as Nydia Velazquez knew.
It was 1992, the year she was first elected to Congress. Velazquez and Dennis Rivera, then the president of the health care workers union, 1199 SEIU, met with Lopez at the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan to coordinate his support for her campaign.
Lopez, a veteran assemblyman, wouldn't become Brooklyn Democratic Party chair until 2005, following the conviction of his predecessor for soliciting illegal campaign contributions. But he had already emerged as an influential power broker.
"We planned to hold a press conference for the following week," Velazquez said, in an interview this week.
Then Lopez stopped returning Rivera's calls, according to Velazquez.
"And then all of a sudden Vito produced another candidate," she said, over breakfast at the Park Place Restaurant on Sunday morning. "So right from the start, Vito has been dishonest in his dealing with me."
She took a sip from a cup of cappuccino and tried to wave away the subject.
"I don't even want to revisit that," she said.
Lately, she hasn't had a choice.
After leaving her unchallenged over the years in a district taking in parts of Brooklyn and Queens and the Lower East Side, Lopez has once again produced a candidate to run against Velazquez, this time in the form of term-limited councilman Erik Martin Dilan.
That makes Velazquez the highest-ranking target in this cycle of a broad offensive by the county leader, who is trying to reassert his power after weathering multiple federal and city investigations, and to defeat, or at least diminish, a dissident Brooklyn Democratic faction that has sprouted up to oppose him.
Lopez has already rid the borough of his other longtime enemy in the congressional delegation, Ed Towns, who announced in April that he would retire in the face of a challenge from the upstart assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who happens to enjoy the strong backing of Lopez. But Towns was an island of incumbency, never much concerned with advancing a movement beyond his son and daughter.
Velazquez, on the other hand, has been a mentor to a younger generation of Brooklyn-based liberals who are openly challenging Lopez's power.
Last summer, she backed Jesus Gonzalez, a challenger on the Working Families line, in a race for an open Assembly seat that was also a proxy battle among the borough's competing factions, and she helped foster the movement against Lopez in its earliest days.
In January of 2010, she invited Lincoln Restler, who was then leading a reform club called the New Kings Democrats, to be her guest at the State of the Union.
"She supported a group of young people who are generally new to local politics and offered her expertise and credibility," said Restler, who generated an impressive amount of laudatory (and anti-Vito) press in a successful district-leader race later that year. "And that's been invaluable to our efforts."
Not coincidentally, Restler is also being targeted by Lopez this cycle. To run against Restler, who won by just 121 votes in 2010, Lopez recruited the well-known chairman of the local community board, Chris Olechowski, who will presumably be an attractive candidate in a district with a substantial Polish population.
(Lopez, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, recently described Restler's connection to Velazquez as being "up her butt, and that's fine.")
Lopez's strategy isn't hard to follow.
A big victory for Olechowski could, in theory at least, dissuade Restler from running for City Council next year against Lopez's former chief of staff, Steve Levin.
But Lopez is also getting involved in contests where the county organization is not widely expected to win, including a second challenge to district leader Jo Anne Simon, who ran against Levin in 2009 (with the New York Times' blessing) and is considering a rematch in 2013.
In 2010, Lopez ran the 22-year-old daughter of a judge and ally against Simon, in what she says was the first primary challenge to a female district leader since 1984.
Simon won with 63 percent of the vote.
This time, the challenger is Debra Scotto, the daughter of the unofficial mayor of Carroll Gardens, Buddy Scotto, whose power in the area appears to be on the wane. (Scotto aggressively opposed declaring the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site, which Velazquez counts as one of her signature achievements.)
But for Lopez, individual victories might not be the point.
The county machinery can churn money and votes with relative ease, manufacturing challengers that must be taken seriously, and forcing opponents to spend time and money ensuring their own safety, rather than coalescing around challengers for other seats, or even Lopez himself.
"Every time these kinds of things happen, he's sending a signal to people that if they act differently than he would like, that they will be in his crosshairs," said Simon. "It's payback, it's a message to other people."
Where Lopez's predecessor, Clarence Norman, preferred to avoid messy intra-party brawls where he could, Lopez welcomes the combat.
"That's just the way he's wired," said one consultant I talked to. "It's nothing new."
BUT THE PUSH AGAINST VELAZQUEZ IS SOMETHING NEW, EVEN if it isn't surprising.
"Oh no, come on, it surprised me that it took this long," Velazquez said on Sunday.
I asked why she thought this was happening now.
"I think that Vito is worrying, and he sees this as a real opportunity to weaken me, given the fact that there is redistricting," she said.
During the recently completed redrawing of the congressional lines, Velazquez and her supporters urged the three-judge panel that was overseeing the process not to remove the reform-minded communities in north Brooklyn from her sprawling, heavily Latino district, which stretches from north and eastern Brooklyn through Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and down to Greenwood Cemetery and Sunset Park. But the court removed them anyway, adding more of the borough's brownstone belt and extending the district further east into Ozone Park.
Lopez and Dilan have cast Velazquez as an anti-Zionist, overly partisan puppet of Wall Street who hasn't been an active enough legislator, citing as proof a Daily News story that reported the congresswoman didn't so much as sponsor a bill or resolution in the first half of 2011.