The Ethical Fall
of Vito Lopez:
Implications for the Future of
Brooklyn Latino Politics
By Angelo Falcón (August 25, 2012)
Ethics: Moral principles that govern a person's or group's behavior.
The sudden announcement of major ethical violations by Brooklyn power broker Vito Lopez by the NYS Assembly of which he has been a member since 1984 took everyone by surprise. It was widely known that he was being investigated for funny business concerning his nonprofit, the Bushwick Ridgewood Senior Citizens Council and its very very well-paid Director, his long-time girlfriend, Angela Battagli. But, to be severely censured by the Assembly for the sexual harassment of his female staff? No one really saw that coming!
This situation makes it obligatory to point out that, despite his surname, he is an Italian-American and not a Latino (although I understand that he claims he has a grandparent from Spain). However, depending on his immediate political fortunes, and calls for his resignation will no doubt emerge as the county's district leaders prepare to meet as you read this, this could have a profound impact on the nature of Latino politics and politics in general in Brooklyn. But ever since Lopez was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1993 and treated for the recurrence of cancer in 2010, the Brooklyn political class has, in many cases begrudgingly, learned over the years not to count him out prematurely.
His loss of his chairmanship of the powerful Housing Committee, of his seniority and eligibility to hold any leadership positions in the Assembly severely undercut his influence in that body, and were made all that more humiliating by his being barred from, get this, hiring any staff under 21 years of age or employing any interns. Besides his continued viability as a state legislator, questions will no doubt quickly arise as to his fitness to continue as Chair of the Kings County Democratic Party (his predecessor in this position, by the way, was Clarence Norman Jr., who is currently serving a prison sentence for three felony counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions).
The recent Democratic primary in Congressional district 7 largely covering northern Brooklyn, where incumbent Nydia Velazquez readily beat back three challengers, was generally viewed as a political battle between Velazquez and surrogates for Vito Lopez (some even speculated that all three of her challengers were put up by Lopez). The downfall of Lopez would leave a political vacuum that favors a stronger local role for politicians like Velazquez and the network of progressive reformers she is associated with, whyich now includes term-limited Councilmember and former Lopez chief of staff Diana Reyna. While it is difficult to determine what will happen to the leadership of the county organization at this point, the political demise of Lopez also means the at least temporary weakening of the King County Democratic political machine.
This would have immediate repercussions for the Dilan political family. Two strong allies of Lopez are State Senator Martin Dilan and his son Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan (as well as the younger Dilan's former chair of staff and now Assemblyman Rafael Espinal). Senator Dilan is currently being challenged in next month's Democratic primary by reformer Jason Otaño, who is backed by Velazquez. Councilmember Dilan is term-limited and his seat will be open, and it looks like Make the Road staffer Jesus Gonzalez (who recently lost in a squeaker to Espinal for the Assembly) will be making a run at that open seat. Then there is scandal-ridden Bronx Assembywoman Naomi Rivera's current boyfriend, Tommy Torres, who was reportedly planning a run to replace Reyna in the City Council with the backing of Lopez.
There are also the Latino politicos further south in the borough in the Sunset Park area. These are Assemblyman Felix Ortiz and Councilmember Sara Gonzalez. Ortiz is a politically shrewd character who will no doubt maneuver his way well through whatever party leadership changes occur, insulated in part by his relatively new role as head of the Assembly's Puerto Rican/Hispanic Legislative Task Force and its Somos El Futuro Conferences, and his role as President of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. Councilmember Gonzalez is up for reelection next year in a redistricted district and her main concern will be negotiating a relationship with the area's growing Asian population and White gentrifiers.
Will this opening in the leadership of the Brooklyn Democratic machine create an opportunity for a greater Latino role in running party politics in the borough? Will Brooklyn White ethnic leaders like Borough President Marty Markovitz and the Black leadership see this as a chance to more fully partner with the county's growing Latino electorate? Will they see this, as one witty boricua commentator told me, as an opportunity to finally replace Vito with a real Latino in place of a Latino "in last name only."
The political repercussions of Lopez' fall from grace will be many, but it will be interesting to see how it affects that nature of Latino politics in the Brooklyn. It is significant that these days potentially progressive political change seems to emerge more from the rubble of exposed scandal and corruption rather than wholesome and principled civic engagement. And it is sad to say that even the possibility of something positive coming from these political disasters is never even assured.
Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), for which he edits The NiLP Network on Latino Issues. He is co-editor of the book, Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans in the Making of Modern New York City.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.