“You should use cold water with chicken cutlets,” says Frank Seddio, the new chairman of the Kings County Democratic Party. “You want to keep them fresh. You don’t want it to get too warm. You have to be careful with chicken. When you cook it, you can’t leave it out too long. Temperature is very important with chicken.”
Seddio patiently breads and places his chicken cutlets one-by one in an inch of crackling vegetable oil. Two quarts of salted water are boiling in a steel pot on a back burner and another quart of crushed tomato gravy, which has been reducing for three hours, simmers in a smaller pot on a front burner.
I am standing in a narrow kitchen on the first floor of Seddio’s home on the corner of Flatlands Avenue and E. 93rd Street in Canarsie. It is a modest three-story house that doubles as a home office for his law practice. It is a cold, damp morning, but the kitchen is warm and I need to take off my blazer.
Seddio walled off his kitchen 15 years ago when he remarried, but still makes elaborate Italian meals for friends once a week. On Tuesday morning, he was preparing macaroni with marinara sauce and cheese, meatballs and sausages, chicken cutlets, and salad for a dozen people, including politicians, former judges, two postal workers, and a handful of neighbors who all brought their appetites.
It’s not the kind of jovial scene you would expect to see in, say, Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s political club in Bushwick.
“I learned a long way that the best way to a person’s heart is food,” he says. “I had the pleasure this week of going over to a lot of the local political clubs. I always bring something with me and I brought some good cannolis with me. How can you be mad at someone who brings cannolis?”[i]
Seddio has long harbored ambitions to be Brooklyn’s next Democratic Party leader.
He positioned himself to succeed Lopez, its powerful chairman, by serving as president of the influential Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club and winning a seat as a state committeeman for Canarsie after his mentor, long-time state committeeman Bernie Catcher, died in 2010.
A jovial man who resembles a cross between Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero from “The Sopranos” and Dom DeLuise, Seddio served six years as an assemblyman before becoming a surrogate court judge in 2005. But his judgeship was mired in an ethics controversy and he stepped down to focus on his private practice. In January, Seddio began exploring a run for City Council when Councilman Lew Fidler declared his bid for State Senate.
But the top party job opened up unexpectedly when Lopez announced he was giving up his post in late August amid charges he verbally and physically harassed several female staff members.
Suddenly Brooklyn Democrats had a succession battle on their hands. With Lopez’s blessing, Seddio shrewdly began calling Brooklyn district leaders to line up support for the job, while publicly urging Lopez to resign from office.
“The accusations by former staffers of Assemblyman Lopez in today’s papers are appalling,” Seddio wrote in an email on August 30. “If true, Vito has to resign from the Assembly. This is unspeakable, atrocious behavior. Sexual harassment is unacceptable anywhere, especially the workplace, and the behavior of which he stands accused is unacceptable by anyone, let alone by a public official.”
Challenges from District Leader Jo Anne Simon and Assemblyman Karim Camara emerged, but Seddio thwarted both and easily won election 36-2-3 at the county committee meeting three weeks later.
Seddio told the New York Times that night, in perhaps the most succinct observation about the change in power, “Somewhere there are people who need a boogeyma —‘Vito is coming’—and I’m past that. I’m the good ghost.”
Assemblyman Alan Maisel, political consultant George Arzt, former judge Paul DeVito, and three members of Seddio’s office are sitting around a wooden conference table in the middle of the office, waiting for lunch.
Maisel, who has known Seddio for over 30 years, is worried about this lunch.
“You have to watch it with the pasta,” he says. “The weight creeps up on you.”
A postal worker named Vito and a few more neighbors drop by to join the meal. There are a lot of Vitos in Canarsie and Seddio says he has six in his family. Seddio tells me that St. Vito is the patron saint of dogs.[ii] It is possible that I misheard him.
An elderly black woman who Seddio has known for several decades stops by the office on her way to the doctor. Seddio invites her in and offers to give her a ride to her doctor after lunch. Soon, she is sitting next to Vito the postal worker.
“I hope you don’t have to get any blood work done because Frank just messed you up,” Vito tells her.
Just after noon, Seddio brings out tray after aluminum foil tray of steaming red sauce entrees and everyone helps themselves to a little bit of everything. The cutlets are juicy and not too oily, the marinara sauce is thick and flavorful, and the meatballs are succulent and compact. Seddio tells me the key to good meatballs is to add them to the sauce at the end so they don’t break up in the oven.
In about 20 minutes, 20 chicken cutlets, 15 meatballs, and a good portion of the pasta disappear.
Arzt has to get going back to the city and says his goodbyes but Maisel, who replaced Seddio in Albany, hangs out for a while to talk with a neighborhood attorney. He could soon have a shorter commute to work.
Maisel is reportedly interested in running for Fidler’s term-limited council seat in 2013, now that Seddio is unable to run because he is the party chairman. If Maisel declares, it is likely that Brooklyn Young Democrat Mitch Partnow runs for the assembly, according to political insiders. And if the Senate remains in Republican hands after the election, Minority Leader John Sampson could step down from his post, prompting a rush for his senate seat, with mayoral liaison and Brooklyn Young Democrat Sam Pierre a likely choice to succeed him.
The assemblyman didn’t want to speculate about the political dominoes that continue to move in Canarsie and Mill Basin this year, but shared his thoughts about the food.
“It’s a good thing I don’t work in this office, otherwise I could gain another 50 pounds,” says Maisel.
“Do you want any demitasse? It’s black coffee.” Seddio asks, preparing his espresso machine to make a few shots.
I am not in a position to turn down coffee after that meal.
“This is not an act, this is what we do,” Seddio explains, as he begins cleaning dishes. “I like to cook. It’s like therapy. We normally do this on Fridays.”
He’ll be making an elaborate meal for friends on Columbus Day, which includes eggplant parmigiana and macaroni with a sardine sauce, and he invites me, “as a person,” not as a reporter.
Won’t it be difficult to keep up his cooking regimen while serving as the county chairman?
“I don’t know,” he says. “We’re going to try. This is my fun thing. This is what I missed on the bench. I had planned to cook at court and I was told, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Seddio’s time as a judge in 2005 was brief and unremarkable, but he earned scorn from tabloid editorial boards for spreading his campaign funds to assemblymembers, the Thomas Jefferson Club, and to charitable groups.
“I made two mistakes,” he said. “I never raised a nickel on the judgeship but I gave money to various candidates and my political club. After my selection as a candidate, I gave money to Alan Maisel, who was running to succeed me, and I gave to [then] state Sen. Carl Kruger. I recognize that was the wrong thing to do. I refunded the donations and gave the money to charities in my district, and reimbursed people who made endorsements to my campaign.”
The Daily News pounced when Seddio filed his semi-annual campaign finance report in January 2006 and questioned his expenditures. And the state Commission on Judicial Conduct launched a probe in February 2006, but Seddio stepped down from the bench at the end of the year and no charges were ever filed against him.
But the News did not forget the episode and asked Seddio to release the judicial investigation papers when he was running for county chairman this fall.
Seddio first offered to make them public, then changed his mind claiming privacy concerns. Then he offered to share portions of it with redactions. Then he changed his mind again and refused to make the records public. He told me he this week that he ultimately decided not to release the report out of the same privacy concerns, since it contains the names of friends and colleagues.
“They wanted me to open up the file, I decided not to do it,” he said.
Brooklyn politicians, both reformers and party loyalists alike, have notoriously thin skins when it comes to press coverage, but Seddio brushes off the criticism effortlessly.
“If I had done something wrong they would not have let me walk away from the bench,” he says.
Seddio’s law partner, Frank Carone, arrives shortly after lunch, though most of the food is gone. He looks disappointed.
Carone became the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s chief attorney when its prior counsel, Carl Landicino, was elected to the State Supreme Court as a civil court judge last year. Now with Seddio at the helm, the nexus of political power in Brooklyn has traveled down the L-train from Myrtle-Wyckoff to Rockaway Parkway in less than a month.
Seddio has spent his first few weeks in office reaching out to reform clubs in Brownstone Brooklyn. He has proposed opening executive board meetings to the press, having more frequent county committee meetings, and eliminating at-large state committee members. He has already revised its rules committee and made one of his challengers a co-chairwoman.
So far his rivals have been impressed.
“He’s an engaging guy,” said Democratic District Leader and Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats member Chris Owens. “He’s affable, he’s got lots of little stories, he has institutional memory, he’s not stupid, and he’s incredibly smart behind a playful personality.”
Most tellingly, Seddio promised not to get involved in district leader races by supporting insurgents against incumbents – a practice his predecessor embraced.
Owens believes Seddio will do things differently than Lopez, who almost never attended reform club meetings and strongly pushed back at challenges from political newcomers. But he noted that Seddio, who backed the daughter of the late former state assemblyman Tony Genovesi in an unsuccessful judgeship campaign this fall, would likely continue to support Jefferson club loyalists over reform candidates.
“The biggest contrast is style,” said Owens. “People have to relate to each other. The bottom line is his style is such that people are going to feel that they can bitch out loud, and be clear of their dissatisfaction without getting slapped, whereas with Vito people did not speak out because there was a fear of retaliation. People felt that if they didn’t just go along, that they would be hassled in one form or another by Vito and it wasn’t worth it.”
For now county Democrats are united in combating Republicans challenges throughout Brooklyn and making life difficult for Rep. Michael Grimm and state Sen. Marty Golden in Bay Ridge.
Then the holiday season arrives, Seddio’s favorite time of year. He will preside over club dinners that attract a bevy of mayoral and citywide office hopefuls and string up the lights for his house’s annual Christmas display. Last year, the Daily News filled page 3 with a photo spread.
There will be plenty of time for Seddio to assert his influence in citywide politics over the next few months. In the meantime, he’s going to try to modify his diet.
“They talk about weight loss, but I’m interested in height gain,” he says. “If I were seven feet tall, I’d be the perfect weight.”
[i] Democratic District Leader Chris Owens, who abstained in voting for the party chairman last month, attended the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats and LAMBDA meetings that Seddio addressed. He said the cannolis were “absolutely awesome” and it was a “very nice gesture and people appreciated them.”