(Illustration: Jerry Miller)

Editor's note: In light of the death of former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, we are re-posting this profile. This story originally was published on March 1, 2010. 

The windows in Cono’s Restaurant, in the dwindling Italian section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are lined with snake plants. Mother-in-law tongues, they are sometimes called.

Their green stalks fill the restaurant windows from top to bottom and keep anyone from peering inside.

Cono’s is a white tablecloth, Italian red sauce kind of place. It is where Brooklyn Democratic powerbroker and party boss Vito Lopez receives the politicians who come from all over the state to pay tribute to him. If a passerby could have peered through those window plants on a desperately cold day in January, he would have seen a table full of political reporters, gorging themselves on antipasta, seafood, ravioli and iced tea, waiting for former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford to emerge from a backroom where he was, at Lopez’s behest, meeting with a roomful of Brooklyn politicians.

Officially, the meeting was called for the entire Brooklyn delegation at the county, city and state levels, but certain people with whom Lopez has been feuding were not invited: Diana Reyna, a former Lopez staffer-turned-bitter foe; Jo Ann Simon, a district leader hailed by good-government groups who lost a race to another former Lopez staffer, Steve Levin; and everyone else who had, for one reason or another, at one point or another, made the enemies list Lopez keeps in his head.

Except perhaps for the assumed quiet blessing he got from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Ford had no bigger supporter as he weighed his primary run than Lopez. As with everything the Brooklyn boss does, though, the support came with rampant speculation about his motives and motivations. Was he still bitter after having the rug pulled out from under him during the Caroline Kennedy fiasco? Was he trying to stick a finger in the eye of Sen. Chuck Schumer—but why, since Schumer had endorsed his staffer Levin in the Council race, as unusual as that was for a United States Senator to do? Was he doing the bidding of the Bloomberg administration, who also were seen as Ford supporters and Lopez allies? Was he hoping for federal pork for his district? Or, did Lopez just want to remind politicos around the state that he was not someone who could be taken for granted?

“I don’t know!” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, shaking his head and throwing his hands up as he left Cono’s. “I don’t know! I hear you what you are saying! I wish I knew!”

Back inside, the meeting had broken up, and Brooklyn elected officials were ducking questions about whether or not they were for Ford or Gillibrand. Lopez led Ford through the dining room, whispering into his ear, “You were really good. Really good. You were able to remember names. That’s a really good skill. Chuck Schumer can do that. You come back, you know their names. People like that.”

In front of the press, Ford heaped praise on the chairman, marveling that they only met for the first time a week earlier.

“It feels like it’s been two years, three years since we’ve known each other,” Ford said, beaming up at his new benefactor.

Lopez said Ford had promised, if he were to win the Senate race, to come back and help out at Lopez’s annual Thanksgiving Day feast—“I hope that isn’t irregular,” he said, making a joke out of his dealmaker reputation—and he was asked if he was receiving any pressure to ease up on his support of someone who is not yet a candidate but is threatening to primary an incumbent senator.

“Individuals have inquired about what I was doing,” Lopez said. “That, in itself, that was sending a message. So did I hear anything directly from anyone, was it in the form of a threat? No, none of that, and that doesn’t happen in this sophisticated world.”

So then, Vito, why is Brooklyn reaching out to Ford when everyone else is lining up behind Gillibrand? What exactly is going on here?

“We think we should have a dialogue. It’s not a backroom deal,” he said. “I think Brooklyn is different. And I’m really proud of that.”

 

Despite serving a quarter century in the Assembly, and longer as the de facto head of the sprawling social service empire and affordable housing developer called the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, and the last five years as head of the largest local group of Democrats in the country, Vito Lopez remains someone whom people in his corner of Brooklyn and in the political world beyond have deeply divided feelings about.

To some, he is responsible for bringing back Bushwick from the charred brink of the 1970s. To others, he has done so only in so far as it benefits RBSCC, to the exclusion of a host of other agencies in the area that do good work. To some he is a political organizer par excellence, someone who, as one former aide put it, counts votes on one hand, and runs candidates and wins against ineffective incumbents. To others, he is vindictive, and only runs candidates who will do his bidding.

How can the same person, insiders wonder, make sure to call officials long out of office when he hears they or a relative have become ill, and also carry grudges that get embedded deep into the Brooklyn bedrock? Is he a renegade, or is he a relic?

Everyone does seem to agree however, that during an era when political clubs cease to matter, when reforms have stripped country organizations of their power, when the smoke-filled room has become American Lung Association compliant, that Vito Lopez remains New York’s last political don.

Lopez works mostly out of the Bushwick United Democratic Club, a political clubhouse without working heat with a busted door lock that he founded to mount his first run for Assembly in 1984.

“A shithole,” Lopez calls it.

He is sitting in the back office, slumped in a chair surrounded by butcher paper with neighborhood by neighborhood and housing development-by-housing development graphs of signature-gathering efforts. He has on his usual sweater vest, his hair parted over to one side, comb-over flopping. He is easily the biggest thing in the room, tables and desks and file cabinets included.

Stacks of yellowing palm cards cover every flat surface. The walls are a time piece of political campaign posters past and present. Cuomo for Attorney General. Dilan for State Senate. Dilan for City Council. Political aspirants from Brooklyn and beyond come here to sit at Lopez’s knee and ask for his blessing. He receives them all.

Mostly, however, the club is a shrine to Maritza Davila, who Lopez backed unsuccessfully against Reyna, and especially Steve Levin, who won a seat in the neighboring district.

Lopez takes down a photograph that he keeps in the clubhouse of an even younger looking Levin.

“See, when I first met Steve, he didn’t even own a shirt. He owned a T-shirt,” he says affectionately.

Not only did Levin win, but he won big against Jo Ann Simon, a longtime Lopez antagonist in a district dominated by the kind of upwardly mobile voters to whom the Lopez name reeks of all that is wrong with New York’s political culture. When the New York Times endorsed Simon, the editorial board justified it by called Levin “a prime candidate except for his entanglement in Brooklyn Democratic Party machine” (read: their pick, if not for the connection to Lopez).

Levin should be, in Lopez’s phrase, be “councilman of the month.” No one thought he could win, Lopez says, but he outworked everyone else, campaigned in the housing projects late at night that the others avoided entirely. Levin’s opponents played up his association with Lopez. And they lost doing it, he brags.

The press is especially at fault. When candidates beat him, the press regards it as a miracle. When Lopez wins, the machine has supposedly triumphed. That is ridiculous, he says. To hear him tell it, he is not the establishment.

“We were thinking outside the box. But I can’t explain that I’m an independent operator. That’s something someone else has to write about, but they never will,” he said. “Steve is smart and he works hard and he won when he shouldn’t have. So fucking salute the guy!”

No one respects Levin, in Vito’s view, because no one respects him.

Life, for Lopez, is about trading in respect. He has been known to badger politicians and staffers over what he sees as the slightest slight. But they keep coming, and he keeps burning over each and every one of them.

Lopez’s voice started to rise: “I am not corrupt. Please believe me, I am not corrupt. I am not the establishment. I am against it. You have to write about it. But you won’t.”

The day after Lopez introduced Ford to Brooklyn, Gillibrand appeared at Simon’s well-apportioned Boerum Hill home for a fundraiser. The crowd was full of his nemeses—Simon, her co-district leader Alan Fleishman (in the old days, Lopez once said, Fleishman’s
office would have been burned down for the comments he made about the county leader to reporters), Rep. Nydia Velázquez, with whom Lopez has a feud dating back 25 years, and members of the New King Democrats, a political club of young, white hipsters devoted to running candidates for empty slots on the county committee to curb Lopez’s power (Lopez told them they should run for the community board instead and worked to get them kicked off the ballot).

Lopez relishes the fact that his antagonists rush to the other end of whatever side he is on, even when that means backing an older Orthodox Jewish government bureaucrat like Joe Lazar, running against Lopez-endorsed David Greenfield for what was Simcha Felder’s Council seat.

“I told someone earlier today that I have to think about that, and start going in the opposite direction,” Lopez said, gleefully joking about how he could game his predictable enemies.

Lopez supporters say that he is caricatured by the mainstream media and by his detractors. He is big, gruff, shlumpy, and retains the vocal inflections of his native Bensonhurst. Yes, they acknowledge, he has built a social service empire, and seems to get his projects fast-tracked through the Housing Committee in the Assembly, which he chairs. So too with the Bloomberg Administration, which relies on him for the trove of votes he can deliver.

But that, they point out, is how the game works. And even his detractors say that Lopez is a genius at political organizing, knowing how many votes come from which floors of which housing developments, and making sure his constituents get resources.

“Why is it worse for him?” asked one Brooklyn political operative, who, like many of the nearly 40 people contacted for this story, asked that their name not be used for fear of antagonizing Lopez. “Because if you want to get some guy from central casting that looks like a party boss, you’d pick him. It’s like, ‘I’m shocked there is gambling in Casablanca.’ What is nefarious about people assembling political success?”

Housing officials say that Lopez is one of the few people who understands how projects go from conception to completion, and point out that if he is an advocate for specific development, he is at least an elected one, rather than a self-appointed one.

Still, Googling Vito Lopez’s name is enough to make the hair stand up on the back of the neck of anyone who hopes for a glimmer of good government. The blogs and the papers and even whole websites are devoted to tales of his schemes—to allegations that he does not live in his district, but in Queens with his girlfriend, who has a high-paying job on the Ridgewood-Bushwick payroll and a seat on the City Planning Commission; that he worked to not extend the statute of limitations on Catholic priest sex abuse claims to get a prized development project passed; that he wantonly blurs the lines between the political and governmental sides of his job.

It bothers Lopez too. He tells about a niece of his who wanted a friend of hers to meet him because she wanted to go into public service. She looked him up, and then changed her mind.

“She goes, ‘Gee, how do you stomach that, how do you live with that?’ And I said, ‘You think about all the good things you do,’” he said.

Many nights, he confides, he drives the streets of Bushwick, looking at each new building he helped bring and thinking about what he calls the “dumps and lots” that were there before. This keeps his spirits up, he said. Surveying his territory and what he has brought to it is his answer to all that gets piled on him, every insult and offense he takes.

And the Brooklyn Democratic Party is in far better shape than it was when Lopez took over in 2005, after Clarence Norman, the previous boss, was sent to jail for extorting money from judicial candidates. Then, the party was riven by geographic and ethnic turmoil. No citywide elected official, no statewide official, no legislative leader, and, other than Lopez himself, not even a major committee chair in city or state government was held by a Brooklynite.

Now, Lopez ally Domenic Recchia runs the powerful Finance Committee in the City Council, Carl Kruger holds the same spot in the State Senate, John Sampson is the Senate Democratic leader, and the party just flipped Republican-held seats in the Assembly and in Congress.

“Those are accomplishments for a Democratic leader,” he says. “We win seats. I don’t want to get involved in the Queens dynamic, but they lost six seats this year. The only seat we lost that we got involved with was the Diana Reyna seat. And we lost by 180 votes against an incumbent with all of the endorsements.”

Few county leaders would have gotten involved in a race against a popular incumbent, even though she had strayed from the flock. To many, it showed Lopez’s fortitude—that he was willing to pick sides and take a stand, even a risky one. And he was willing to hold to it, even when Reyna won the Democratic primary and Davila kept going against the party nominee on the Working Families line.

But when Davila lost, Lopez lost. A chunk of his credibility, many Brooklyn Democrats say, had fallen. To them, it shows that there is not room in modern-day politics for the modern-day boss that Lopez tries to be.

“He would have traded Levin winning for Reyna losing in a second,” says one Brooklyn political operative. “She kicked him in the balls and spat in his face in his own backyard and he couldn’t kick her out. You only owe a county chair something if he is the reason you got elected. You think anyone else is scared of Vito now?”

 

Lopez saves Cono’s for the big fish. Smaller meetings are almost always at his political club. He is never alone. He never really negotiates. When he wants something, he either launches into a long list of things he has done for you, dating back years, or he promises a vague payout in the future. Visitors must make elaborate shows of respect, telling him how much they appreciate him and his work as chairman. Failing to do so, especially in a public setting, could lead to a late-night phone rebuke at best. The consequences of disagreeing are well known: at worst, he could bottle up your legislation interminably and threaten a primary.

“Everyone knows he is a madman,” said one survivor of a Vito meeting. “You somehow push the wrong buttons, and he’ll declare war on you without regard to consequences.”

Another said he had learned to make sure to not go alone to meetings with Lopez—too often, he will remember the meeting differently, and expect promises never made to be followed through on without fail.

They put up with it because playing along is harmless, and crossing him is just not worth the headache. After losing the vote for city clerk, Lopez called a meeting of the full Brooklyn delegation of the Council. Kings was a proud county, he proclaimed. His was not a borough that would accept this disrespect. It would not stand.

Most members rolled their eyes and spent the time checking their BlackBerries.

“There is an obligatory bowing and scraping,” said one Brooklyn legislative aide, comparing Lopez to his county leader counterparts in Queens and the Bronx. “Everyone does it and everyone feels dirty, and then they get in their cars and go home and the ones that have a good sense of humor laugh about it. You don’t see Heastie and Crowley act like that, and Crowley has an important day job.”

How can the same person, insiders wonder, make sure to call officials long out of office when he hears they or a relative have become ill, and also carry grudges that get embedded deep into the Brooklyn bedrock? Is he a renegade, or is he a relic?

In the old days, when county leaders provided patronage, such displays were more necessary. But the county parties are a shell of what they once were. They can appoint judges, but they no longer control all the election lawyers in town. Campaign cash is easier to get for city candidates, provided mostly by the Campaign Finance Board. The unions provide the ground troops.

County leaders are best advised to get out of the way and embrace the ones who put the pieces together on their own.

“It’s not like this is 1907 and the county leader is showering riches on district leaders and they need to take it or otherwise their family won’t eat,” said one Brooklyn official. “That’s not the way the world works anymore, and that’s not the way county parties function.”

Lopez observers say that his memory has always been long, his neuroses and paranoia always in place, but that he has grown increasingly brazen, acting without regard for consequences as he places demands on his members that are becoming harder and harder for them to stomach. In the twilight of county power, Lopez acts like he is the last to know.

There is the Ford thing, the Reyna thing, the Levin thing.

He, of course, says this is all just proof of his lofty independent streak.

“I think that’s a great quality. People like that quality and a lot of people are attracted to me because of it,” he said. “Thinking outside the box, speaking up and stepping out and be willing to, you know, get whacked.”

And just as the asks get bigger, Brooklyn officials say, Lopez’s power to do anything to enforce them is draining. When he got behind Caroline Kennedy, many people assumed that it meant a deal had been cut, and she would be the next senator. Few people now really believe that Harold Ford will represent the Empire State in the Senate, with or without Lopez’s blessing. The county leader has lost three of the last four judicial races he has been involved in. Levin did win, but Lopez lost in his own backyard.

 

Some Lopez allies were surprised when he became county leader. Before he started climbing the county ladder, he was the renegade, the outsider who could challenge entrenched incumbents. Whether he cares to be or not, he is the establishment now, even if he bristles when people call him “boss,” or refer to him as “county,” power personified. Some see storm clouds brewing.

Reyna’s win galvanized the anti-Lopez factions in Bushwick. The anti-Vitos are pushing her to challenge him for his Assembly seat, and believe that she could win if she wanted to risk it. A movement to start electing dissident district leaders is gaining steam. There is no consensus choice—for now. But someone who could appeal to the different factions of the county—brownstone Brooklyn, the progressives in his district, the large swaths of central Brooklyn that are bitter over Lopez’s long-running feud with Rep. Ed Towns. The county could crumble, insiders say, if Lopez asks too much of those he helped get into positions of power. People like Sampson and Recchia could decide that they would rather have a county leader take direction then give direction.

Lopez is not oblivious. He hired a new executive director of the Kings County Democrats, Serena Blanchard to, in her words, “reach out to the new communities of Brooklyn.”

“Yeah, the hipsters,” Lopez interrupts.

“And have dialogues. Say ‘What do you need?’ Half of them will probably tell me to go fuck myself. You stand out at a polling site and try to hand out a palm card and they throw it back at you, but I want to have a dialogue.”

But the real reason, many say, that Lopez is safe, is because he matters so little. Kiss the ring, if you have to. Show up at Cono’s when he asks. There is no point in looking for a new county leader. In 2010, county leaders are leaders in title only.

 

Lopez does not like to talk about himself. To him, his work in the community and in elections says enough. Sure, there are questions, enemies. He feels no need to answer them or justify what he does.

“You don’t say nothing,” he said. “If someone says your mother is a prostitute, you get mad, and you get mad. Then they say it, and the best thing to do is, if you explain it away people will think maybe she is. So you’ve got to bite your tongue and live with it. What do I do?”

His voice started to rise: “I am not corrupt. Please believe me, I am not corrupt. I am not the establishment. I am against it. You have to write about it. But you won’t.”

He scoffs at the hypocrisy of the press darlings of the political class—the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, a progressive club in Park Slope, and, obliquely, the Daniel Squadrons and Chuck Schumers of the world.

“You love those politicians who stand on a corner and say how popular they are. They are the stars in your world. But the polls say their stature is going down,” he said. “You poll my neighborhood, I’m probably at 80 percent.”

Lopez had originally agreed to let City Hall spend several days with him for this story and to sit for another interview.

The newspaper contacted Sen. Martin Dilan, a close ally, to provide context to Lopez, and, after a brief conversation, he contacted Lopez, who then abruptly pulled out of the story.

He said they were too many questions about what “reform” meant, too many questions about what life was like for Vito Lopez.

“We sat for over two hours,” Lopez said in a brief follow-up interview. “And there were six people here, six independent people here, and they all thought your piece was going to be a hit piece.”

Lopez said that after this article ran, that if it was a positive article then he might agree to another interview sometime down the line. Sometime. Maybe.

“I don’t need this. I have a dozen attorney general candidates coming to see me. We had Ford over lunch, we expected 30 people. Forty-one showed up. Those are facts. Why don’t you write about that?” he said, bellowing into the phone. “I talked to you, and it was like a therapy session. How do I feel about this and that? I don’t need it. Goodbye.”