Time and Place

I wondered how long after the primary it would take for me to start second-guessing my endorsement of Chris Owens for District Leader.

The answer is two weeks; I’m second guessing.

Not sure if and when I’ll reach the regret stage.

Owens is circulating a letter asking Vito Lopez to step aside as Brooklyn’s Democratic Leader pending the resolution of the various investigations of Lopez and/or his Ridgewood-Bushwick social services empire.

I will discuss this first in the narrow context in which Owens raises it, and then more widely.

In the narrow context, I would call it a moved doomed to failure, which achieves its real purpose.

No one expects that Lopez will step down or that the Leaders will make him do so. It’s just not how it works.

Charlie Rangel is the one exception that practically proves the rule. The guy ran the Ways and Means Committee and didn’t pay his taxes. He’d made himself a living symbol of out of touch Washington eliteness. He used his position to put the arm on folks with business before his committee in a manner so blatant that everyone forgot it was the local industry.

Rangel was an embarrassment to his party, at least partially because many of the charges concerning him appeared to be directly relevant to his Committee position (a much harder argument to make about Lopez, who has yet to be charged with anything but rumors, none of which seem to relate to his Party Leadership position).  

And even then, Rangel's colleagues needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything. Only when Rangel became a personal threat to their survival as a Majority was action taken.

Politicians may seem like cold calculating people, but they really don’t like kicking someone when he’s down. Yes, they’ll do it to win an election. In fact, the fact that this rule has largely given way in politics between the parties is what pundits mean when they talk about “the death of civility.”

But behind the actual closed doors of internal party conferences where most politics still takes place, such things rarely occur, especially at the state and local level., where fewer people are paying attention.

In fact in most such situations, politicians act in exactly the opposite manner that Owens proposes. In party conferences, charges lobbed against party leader serve not as a sword to be used against the leader, but as a shield to protect him.

For years, State Senate Democrats, tired of their Minority status, longed to get rid of Minority Leader Fred Ohrenstein. Marty Connor sensed this, and ran against him. Connor’s joke was that they were running for different jobs. “Fred wants to be Minority Leader and I want to be Majority Leader.”

It hit home, but Fred was under indictment. In the end, Fred’s colleagues could not bear to kick a man while he was down. Connor lost.

It was only when Ohrenstein’s case was dismissed that he understood he had to go as lLeader before he was shown out.

A few years ago, both Brooklyn Democratic boss Clarence Norman, and the party’s Executive Director, Jeff Feldman, were the subject of an indictment. Norman got convicted on a unrelated charge and was forced to resign, but Feldman lingered on in his position. The new leader, Vito Lopez did not particularly like or trust Feldman, and considered him far too expensive for a position not being paid for by the taxpayers. He wanted to dump Feldman badly.

But he could not bring himself to kick a man while he was down.

Reformers called for Feldman's resignation, for the first time, Lopez actually became sympathetic to Feldman.

Feldman turned State’s evidence against Norman. Though Lopez clearly regarded Norman with contempt, it was hard to see him countenancing having someone he probably considered to be a “rat” remaining on the Party payroll. But prudence dictated that Feldman not be fired under such circumstances.

It was only after the case was over, and a decent interval had passed, that Lopez did what he’d wanted to do all along, which was to ask Feldman to leave, so he could hire someone cheaper and less a figure in his own right.

Eventually, Feldman was brought back on a per diem basis to utilize his very special set of skills in which Lopez was somewhat lacking: petition binding. ballot access challenges, parliamentary procedure, subtlety, style, wit, class, charm and the ability to say “thank you.”

But it is not only regulars who refuse to kick a man when he’s down.

Reformers were notably absent from the effort by Wellington Sharpe to beat indicted State Senator Kevin Parker; even Owens’ home club, CBID took a pass, while Danny Squadron, purported “reformer” (and asshole buddy to Owens’ “reform” opponent Jesse Strauss) actually gave money to Parker’s campaign.

This, even though Parker is already being used around the State by Senate Republicans as an example of why the Democrats have to go: THE VERY RATIONALE OWENS USES IN CALLING FOR LOPEZ TO STEP DOWN.

Owens rightly cites the fact that Republican Dan Donovan is using Lopez as an issue against Eric Schneiderman in his race for AG.

Of course, there is the distinct possibility that Lopez may regard the fact Lopez’s continued presence as County Leader may be hurting Schneiderman as the one silver lining to the cloud Lopez is currently under.

Strangely, Donovan, who says the rules governing the DA’s office prohibit him from expressing disgust at Carl Paladino’s racism has found a loophole which allows him to salivate about prosecuting Lopez while his office is handling a Ridgewood-Bushwick related case.

Maybe Schneiderman should remind Vito of this, and make some lemonade from this lemon.

As I said though, Owens does not expect Lopez to step down. Owens is merely casting a light upon the situation as part of a longer range strategy.

I might question the wisdom of that as a tactic, but I’ve no real objection to it.

My real objection is that sometimes even a tactic that seems wise and morally correct should take a back seat to some prudence.

Perhaps Owens has noticed the other news about Lopez.

Lopez has been a cancer survivor for nearly two not always pleasant decades. Two months ago, Lopez underwent surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital for a recurrence of his cancer, and is now set to begin a follow-up course of treatment.

Lopez will endure days of strict diet and medical preparation before undergoing four days of intensive nuclear radiation, followed by five days of complete isolation. After that, there will be an indeterminate period of recovery.

Though none of this makes any difference to Owens’ moral case (or the lack thereof–after all, there is still the question of the absence due process in Owens‘ proposed solution); it does cast doubt upon the prudence of his tactic.

The battle for changing the Brooklyn Democratic Party is going to entail making some enemies, but it will also require making some allies. As a prudential move, releasing the text of a letter calling for Lopez’s resignation on the day he announced he will be undergoing medically necessary torture is not a move best designed with winning friends and influencing people in mind.

I am reminded of the words spoken by another Lopez enemy explaining to a “reformer” his vote for Lopez's re-election as County Leader:

"Time and place, my friend, time and place"

Perhaps Mr. Owens and his allies should give these words some thought.