Is Vito Lopez the Only Issue in His Council Race?

Photo by: Tobias Salinger
A sign thanking then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez at Bushwick's Rheingold development attests to his help in creating 300 affordable units onsite. He believes voters will support him because of that and similar achievements.

Policing, sick-leave and housing concern many in the 34th district, but it's one of the candidates—the Assemblyman forced from office by scandal—who dominates the discourse.

By: Tobias Salinger

Despite the accusations surrounding him, the long list of endorsements lined up by his opponent and the reports of his faltering physical health, former state Assemblyman Vito Lopez is showing no signs of weakness in a race for City Council. He says it's a mistake to underestimate his impact on Bushwick, Williamsburg and Ridgewood over his three decades in Albany.

“Even my critics will tell you about the revitalization,” says Lopez. “In your article, you could say that 'I think there's been some positive changes in the community.'”

Most of Lopez's detractors, who have grown in number since he resigned from the Assembly in May amid allegations he made sexual advances towards his female employees, are backing Antonio Reynoso, the former chief of staff to the 34th district's current representative, Councilwoman Diana Reyna. The race may divide this gentrifying area along familiar lines.

“The politics in Bushwick and Williamsburg are pretty polarized,” says Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York's political action committee. “It's like you're with Vito or you're against him. He's defined those poles.”

But Archila and others who are supporting Reynoso say their advocacy for the founding member of New Kings Democrats and former ACORN organizer should be seen as a tribute to Reynoso rather than a simple effort to beat Lopez in this majority-Latino district.

The Lopez factor

Lopez, 72, was first elected to the Assembly in 1984 and made a name for himself as the influential chairman of the Housing Committee and the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Humberto Soto, the president of Williamsburg's Puerto Rican State Parade & Festival, and Gladys Santiago, a former district leader and home health aide, are also vying for the seat.

Reynoso acknowledges his endorsements from influential unions—such as 1199 SEIU, the United Federation of Teachers and DC 37—and elected officials (like Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and current Kings County party chairman Frank Seddio) do not add up to an easy victory against an opponent like Lopez.

“I've got to keep working hard every single day,” he says outside a Williamsburg subway station where he handed out campaign flyers with Manhattan Councilman Dan Garodnick on a recent morning. “This is going to be a tough race, and we need every single person who can to help.”

Reynoso's campaign recently challenged petitions submitted by Soto and Santiago through the city Board of Elections. Santiago, 57, a former Ridgewood-Bushwick staffer, says Lopez “knows I know all of his secrets” and that Reynoso wants her out of the race. She has only raised $2,100, according to campaign finance records submitted before the July deadline, but she says help from her family and determination will carry her to victory.

“You can win a campaign with four people and about $1,000,” she says. “I did it before and I'm going to do it again.”

Humberto Soto declined requests to comment for the story and wrote in a text message that he is “waiting for a decision” from the election board about his petition challenge to asses whether he will stay in the race or not.

The residence listed for Lopez in publicly available records stands just outside the 34th district, an issue that came up last year, when a secretive bid to redraw the district lines to include his home caused an uproar that forced a change in the proposed lines. Though the Board of Elections declined to comment on whether Lopez is required to live in the district by the primary elections on Sept. 10, longtime political consultant Gerry O'Brien said the recent redistricting means Lopez won't be required to live in the exact district until the end of his potential first term in 2017.

Vito defiant

Lopez, whose former Assembly district covers much of the Brooklyn part of the Council district, has done anything but run away in the face of the allegations of lewd behavior. He maintains his innocence in the sexual harassment case, though a state ethics commission fined him $330,000 in June. Lopez says unfavorable stories about him are meant to help Reynoso.

“The press and the beating up and the negativism—if it wasn't for that, he would have 10 percent of the vote,” he says.

Lopez's opponents for the Assembly have garnered even less than that in recent years, due, he says, to such factors as the “three, four, 5,000 units” of affordable housing he sponsored through city and state programs like the 1,500 two-family homes which are in evidence in Bushwick and an expansion of the subsidy encouraging new developments to offer at least 20 percent of new apartments at affordable rates. He noted that the 1,800 vacant lots that marked Bushwick in the '70s have dwindled to just 22 today. That record makes for a loyal group of voters and volunteers on Election Day, according to Nicole Marwell, a Baruch College professor whose 2007 book, “Bargaining for Brooklyn,” chronicles Lopez's rise.

“You win local elections through organization and turnout, and Vito has a strong operation with that,” says Marwell. “We'll see if his opponent can match it.”

Reynoso's supporters hope to do just that. Both Archila of Make the Road and Lincoln Restler of New Kings Democrats say volunteers are circulating campaign literature and will help to get out the vote, a crucial factor in a district Reyna won against the Lopez-backed Maritza Davila by around 200 votes in 2009.

With $98,020 raised so far, Reynoso has $40,000 more than Lopez. He received $2,300 from Rep. Nydia Velázquez as well as maximum $2,750 donations from Garodnick, former state Senate counsel Maggie Williams and her political action committee, New Yorkers for Social Justice.

Policing and housing are key issues

Archila says she first worked with the 30-year-old Williamsburg native when he helped get Reyna's support for legislation on paid sick leave and police oversight, and Reynoso is making the case that relationships acquired during his six years working for Reyna will help him push for rezoning and tenant protections in a district where the Latino population declined by 10,000 over the last ten years.

“Change is going to happen,” he says. “We just have to make sure that the people who lived here their whole lives can stay.”

For her part, Santiago is also concerned about rising rents and displacement. She says she would push to turn homeless shelters into affordable units by encouraging employers to hire local residents.

“I want you to pay rent,” she says. “Instead of the city paying for it, I want you to get a job and for you to pay for it. Then it will be your apartment.”

Links to nonprofit questioned

One building in Bushwick slated to turn into affordable housing is a continuing focus of critics who question Lopez's relationship with the nonprofit he founded in 1973, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. The watchdog organization Citizens Union found that Lopez's political operation, the Bushwick United Democratic Club, paid only $198 a month to rent a derelict-looking building on Wyckoff Avenue from Ridgewood Bushwick subsidiary Brooklyn Queens Family Respite from 2000 to 2009. In this campaign cycle, Lopez's expenditure records show his campaign has paid $3,750 for the space that staffers have plastered with flyers supporting Lopez and Davila in her quest to win his former Assembly seat.

But Lopez says there is nothing inappropriate about his campaign's rental of the “quasi-abandoned” space. “You have to rent from somebody,” he says. “We're not renting it for nothing.”

Both Lopez and officials from Ridgewood Bushwick deny he plays any role in the operations of the vast social services agency. Sandra Christian, the assistant executive director of homecare and senior services at Ridgewood Bushwick, says Brooklyn Queens Family Respite is part of a network that serves 5,000 seniors through operations like nursing care, senior activity centers and Meals on Wheels. Another official at Ridgewood Bushwick, housing director Scott Short, says the organization will be “gut renovating” the building on Wyckoff Avenue in order to increase the organization's affordable housing stock, which is currently at a less than 1 percent vacancy rate. James Cameron, who took over as CEO of Ridgwood Bushwick in January of last year, says he wants to set the record straight on Lopez.

“It's like a myth that he controls this organization, it's not true,” says Cameron. “I never see the guy around here.”

Cameron also says he is cutting off any political activities at Ridgewood Bushwick and that the organization will seek to work with “whoever wins” the Council race. Yet Short and eight other current staffers have donated a total of $1,275 to Lopez’s campaign.

On the other hand, former colleagues of Reynoso in Councilwoman Reyna's office (including his former boss), along with staffers of such neighborhood nonprofits as El Puente and Los Sures have donated to Reynoso. Lopez is quick to point out that Reynoso's campaign is renting its Williamsburg headquarters from Los Sures, an affordable housing provider and advocacy group which he sparred with over the Williamsburg Greenpoint rezoning in the mid-2000s.

Taking it personally

But Reynoso says it would be inaccurate to view the race as a contest between neighborhood factions. He says Lopez would no longer be able to command the necessary respect in the Council to steer resources to any nonprofits doing good works.

“They probably believe that I'm the best candidate that can provide for this community,” says Reynoso. “We're talking about the livelihoods of all these groups in the community, even Ridgewood Bushwick.”

Lopez certainly does not hold to this line of thinking. In an angry phone call in which he accused City Limits of carrying out “another hatchet job” at the request of his political adversaries, Lopez sought to draw this reporter's attention to the 300 units of affordable apartments, condos and houses standing on the former site of the Rheingold Brewery, a development which has won awards for both its environmental stewardship and its low prices.

“You put Reynoso, Reyna and Nydia together and see if they could do that,” he says.

Father John Powis, a longtime Lopez foe and a retired priest who sits on the board of the Bushwick Housing Independence Project, says Lopez could wield significant influence on the Council.

“If he wins, all those groups that have given to the other camp are in trouble, because he's ruthless,” says Powis.

Voters in the district will choose between a long-serving former assemblyman whose fame in the district often belies his infamy outside it and a protégé of his estranged former ally, Reyna, along with a couple of lesser known candidates. But the decision may not come down to one or the other.

Vincent Gonzalez, 33, owns a home with his wife and three kids at Rheingold. As his children play in the water cascading out of a fire hydrant and his wife converses with neighbors at a barbecue on a Saturday last month, the MTA employee says they bought the house with money saved during a two-year stint in the housing projects. Gonzalez, who said Rheingold is a “beautiful, mixed” community, seeks to give credit where it's due.

“I know Vito Lopez had a lot to do with it, and Diana Reyna,” he says. “I think it was an awesome idea.”