September was a uniformly distressing month for Kings County Democratic Party Chair Vito Lopez (Kings County has the same borders as the borough of Brooklyn). In addition to two federal probes into the politician’s conduct, New York’s Department of Investigations (DOI) launched an inquiry into the Lopez-founded Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens’ Council. Though Lopez no longer has official ties to the organization, his campaign treasurer is the director and his girlfriend is the housing director. After the DOI exposed the organization’s $340,000 in dubious claims and several inexperienced board members–two who didn’t speak English reported voting “yes” on every initiative and 86-year-old board member Carmen Orlando who admitted to signing unread documents and getting paid $25 to attend meetings–New York Governor David Paterson froze the Council’s $25 million in state contracts. This past Monday, each of New York’s daily tabloids ran a different Lopez cover story. The New York Post revealed that the federal government had sold the Senior Citizens’ Council abandoned buildings for $10 each and given the organization $24 million to renovate them. Meanwhile, after shadowing both Lopez’s Bushwick, Brooklyn brownstone and his girlfriend’s apartment in the adjacent neighborhood of Ridgewood, Queens, the Daily News questioned the eligibility of the assemblyman who didn’t live in his own borough.
According to Lincoln Restler B’06, the recently elected state committeeman representing the neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Fort Greene, Lopez’s corruption is only matched by his influence among Brooklyn’s 53 elected officials, 52 of whom are Democrats. “Brooklyn is probably thought to be the hippest place at least in the US, maybe even on Earth,” Restler told the Independent. “Brooklynites are fiercely independent and forward-thinking and diverse, and yet we have an old-school political machine that is out of a totally different era.” As councilwoman Letitia James told the New York Times, “Some people, when you mention the name Vito Lopez, they quiver. They’re fearful. And here this kid comes and knocks him on his butt.”
Right now, Restler’s victory is as symbolic as it is practical. State committee is a part-time, unpaid position whose main duties are the election of party officers (such as Lopez) and the appointment of judges. Still, Restler sees potential to change Brooklyn’s inbred political system, where “a fifth of the members of the state committee have been involved in the appointment of immediate family members to the bench.” And Restler’s defeat of Warren Cohn, whose father held the contested seat for 27 years with Lopez’s support, is a significant blow to the Brooklyn Democratic machine. Restler’s victory by 120 votes was declared on September 22 after a week of recounts.
A Brooklyn native, Restler concentrated in Latin American Studies and Africana Studies at Brown, where he used the departmental undergraduate group to start a lecture series for Hope High School students. (He also contributed to the Independent.) After graduation, Restler moved to Fort Greene, where he started working for the Office of Financial Empowerment and joined the boards of several community-based non-profits.
Restler first became involved in politics during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he joined Rachel Lauter B’06 while canvassing the borough with Brooklyn for Barack. After the election, Lauter and her boyfriend Matt Cowherd approached Lopez about integrating the organization they had started, New Kings Democrats, into the larger Democratic party. According to Cowherd (as reported in the Village Voice), Lopez replied, “You guys are a bunch of gentrifiers and newcomers. You think you are going to come in here and tell me how to run the party? It doesn't work that way.” Disenchanted, Cowherd and Lauter decided to use their resources to challenge Lopez’s primacy: Restler was the first candidate fielded by New Kings.
Also present at that meeting was Steve Levin B ’04, at the time Lopez’s chief of staff and now the City Council representative for Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Levin, who didn’t respond to requests for an interview, grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and concentrated in Classics and Comparative Literature at Brown before moving to Brooklyn and working as a community organizer. While campaigning last year, Levin told the New York Observer, “I would just say that when folks meet me one-on-one, they see that I’m an independent guy and I have my own opinions about things.” In our conversation, Restler emphasized the difference between Levin’s results-oriented politics and his own reform-minded campaign. But the way things are going, it looks like the “meaningful progressive change” Restler desires is already happening.