Being Frank: How Seddio transformed the Brooklyn Democratic Party
Being Frank: How Seddio transformed the Brooklyn Democratic Party
On a recent summer evening, scores of Democratic lawmakers, district leaders and rank-and file party members gathered in a refurbished factory building not far from the Brooklyn Bridge. Frank Seddio, the 68-year-old leader of the Kings County Democrats, ambled into the building’s spacious hall, shaking hands, giving hugs, kissing cheeks. A pot-bellied man with a gap-toothed grin and a thick Brooklynese, Seddio looks every bit the part of an old-time political boss.
But although Seddio is in many ways a throwback to a bygone era, he is taking the Brooklyn Democrats in a new direction. The meeting of the county committee was one of two scheduled for this year, compared with just one every other year under Vito Lopez, Seddio’s predecessor. Among the attendees greeted warmly by Seddio was first term Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, a longtime reformer and Lopez foe who was marginalized by the party for years. And the feature presentation, given by four Brooklyn city councilmen, was a policy discussion on a subject not typically associated with old-fashioned county politics.
“Tonight we’re going to be discussing participatory budgeting,” Seddio told me, settling into a seat in the audience. “We think it’s a good idea. We’re going to try to get all the council members to do it next year.”
As the meeting got underway, Seddio described to me how the county committee has become more inclusive since he became its chairman nearly three years ago: The at-large district leader positions that Lopez filled with loyalists? Eliminated. The selection of favored candidates for judgeships or special elections in smoke-filled back rooms? Opened up for debate. The old grudges and rivalries that marked the Lopez era? Done away with, thanks to a dedicated diplomatic mission to mend fences and reunify the party.
“We all agreed on these reforms,” Seddio said. “People asked and we wanted to do it. There’s nothing that couldn’t be done. People wanted to see a copy of the financial report, we always make them for the meeting. People wanted to get an idea of what’s going on politically, we give them that update. It’s a good way to have people participate in government. It’s not just handled by some inside, backroom meeting. That’s what we try to do—give everybody a chance to be a part.”
It’s a positive spin on Seddio’s relatively brief tenure as leader, but he’s not the only one to offer such an assessment. Insiders and outsiders alike say he is transforming how politics is practiced in Brooklyn. But is the transformation one of substance or of style? Is Seddio truly reforming the county committee and loosening the party leader’s tight grip on its decisions and direction? And if he is, does that make the Brooklyn Democrats— and Seddio, for that matter—any more powerful?
Last Year’s Enemy
In the 2013 mayoral race, Seddio’s first full year as party chairman, he and much of the Brooklyn delegation endorsed Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller who had been a deputy Brooklyn borough president and was regarded as a friend and ally. But another Brooklynite, Bill de Blasio, came from behind to win the primary and coasted to victory in the general election. With City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—who also fell short in the mayoral race—on her way out, a mad scramble to replace her ensued. Seddio joined Rep. Joseph Crowley, the leader of the Queens Democrats, and Assemblyman Carl Heastie, then the Bronx Democratic Party leader, to back Councilman Dan Garodnick’s bid for the speakership.
Meanwhile, de Blasio launched an aggressive campaign for his preferred candidate, Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, and came to Brooklyn seeking support. Winning over the borough, which has the city’s largest council delegation, would be a coup. Seddio personally found Mark-Viverito to be an “interesting” candidate, despite a political philosophy different from his own. In the end he figured that he could benefit Brooklynites by allying himself with those who would control the city’s purse strings while also securing coveted council committee chairmanships.
So he flipped, and all 16 Brooklyn council members got behind Mark-Viverito. The bloc was pivotal, doubling her total to 32 votes out of 51.
“By doing what we did early on and uniting the county leadership, we had an opportunity to make a friend,” Seddio said. “And in my mind, that’s someone who’s now helping us when we want to advocate for different things we need in the borough, whether it be the West Indian Day on Eastern Parkway or issues within our various council members’ districts that have to be addressed that maybe one person wouldn’t have the strength to do by himself.”
A few days after he was sworn in as mayor, de Blasio, evidently grateful, invited Seddio and Seddio’s law partner, Frank Carone, to join him for a dinner at Gracie Mansion. As they drove over, Seddio warned Carone that it might be hard to find parking near the mayor’s official residence. “And when we got there, and it was all wide open, we pulled in, and I said this isn’t going to be too many people,” Seddio said. “In the end it wasn’t. It was just us.”
As they discussed the issues the new mayor would face, Seddio told de Blasio that the first thing he would have to do is bring the 2016 Democratic National Convention to Brooklyn. “He said, ‘That’s great! If we get it, I’ll give you the credit,’ ” recounted Seddio, who had worked on the 1976, 1980 and 1992 conventions that were hosted in the city. The de Blasio administration made an aggressive push, but lost the bid to Philadelphia.
From Seddio’s point of view, the episode illustrates the wisdom of his bridge-building approach to politics. “Frankly, I never supported de Blasio for anything, but I always have a relationship,” he said. “I don’t believe in making enemies. Put things in the right perspective. Because in politics, if nothing else, this year’s friend could be next year’s enemy, and last year’s enemy could be this year’s friend.”
One such friend was Vito Lopez. Seddio served in a role one insider described as Lopez’s “consigliere,” although the two men were temperamental opposites. Where Seddio wants to be loved, Lopez wanted to be feared. As Brooklyn Democratic leader, Lopez brooked no dissent. Driven by vindictiveness, he sidelined those who crossed him or even questioned his decisions.
Lopez consolidated his power through his nonprofit Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and his chairmanship of the influential Assembly Housing Committee. Lopez had long been scrutinized for the lucrative government contracts awarded to his nonprofit, which had been run by his girlfriend, but he had avoided legal trouble. Instead, his downfall was the result of shocking accusations of sexual harassment by young female aides. In August 2012, the Assembly censured Lopez and stripped him of his Housing Committee chairmanship after the body’s ethics committee found the allegations to be credible.
Lopez quickly stepped down as Brooklyn’s Democratic leader, but tried in vain to hold on to his Assembly seat. Seddio, who soon emerged as the front-runner to replace Lopez as county chairman, joined the chorus of elected officials calling for Lopez to resign from the Assembly, despite their close ties. “The accusations by former staffers of Assemblyman Lopez in today’s papers are appalling,” Seddio said at the time. “If true, Vito has to resign from the Assembly.”
A few weeks later, Seddio was easily elected to lead the Brooklyn Democrats. Challenges from then-Assemblyman Karim Camara and Jo Anne Simon, a district leader at the time, fizzled out. Seddio was elected by most of the county’s 42 Democratic district leaders, with only then-Councilman Charles Barron and his wife, thenAssemblywoman Inez Barron, actually voting against him.
The headlines were not kind. The Daily News called Seddio a “crony” of Lopez. The Post wrote that he was a “long-time Lopez toady” and a “pure product of the machine.” “That’s going to be Vito Lopez 2,” Charles Barron told the Daily News.
Seddio set about proving he was different. He proposed opening executive board meetings to the press, holding more frequent county committee meetings and eliminating at-large district leaders. He revised the rules committee and made one of his challengers a co-chairwoman. And he reached out to Lopez’s rivals, paid visits to reform clubs in brownstone Brooklyn and sought to unify the borough’s factions.
“I called it cannoli diplomacy,” Seddio said. “I would bring a couple dozen cannolis and go to their meeting and come in and get a chance to talk. That never happened before. I’m not taking credit because I did it first. But it’s what I believed had to be done. When you put a face to the issue, it’s amazing how you can develop better relationships.”
The overtures had an impact. The reform clubs that Lopez battled were pleasantly surprised to have a visit from Seddio, and have cautiously applauded the reforms he has implemented. Simon, a leader of the borough’s reform wing, said the Lopez era had grown so acrimonious that Seddio’s affability was a breath of fresh air. “People were allowed to talk to me for the first time in years,” said Simon, who was elected to the Assembly last fall. “For Vito it was about power, absolute power, crushing opposition, or anybody who might become opposition. Frank, I believe, sees the power in the collective and in winning people’s hearts and minds as opposed to just fear.”
“And he can tolerate a lack of unanimity of thought,” she added, “which was something Vito could not tolerate.”
Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. One of them is Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who had an openly antagonistic relationship with Lopez. Velazquez said that when Seddio reached out, she told him that he needed people like herself and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries—leaders of local, selfsustaining political networks— more than they needed the county organization. The Brooklyn Democratic Party was such a shell of its former self, she pointed out, that it was no longer playing a national role.
Seddio recalled that during the conversation he was on the verge of giving up on a reconciliation. “Very frankly I was this close to saying go fuck yourself,” he recalled. But he heard her out, and says he now has a “wonderful relationship” with the congresswoman. “We’re not going to agree on everything,” he said. “This is my philosophy very simply: You have to respect the power that other people have and what their role is in the game you’re playing. If you don’t do that, you stand the chance of underestimating somebody if they’re an opponent, and worse, you can never heal a wound because it’s constantly open, an open sore.”
Velazquez said she’s still watching and waiting. “A lot of people feel more comfortable with him,” she said. “I still have my issues, because I would like to see more reform implemented within the structure of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, but he has made every effort to make people feel welcome. And for the first time in 25 years, I made a contribution of $500. So I feel more confident, but the jury’s out there.”
The Brooklyn Boss
The last leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party to stake a legitimate claim to the title of “boss” was Meade Esposito, who ran a county organization that was genuinely a machine. Esposito, the party chairman from 1969 to 1983, exploited his considerable powers to their full extent. Presidential hopefuls and governors sought out his counsel and support. Brooklyn practically owned the Assembly speakership.
Esposito’s Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club became the pre-eminent political club in Brooklyn, if not the entire city. Ed Koch may well have owed his 1977 mayoral victory over Mario Cuomo to Esposito, and certainly felt indebted to him. Early in Koch’s first term, the TJ Club boasted a membership that included the city schools chancellor, transportation commissioner, housing commissioner and the head of the ferry and aviation bureau. Candidates for the state Legislature, the City Council and district attorney posts came before Esposito to kiss the ring.
After stepping down in 1983, Esposito remained a powerful figure for several years until he was convicted on a charge of bribing a Bronx congressman. Mob ties also came to light. Esposito’s empire imploded, and a succession of lesser leaders never picked up all the pieces. The post-Esposito era was marked by internecine wars and factions splintered along geographic, racial and ideological lines. One source of clout, the Board of Estimate, was essentially eliminated. Another, the Board of Education, was stripped away, its responsibilities ultimately consolidated within the mayoralty.
Esposito’s immediate successor, Howard Golden, served as both borough president and county leader for a time, but a change in the city charter barred anyone from holding the two titles simultaneously. That paved the way for the ascension of Clarence Norman in 1990, who did little more than maintain the weakened status quo. Norman was convicted of multiple corruption charges, including shaking down judicial candidates, and was succeeded in 2005 by Lopez. Lopez’s controlling approach did little to ease intra-party divisions, but he was at least able to parlay his Housing Committee chairmanship and his well-funded Senior Citizens Council into a personal fiefdom.
Seddio doesn’t hold a city or state elected office like Lopez, Norman and Golden did. While Esposito was a friend and patron of presidents, Seddio hasn’t even had a visit from Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate who has an official campaign headquarters in his borough. His institutional tools are increasingly limited. But what he does have, he says, is the hard-won experience of a halfcentury in politics.
The Canarsie Connection
Seddio, a lifelong Canarsie resident, was growing up in the far-flung Brooklyn neighborhood just as Esposito was establishing it as a Democratic stronghold. Seddio’s grandfathers—one a carpenter, the other a seaman—were friends in Sicily, and in 1919 they had immigrated together to the United States. Each man settled in Canarsie, then a heavily Italian enclave, and raised their families. Seddio’s father grew up to be a truck driver, but left his wife and six young children when Frank was 10. Seddio’s mother stayed home to raise the family, relying on welfare to keep her children fed and clothed. To help take care of his five younger siblings, Seddio got his first job at age 12 at a local grocery store, earning $5 a week.
As a youth, Seddio displayed an enthusiasm for joining and participating in organizations. At age 13 he joined the Squires, a teen program run by the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic charitable organization that he remains active with. At 14, he planned a Squires event at a local catering hall, among the first of many such forays. “When I went in to try and book, the woman told me, you’re 14, you’re not allowed to,” Seddio said. “And I said, yeah? I’m the chairman.”
Seddio also nurtured an early fascination with politics. “I used to tell my mother when I was 12, she was going to live with me in the West Wing of the White House,” Seddio recalled. “I didn’t get that far, but I’m not complaining.” A family friend brought 18-year-old Frank to the local political club and introduced him to Frank Brasco, the local congressman and his political hero, and to Esposito.
Over the years the club became like a second family. He found a mentor in Tony Genovesi, a trusted Esposito operative, who taught him firsthand the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Although Seddio didn’t get to know Esposito as well, many of his sayings stuck with him. “He used to say, if you’re being chased out of town by a mob, pick up the flag and make it look like you’re leading the parade,” Seddio said. “So if it looks like you’re going to lose what you’re doing, get on the other side and make it look like you’re running it. Believe it or not, I’ve used it quite a few times where it’s actually worked. We’ve snatched victory from defeat.”
Seddio spent more than two decades as a New York City police officer, and his day job now is as a lawyer, but his true calling was always in the public sphere. He founded and ran community groups, helped get the West Indian Carnival started in 1969, and was both district manager and chairman on the local community board. He served seven years in the Assembly, stepping down for a short-lived stint as a judge.
“One thing you can say about Frank,” joked City Councilman Alan Maisel, one of Seddio’s oldest political friends, “is he can’t hold on to a job.”
In 2010, he was elected district leader and took over as head of Esposito’s old Thomas Jefferson Club, a stepping stone to the leadership of the Brooklyn Democrats.
The Thomas Jefferson Club sits a few blocks from the last stop on the L line in Canarsie. On a Thursday night this month, a crowd of club members chatted and milled about inside the clubhouse while awaiting Seddio’s arrival. Covering the green panel walls are reminders of past campaigns, with signs for John Sampson and Roxanne Persaud alongside old Bernard Catcher and Herbert Berman posters. On a bare brick wall in the back is a shrine of paintings honoring the club’s founding fathers: Esposito, Genovesi and Stanley Fink, the former Assembly speaker.
Seddio arrived shortly before 10 p.m. A meeting with state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had run late. “I was just stuck. The guy, he wouldn’t shut up, for crying out loud,” Seddio said with a grin. “You’d think he wanted to run for governor or something!” The only item of business was a rare challenge in the upcoming judicial elections. Civil Court Judge Michael Gerstein, Seddio said, needed volunteers to help winnow the 6,000 or so petitions submitted by a challenger down to 1,500. If enough signatures were from outside the district or from people who weren’t registered to vote, there would be a basis for a challenge that could toss the opponent off the ballot.
Indeed, judgeships are one of the significant levers of power still available to county leaders, and one of few remaining sources of patronage. Esposito once claimed that he “made” 42 judges. Lopez had boasted that county-backed candidates had won nine of 10 contested judge races on his watch.
In some cases, the process has descended into outright corruption. The poster boy for judicial misconduct is Michael Feinberg, a Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court judge removed from office in 2005 for awarding excessive fees to a friend for handling estates. With a reformer, Margarita Lopez Torres, replacing him, Brooklyn successfully lobbied Albany to create a second surrogate’s court in the borough. At the last minute, the party plucked Seddio from the Assembly to fill the new role.
But Seddio got tripped up for sending thousands of dollars from his leftover campaign funds to the Thomas Jefferson Club and to friends in the Legislature. Following an exposé in the Daily News, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct launched an investigation in 2006 into whether Seddio had broken rules requiring him to return the funds to donors, and he stepped down in 2007. Seddio, a lawyer who specializes in wills and estates, is now on the receiving end, disposing of estates assigned to him by the borough’s surrogate’s courts, but he insists processes were put in place during his tenure to prevent abuse.
“I made one mistake,” Seddio said. “I did give some money politically to two candidates, to Alan Maisel and to Carl Kruger, who was my senator. I subsequently got the money back and they redeposited it. I gave $90,000 to charity. The Daily News made such a big fuss ... they made it a scandal. Could you imagine the nerve? I didn’t go out and buy a car. I didn’t go out to big dinners. I gave the money to charitable groups in my district. In my district!”
Another telling example was the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee’s support for Lara Genovesi’s bid for Civil Court judge in 2012. What raised eyebrows was that Genovesi was the daughter of Seddio’s mentor and a former general counsel of the Thomas Jefferson Club. Another judge had resigned shortly before the deadline to submit petitions, and Genovesi was ready to start collecting petitions the very same day. She also secured The New York Times’ endorsement but lost the primary, although earlier this year she was sworn in as a state Supreme Court judge. In fact, the party has even more control over selecting Supreme Court judges than it does over Civil Court and surrogate’s court judges. In lieu of a primary, the county executive committee members make the Supreme Court selections, behind closed doors.
Seddio claims the party has a strong vetting process for anyone who wants to run, and that it’s up to the district leaders, not him, to make the picks. But not everyone is convinced.
“It’s just more related to who you know and the network that exists out there,” Velazquez said. “I would like to have a process of people coming before a judicial committee that is comprised of former judges and lawyers to review and evaluate candidates—on their merits.”
Josh Skaller, a district leader from Brooklyn’s reform wing, said that the judicial selection process is where “the rubber really hits the road.” “Frank’s test is always going to be whether or not we’re getting the best judges possible for Brooklyn,” he said. “We’re still feeling our way through this right now. Post-Vito, it’s Frank’s county for sure now, but that’s still taking shape.”
Andrew Sloat, the president of the New Kings Democrats, a progressive Brooklyn club launched in opposition to Lopez, credited Seddio for partly opening up the last round of judicial picks, even though Supreme Court selections were still made in executive session.
“It was a huge turning point, because they ended up bringing part of that conversation back out into the public session, which felt like at the very least a goodfaith gesture toward in the future making sure they understand how important this part of the process is,” Sloat said. “I understand that there’s some wheeling and dealing that happens in that room. That said, it’s problematic to us when anything that has to do with electoral politics happens behind closed doors, where there’s no opportunity for anyone to observe and report on what’s happening there.”
Seddio insists that his goal is simply to elect good judges, but some insiders worry that for all his reforms, he still fundamentally believes in the old machine way of doing things. At the clubhouse meeting, after Judge Gerstein took a few moments to thank the crowd, Seddio started up again. If anyone knows any young lawyers, he said, there are some job opportunities available. “That’s what we’re supposed to do: help each other,” Seddio said. “By you helping me, I’m able to help you. It’s that simple. You empower me to be able to go in to people and say listen, we need something, try and solve this problem. You give me that power. It’s not unnoticed.”
A few weeks later, he explained to me his approach to selecting judges. “I think if you come into the political world and you’re a participant in it, and you work hard, and you’re working through your political organization and the club that you might be a part of, and that organization wants to recommend you as a candidate, that you should, in my mind, everything being equal, be considered over someone who just showed up and said, ‘Oh, I want to be a judge tomorrow,’ ” Seddio said. “So tell me what you did? ‘Well, I went out and earned a lot of money,’ or, ‘I’ve been doing this.’ I’m talking about people who worked hard and have been a part of our process.”
The Campaign Manager
At the end of the day, Seddio’s gauge of success is winning elections. Of course, Brooklyn’s overwhelming Democratic majority means that most elected officials have no trouble staying in office. The real tests are in citywide and statewide races, primary battles and the few swing districts in the general election. Special elections are typically cakewalks, as the county committee hand-picks a Democratic nominee who typically runs uncontested or has token Republican opposition.
But in a humiliating special election loss this spring, nobody secured the Democratic nomination for Karim Camara’s open Assembly seat. Guillermo Philpotts, a perennial candidate and outsider, outmaneuvered the local district leaders for the Democratic nomination. Philpotts then failed to submit the proper paperwork, and the Working Families Party’s Diana Richardson went on to win. “They didn’t win, we lost,” Seddio said. “Our people didn’t do their job.”
Last fall, the Brooklyn Democrats failed to oust state Sen. Martin Golden, a Republican long targeted by the party. Nor could they knock off Rep. Michael Grimm, despite an indictment on federal fraud charges, although to be fair the largely Staten Island congressional district includes only a small portion of Brooklyn. And in 2013, Seddio, ever the organization man, backed the incumbent district attorney, Charles Hynes, only getting behind eventual winner Kenneth Thompson after his insurgent victory over Hynes in the primary.
But despite those disappointments, today Seddio is on good terms with both de Blasio and Mark-Viverito. Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander is one of the speaker’s top advisers and strategists, while another Brooklynite, Councilman David Greenfield, chairs the key Land Use Committee. Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to the Brooklyn Democrats’ latest annual dinner. And Seddio has patched things up with Heastie, whom he supported for the Assembly speakership.
On the other hand, the state Senate Democratic leader—a post once held by John Sampson, a longtime Seddio ally—now isn’t even a New York City resident.
Before Sampson’s corruption trial ended in a conviction last week, Seddio had been perhaps his most stalwart supporter. Seddio even ran the re-election campaign for Sampson, his local state senator and a fellow member of the Thomas Jefferson Club. Although Sampson was under indictment on charges including embezzling and threatening a witness, Seddio insisted that he should be treated as innocent at least until a verdict at trial. Seddio had also taken flak when he stood by Carl Kruger, another senator dogged by corruption allegations who was eventually convicted. But to Seddio’s mind, the dishonorable thing would be to abandon an old friend. Before the trial began, he called Sampson to wish him good luck. “I’m an old-fashioned guy,” Seddio said. “I believe in loyalty.”
Others were quick to abandon Sampson. The state Senate Democrats expelled Sampson from their conference, and the Working Families Party supported a primary challenger.
“Well, their candidate got 30 percent of the vote, we got 54,” Seddio said. “That says it all, when I talk about running campaigns. If I’m going to boast about anything, it’s that there aren’t too many people around this county or the city that can run a campaign better than I can. I grew up doing it. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I can do it in my dreams.”
And as for ceding control and sharing power with the other district leaders and party members, Seddio insisted it only strengthens his hand. “I think that’s the difference between Vito and I,” he said. “I’m not looking to cross swords with people. I’m looking to share bread. And that’s work.”
“Now it’s easy enough to make problems,” Seddio concluded. “It’s harder to solve problems. And that’s my role every day. I don’t feel less empowered. I have the ability to make things happen for people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that the state Senate Democrats supported a primary challenger against John Sampson in 2014. An earlier version also incorrectly attributed to Mayor Rudy Giuliani a change in the city charter that barred one person from serving as borough president and borough party chairman at the same time. The charter revision took place under Mayor Ed Koch.