11:36 am Sep. 14, 20121
Freshman Democratic district leader Lincoln Restler started out his speech at the Red Star bar in Williamsburg last night sounding as if he might concede defeat in his first race for re-election but, after an aide whispered in his ear, Restler wound up giving a fist-pounding vow to fight until "every last damn ballot is counted."
More than any other candidate running in yesterday's primary election, Restler personified the anti-establishment crusade waged against the Brooklyn Democratic County organization and the county leader, Vito Lopez.
Lopez was stripped of his chairmanship and all his seniority in the Assembly last month, and is currently under investigation for allegedly sexual harassing female employees, but yesterday's results suggest he still has some sway, particularly with the Hasidic neighborhoods in south Williamsburg.
Lopez reportedly vowed to beat Restler, despite his own problems, and at last count, Lopez's preferred candidate, Chris Olechowski, led by about 200 votes, out of more than 11,000 cast.
Restler supporters now are struggling with the reality that the face of the reform movement may have lost this battle, but are taking comfort in the fact that they turned out more voters in certain areas than two years ago, potentially giving them a shot at a winning future races in the years ahead.
"Just because Vito stepped down doesn't mean he doesn't have the machine behind him," one Restler supporter told me.
In his speech, Restler said Olechowski got less than 600 votes in Green Point, Clinton Hil, Fort Greene, the north side of Williamsburg, and "Italian Williamsburg" combined.
But in Hasidic Williamsburg, "Boss Vito Lopez and Stevey Levin delivered him 6,000 votes," Restler said, as he pounded the wooden podium. (Restler is considering a challenge to Levin, a 31-year-old councilman and former chief of staff to Lopez, who actually goes by "Steve.")
"Shit," a woman standing next to me said despondently, as Restler delivered the bad news.
Some supporters at the bar tried putting the race in context, and said, overall, it wasn't so bad.
Bobby Carroll, the first vice president of Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and an election lawyer who helped Restler secure a spot on the ballot two years ago, said a Restler loss wouldn't stop the progressive movement. "It'll keep going no matter what," he told me. Carroll, with a pair of sun glasses tucked into his unbuttoned blue dress shirt, said the race was harder fought than Restler's first race in 2010.
He recalled a poll worker that night telling him there were more voters showing up that day, than for the presidential race in 2008. "I got called out of my Con-Law class [by campaign workers] worried about voter fraud," he told me.
Assemblyman Joe Lentol, conspicuously dressed in a blue blazer and blue-and-white pin-stripped shirt, and easily two decades older than anyone else at the party, cautioned against reading too much into the results.
"This may not be the test of strength [for either candidate] because of the Hasidic vote," Lentol told me, "because they're able to bring out a tremendous vote." Lentol said the outcome may simply be a result of internal Jewish politics in that neighborhood. Among the Satmar Jews who are the largest voting bloc in that area, there's a long-running split among two factions: the Zalmen, who are the larger group, are aligned with Lopez, and the smaller faction, known as Aaronis, who are aligned with the opposition to Lopez.
"The vote that comes out of that area" Lentol said, "seems more consequential."
After 1 a.m., when most of the crowd at Restler's party had gone home, the candidate sat around with a few aides, looking over a few more results, and seemed more optimistic about his performance than when he delivered his speech. With a skinny tie still neatly wrapped around his collar, Restler told me he ran as well as anyone could expect.
"We absolutely dominated the vote in every single diverse neighborhood outside of the Hasidic community in Williamsburg," he said. "Considering 90-plus percent of my opponent's votes came from Hasidic Williamsburg, I think there is a clear message to the Democratic machine establishment that independent-minded voters want real change. Whether we are victorious or not, at the end of this race, the resolve of those voters and their neighbors will only be strengthened by the outcome."