Post-Vito: Being rid of a boss is one thing, replacing him is another

Vito Lopez, speaking with reporters before his Occupy Wall Street march. (Reid Pillifant)
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In 2010, when Vito Lopez was re-elected as chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, he won with the kind of margin normally reserved for party elections in the old Eastern Bloc, with 47 votes in his favor and only 3 opposed

He had leverage: Since taking over the Brooklyn Democratic chair in 2006, he had been able to use his sprawling social services empire and the purse strings of the Assembly's Housing committee to reward his friends and primary his enemies.

That's over now. On Tuesday, after having been publicly stripped of his Housing chairmanship and formally censured by the Assembly speaker for verbally and sexually harassing female employees, Lopez announced he would not stand for re-election as county leader next month.

It would seem to be an opportunity for Brooklyn's would-be reformers, if they can come together.

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Lopez's margin of victory in 2010 was helped along by 11 at-large members appointed by him, six of which he announced to the executive committee's 42 district leaders just before the vote two years ago. That bloc of beholden, at-large members effectively stakes the county loyalists to an early lead, making the presumptive favorite Frank Seddio, a former assemblyman and county functionary with close ties to the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. (Seddio would have to abandon his plans to run for a City Council seat to assume the county leader post.)

Meanwhile, the anti-organization crowd, such as it is, has yet to settle on a candidate. A meeting of district leaders is set for Thursday; in the meantime, interested candidates are making a flurry of phone calls, and touting themselves as the top challengers in the press.

Jo Anne Simon, an outspoken reformer and frequent target of Lopez's ire, has called for a woman candidate like, say, herself.

"In the wake of Vito’s most recent transgressions, many of my friends and supporters – and even some people I don’t always agree with – have urged me to run for County Leader," she wrote in an email to supporters yesterday. "I believe it is time for a woman to head the [Kings County Democratic Party]."

The idea could gain traction among the women who make up half of the district leader posts (each Assembly district is represented by a male district leader and a female district leader), and has at least one male supporter in Chris Owens, the district leader who garnered the three anti-Lopez votes in 2010.

But there are ethnic divides too.

According to a source, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz has been making calls to feel out his own candidacy among Latino district leaders, and a number of black elected officials centered around central Brooklyn—including, but not limited to, the area's district leaders—are planning to meet soon to determine their own course of action.

"If they can get their shit together, they're actually in a good position, given the stark divide between your quote-unquote 'reformers,' and the county people," said one longtime operative who has worked in the area. "But I doubt they can."

For now, the hope of the central Brooklyn Democrats seems to rest with Assemblyman Karim Camara, the young chairman of the Assembly's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, who belongs to a bloc of African-American elected officials who have taken a pro-reform, but not anti-Vito, line.

In theory, he's enough of an outsider to satisfy the reformers but enough of a regular to pick off enough county-friendly votes to upset Seddio.

Camara has a good relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo and is close with Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who defeated controversial Councilman Charles Barron in a congressional primary in June.

But Camara isn't a perfect candidate. As it stands, he's not even technically eligible for the post, since he doesn't currently sit as a district leader. So his candidacy would require a change of the rules, or some deliberate seat-switching with an existing district leader. Camara's candidacy is also complicated by a few factors in his personal life, including the fact that his wife serves as a United States Attorney in the Eastern District, and that his record includes an arrest for drunk driving in Albany in 2007. (Camara later said the charges against him were "bogus" and the evidence was accidentally destroyed; Cuomo, for his part, hasn't been particularly bothered by such offenses.)

Support for Camara among local black leaders isn't unanimous.

"Karim Camara goes along to get along," said Charles Barron, whose wife, Assemblywoman Inez Barron, serves as a district leader. "He's weak."

Instead Barron suggested the "strong" choice would be Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, who could, in theory, combine the desire for a woman and a minority candidate.

Robinson did not return a call for comment, but there are substantial doubts about whether Robinson is eager to serve in a highly divisive, unpaid party position.

As with Robinson, there are questions about whether Camara, a genial pastor, has the muscle to marshal the factions and maintain control of a divided borough.

"You need somebody who doesn't believe in God," joked one source.

In a 2009 City Council race that could serve as a cautionary tale, six anti-Lopez reformers (including Simon) all ran against Lopez's chief of staff, Steve Levin, in a relatively progressive waterfront and brownstone district.

Levin won, with 34 percent of the vote.