As I’ve already documented, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction about the reign of Kings County Democratic Leader Vito Lopez, both among those elements normally considered to be reformers, and also among certain elements previously considered to be Regular Democrats who supported Lopez.
One element uniting both these groups is a feeling that Lopez has overreached by, among other things, running candidates against incumbents and backing candidates of other parties against the Democrat in general elections.
Of course, I’ve heard the last complaint from, among others, a District Leader who bundled money for Dennis Vacco, a District Leader who honored Al D’Amato at his club when D’Amato was running for re-election, District Leaders who backed Margarita Lopez-Torres for Supreme Court on the Working Families line against the Democratic nominees (including incumbent Judges), and District Leaders who backed a right wing Right to Life Conservative Republican against Noach Dear after Dear had been chosen as the Democratic nominee for a Judgeship in a contested primary. Some of these desertions from the party line were despicable, others understandable, but none give one the high ground when criticizing another party official for violating his fiduciary duties to the Party.
But another criticism of Lopez from both his Reform and Regular critics does have some cogence.
For several years, the implementation of an Independent Judicial Screening Panel by the Kings county Democratic Party for its candidates has been considered by supporters of Lopez to be one of his crowning achievements, at least when his supporters are talking to the press. Even some of his critics will grudgingly acknowledge this.
In the wake of the Gerry Garson scandal, the Mike Garson scandal and the Clarence Norman indictments, strenuous efforts were undertaken by Reform District Leaders Alan Fleishman and Jo Anne Simon, and Regular District Leader Lew Fidler, to create an Independent Screening Panel for the Party’s judicial candidates. Despite the vehement opposition of other Regulars, including District Leader Al Vann and Annette Robinson, the measure eventually passed.
The panel, like all efforts to reform a political process to select the person who will receive a prestigious position, is undeniably imperfect (the “independent” screening panels used by the Mayor and the Governor are also undeniably imperfect). Some have complained that the Brooklyn panel’s rules differ in significant ways from that of the similar panel in Manhattan; ironically, most of the difference had come at the suggestion of Manhattanites dissatisfied with the imperfections in their own panel’s procedures.
At the Supreme Court level, the panels had real teeth; under the Brooklyn Party’s rules one cannot be nominated at the Party’s Judicial Nominating Convention unless one was approved by the Screening Panel.
At the Civil Court level, the panel has a limited purpose. Since anyone is free to circulate a petition for an opening, regardless of what the panel says, the panel’s decisions regarding Civil Court slots have only one internal effect: the Brooklyn Democratic Party is no longer allowed to print or bind any nominating petitions which contain judicial candidates not approved by the panel.
Initially, this had an impact; in 2005, the panel actually rejected a candidate who was the personal choice of Vito Lopez. Further, the panel generally approves more candidates than there are slots, and has not shown demonstrable political bias in judging Civil Court candidates by their political affiliation.
But more important than the internal impact is the external one; during Lopez's reign, there has not been one Civil Court primary where a candidate approved by the panel has lost to one who was not.
That is what Joe Biden would call a “big fucking deal.”
In 2006, only three candidates who put themselves before the panel ended up circulating nominating petitions. One who was under investigation by the State’s Committee on Character and Fitness (and later cleared) was rejected. The other two, Dena Douglas and Jacqueline Williams, were eventually endorsed by County.
The rejected candidate stayed in the race, hooking up with “consultant” Taharka Robinson (Annette‘s son), who ticketed her with another candidate who was had refused to submit herself to the panel at all. Consultant Gary Tilzer found his own team, perennial Republican candidate (and conservative activist) Phil Smallman and Manhattan resident John Serpico. Neither of them had gone through the panel either, but incredibly, Serpico and Smallman actually tried to make this major failure of character into some sort of a virtue, falsely implying that the panel was fixed.
Fleishman and Simon understood that Reformers couldn’t have it both ways; after screaming for the creation of the panel, and insisting it have veto power over who County supported, they could not disregard the rules and support candidates who refused to submit to the panel’s scrutiny, and they supported Douglas and Williams, who eventually won. In that race, it was pretty universally acknowledged that their most effective piece of literature was one devised by Fidler which highlighted that they were the only candidate approved by the Independent Screening Panel.
In 2007, in a race for a Flatbush Municipal Court seat, Reformer Kathy Levine, a former CBID President, was the only candidate who circulated petitions who had been approved by the Screening Panel. At the urging of Gary Tilzer, a lawyer named Sharen Hudson ran a racially based campaign against Levine in this mixed district, which had a slight black majority. And, Hudson not only dissed the County panel, but every other bar panel as well.
Rock Hackshaw, as he is sometimes wont to do, spilled out the Tilzer line:
"My first endorsement goes to Sharen Hudson running for a civil-court judgeship in the 6th district. Ms. Hudson is a black former court officer who went on to graduate from law school, and now hopes to end up on the bench. Word on the street is that her opponent (Catherine [sic] Levine) has run a dirty campaign, putting out nasty literature that fudged the truth and cast negative aspersions on a fine hardworking mother."
The “mother” stuff is pure unadulterated Tilzer.
The "Dirty" piece in question merely raised the fact that Ms. Hudson refused to put herself before the scrutiny of any of the Bar Association judicial screening panels evaluating the race. Not only the Party panel, (though she dissed that too) which Tilzer traditionally insults as a tool of the County organization, but every Bar Association Panel as well. Rock never seemed to consider that such criticism is just as legitimate when raised against a person of color as when it's raised against Noach Dear; then again he was soft on Dear, possibly because Dear's opponent (Karen Yellen) had helped to send a black criminal (Clarence Norman) to jail.
But any judicial candidate who refused to submit themselves to the judgment of their peers must be presumed suspect and unqualified.
Dirty campaign? Talk about an accusation that "fudged the truth"!!!
I especially, loved the reference to "a fine hardworking mother," given that Rock had seemingly implied that another "fine hardworking mother" was acting racially biased for raising a legitimate issue.
Anyway, despite the demographic disadvantage, Levine won the seat, largely because the Screening Panel issue proved so potent.
Are the panels perfect? No, they tend to heavily give weight to the prejudices of the various wings of the County’s legal establishment. Those wings include legal aid and public interest lawyers, and various ethnic associations. The panels are by no means lily-white; but they do tend to reflect the concerns of those who appear in Court for a living, perhaps sometimes to the detriment of other considerations. And sometimes there appears to be a bit of logrolling amongst the various factions.
Sometimes, in my humble opinion, the panel has done injustices.
However, no one has ever posited any alternative method of performing such a function in an elective system. And, in fact, the equivalent panels which stand guard over appointed judgeships usually have the same establishment biases, except that they are less likely to have the diversity of the Kings County Panel.
And the Panel, along with Lopez’s iron hand, has virtually put an end to primaries against incumbent judges. Reformers had always desired a change in the process to allow sitting judges to be able to minimize their need to raise money, as well as to minimize their contacts with the political process. Under Lopez, this has happened.
Under the regime of the prior County Leader, Clarence Norman, a parasitical claque of “consultants” existed which fed in the manner of bottom fish. Usually they approached sitting Civil Court judges up for re-nomination, and in the manner of Doug and Dimsdale Piranha, said something like “that’s a nice judgeship you have there; it would be ashamed if anything happened to it. If you hire me, I can protect you from a primary…nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.” Unspoken was the threat that, if the “consultant” was not hired, they would find a candidate to oppose the sitting judge. In Brooklyn, such primaries occurred several times during the Norman regime and several sitting judges lost their jobs as a result (Yellen, Katherine Smith and Maxine Archer could all tell tales), and when such primaries did not occur, it was often because such “consultants” had been hired.
In fact, the suspicion grew among many that Norman sometimes purposely bobbled the opportunity to kill such challenges, because such challenges were good for business. They meant that one would have to hire Norman’s friends. Eventually, Norman went to jail on charges stemming from his insistence that one sitting judge (Karen Yellen) hire and pay his associates.
With perhaps less justification, Lopez has also gone to war with the consultants to cut them off at the knees when they try to run candidates for open seats as well. This is a totally different kettle of fish.
On the other hand, we are no longer seeing many stories like this one from Tom Robbins of the Village Voice in 2005, during the regime of Norman and shortly thereafter:
As Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Clarence Norman was starting trial last week on corruption charges, his peculiar approach to judicial politics continued to loom over local elections. In a case that has even veteran pols shaking their heads, a Civil Court judicial candidate has spent more than any other contender—even though she faces no primary.Genine Edwards, a personal-injury lawyer whose mother belonged to Norman's father's church, had spent $103,000 as of last week, $93,000 of it for the services of William "Tahaka" Robinson, a personable and energetic young campaigner whose own mom, Assembly Member Annette Robinson, is a close Norman ally and who learned his political chops in Norman's club.
Guided by the younger Robinson, Edwards pulled off a minor miracle this spring: While five other candidates sought a Civil Court judgeship, none of them filed for the same seat as Edwards, allowing her to escape a costly and risky primary, and guaranteeing her election.
Norman said he had nothing to do with it. "That's one lucky candidate," he chuckled.
"I asked them not to run against us," explained Robinson, 36, who insisted he is "totally independent" of Norman. Robinson said he earned his pay through savvy maneuvering and hard work delivering literature and putting up posters. "I market candidates like rap stars," he said. Clearly his talents are in demand. Robinson has also hauled in thousands more from other Norman-backed candidates, including $16,000 from mayoral wannabe Gifford Miller, $10,000 from Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, $34,000 from district attorney candidate John Sampson, and $7,000 from Surrogate's Court candidate Diana Johnson.
Or this one:
So which candidate got the most posters on the most lampposts on the most-traveled Brooklyn thoroughfares to catch the eye of commuters on Election Day morning? Bloomberg, with his bottomless campaign pockets? Ferrer, with his diehard troop of Latino and African-American supporters? Boro prez Marty Markowitz, with his relentless portrayal of himself as more Brooklyn than Pee Wee Reese and Junior's combined?
Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
That would be Genine Edwards, Democratic candidate for a countywide spot on the Civil Court, a candidate without any real challenger, who was found "not approved" by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
Huge portraits of a smiling Edwards lined Court Street all the way from the BQE to the East River. They decorated every pole along Atlantic Avenue, from the Red Hook piers to East New York. All the signs had was her name – and her pretty face.
Funny thing is, Edwards, a personal injury attorney whose mother belongs to former county leader Clarence Norman's father's church, was a shoe-in to win her seat even if she'd never put up a single sign. She's been that way ever since she hired a savvy young campaign manager named William "Tahaka" Robinson, son of Assemblywoman Annette Robinson and a graduate of Norman's old political club. Last summer, Robinson obtained the agreement of most Democratic county leaders to back Edwards. He then got rival candidates to agree to run for a separate civil court seat, thereby guaranteeing Edwards a free ride and no primary.
Since then, even though her only opponents were marginal Republican and Conservative candidates who never win countywide races in Brooklyn, Edwards has paid Robinson at least $93,000 to handle her campaign.
On election night, Robinson acknowledged to the Voice that he and his crew had worked late into the wee hours to pepper Brooklyn with Edwards' materials. "We worked like slaves," he said. "And we had all the polling sites covered." Why had he done so much postering for a candidate with no real race? "Got to do it," he answered. "You never know."
The absence of such stories in today’s Brooklyn sometimes makes it hard to remember that things were not necessarily better in the pre-Lopez era. And the Screening Panels have had a good deal to do with this improvement.
But there has been criticism that Lopez has been making ends run around the Democratic Party Judicial Screening Panel.
He’s been accused of it three times. Twice it was debatable. The third time it was not.
In 2007, Lopez was running Civil Court Judge Shawndya Simpson for Surrogate against Supreme Court Justice Diana Johnson. Rock Hackshaw put forth this accusation:
“What I found puzzling was the fact that the screening panel initially found Ms. Johnson to be unqualified, before she successfully appealed and had that decision reversed. The reason I found this troubling was the fact that this same panel had found her qualified four times before when she ran for judgeships.”
In actuality, the County Democratic Screening panel never rejected Judge Johnson. The Surrogate's vacancy did not open up mid-May of that year, two weeks before petitioning began, and the Screening Panel (if you believe them) felt it was too late to conduct a screening process. Given that every other Bar panel felt both candidates were qualified, it seems likely that the result from the Party panel would not have been different, but in any event, if Johnson got a raw deal from the panel, so did Simpson. Of course, everyone knew that incumbent Surrogate Frank Seddio was going to resign, but the idea that County made an end-run here is at least plausibly deniable.
Such an accusation was also made in 2007. In a Municipal Court Judge race covering Borough Park and other areas, the County Organization had endorsed Charles Finkelstein, who’d been approved by the Screening Panel. The infamous Noach Dear, a former City Councilman with a suspect ethical history, reactionary political stances, and no discernable history of having ever practiced law, was also running, as was the aforementioned Karen Yellen, who hoped to benefit from a split Orthodox Jewish vote. Yellen hadn't even bothered to go through the panel, because she knew she'd never get the party endorsement, even though she'd surely have gotten the approved rating.
When Finkelstein left the race, ostensibly because of his wife's illness, there was no one in the race approved by the panel. If Yellen had gone through the process, Lopez could never have endorsed Dear. Since there were no eligible candidates running, the Party Leader was free to do as he pleased, as were a number of Reformers, who by endorsing Yellen (something I did as well) also backed a candidate not approved by the Panel. Was the Finkelstein withdrawal a sham concocted to excuse the inexcusable? Well, I did not hear it that way, but I don‘t know for sure.
But last year, it is indisputable that Lopez ran Pam Fisher unopposed for a Municipal Court Judgeship in his home area, without her ever appearing before the Party Screening Panel. Further, it appears that the County Organization printed and bound her petitions.
The Party’s Law Chair excuses this as OK because Fisher was running for a District position rather than Countywide.
In the past, the Party Screening Panel always interviewed candidates in District races. In fact, as I’ve shown, the Party Organization justifiably exploited Sharen Hudson’s failure to go before the Panel in 2007, and their candidate won largely because of this.
Not surprisingly to anyone, Fleishman and Simon were appalled. Simon said “My concern that it was evaded in a fairly open and notorious way. While the rules require that the executive committee cannot endorse, he is not the executive committee, it is very troubling that the county leader actively supports a candidate that did not go through our process which is meant to identify qualified candidates.”
More surprisingly to some, but not to those who know him, Fidler was appalled as well. The panel was his pride and joy. He had used it for years as a sword and a shield to defend the interests of the Party and its Leader. Since he also practiced law in the Brooklyn Courts, there was also the possibility that he had more than ego and politics at stake.
If anything proved the Panel was not a sham, the fact that Fisher had eluded it spoke volumes for its credibility. If the panel was a piece of Lopez kabuki, why was he so afraid of it?
A local preacher actually lead a demonstration in front of the building where the Party had its headquarters to protest Fisher’s election; he even got himself arrested. His name:
The Reverend W. Taharka Robinson,
who in a prior incarnation was not known to object very strenuously to candidates eluding the panel, as long as they were his candidates. One may also remember that Robinson’s mother Annette and her co-leader Al Vann led the fight against the Screening Panel in the first place.
Perhaps Taharka had been born again.
Or perhaps not.
Yesterday, Taharka was again demonstrating. But instead of insisting as he did last year on the sacredness of the Screening Panel, he was calling it a sham.
It was right before petitioning, and the Screening Panel was releasing its Civil Court findings. But first it was calling the candidates who had not passed muster. They were being told they could either withdraw; file an appeal, or pursue their candidacy with the knowledge that the panel would release a negative recommendation. But they had to chose or their names would be released.
This is what the rules provided for. The sum and substance of the call would be followed by a letter embodying the same thoughts.
Since, unlike at the Supreme level, the Panel had no power to stop a Civil Court candidate who wanted to run after being rejected, the only tool in its arsenal was the release of such information to the public.
Taharka was now screaming through a megaphone, calling this good-government practice “INTIMIDATION!” His minions were giving out copies of the letter, with the recipient’s name blacked out.
As far as I could tell, Taharka's position was that the Screening Panel should be allowed to exist, as long as it didn't tell anyone its findings. I would bet the mortgage money a Robinson client had just gotten the rejection call.
And Charles Barron was joining in the act, basically calling Lopez “Mr. Charlie.” Barron attacked the Screening Panel as a farce.
I tried to interview the good Reverend. I asked him if it was true he attacked Lopez last year for bypassing the panel. He agreed.
So, I then asked him how he could turn around and call the panel a sham.
Robinson screamed “BUT IT’S INTIMIDATION!”
I kept trying to ask him why publicizing the panel’s finding, but first extending folks the courtesy of an opportunity to avoid embarrassment was a bad thing.
But he kept screaming at me louder and louder, eyes bulging like a two-headed hound from hell, not letting me finish a sentence.
“IT’S INTIMIDATION, INTIMIDATION, INTIMIDATION!!!”
That it was, I was intimidated–I walked away before he tried to hit me.
I then tried to speak to Barron.
I asked him if he agreed with Robinson. He said yes. I asked if he agreed with Robinson that Lopez was wrong last year in not putting Fisher through the Screening Panel.
He obviously saw where I was going, and avoided answering the question, saying he knew nothing about that.
He then started on a screed about how the judicial nominating process in the county was historically racist, which may very well be true. But he seemed to ignore the fact that virtually every Countywide Civil Court Vacancy since Lopez had become County Leader had gone to a Black or Latino, with Party support, and that the racial distribution of Supreme Court Judgeships was roughly in accord with the County’s population.
I tried to ask him a question, but he was on a half-hour long filibuster, so I interrupted.
He was offended and said so.
“But you’re saying the same thing over and over.”
“So are you.”
“Well, you haven’t answered my question yet.”
“I don’t have to answer your question; you diss me all the time, even though you never have the courtesy to interview me.”
“Well, I’m interviewing you now.”
“I don’t have to talk to you; no one reads you.“
This is a progressive reformer?
Gag me with a spoon.
And once again, Vito Lopez is blessed by the fact that his best friends are his enemies.