Bushwick Beyond the Brand

Vito’s machine breaks down

by Matthew J. Perlman

The Vito Lopez era in Bushwick may be drawing to a close.

After nearly 30 years in Albany, the Brooklyn kingpin is seeing his power slip away — but he’s not going without a fight.

Protestors rally in front of Giando on the Water, where Vito Lopez was holding a fundraiser for his City Council campaign.

Lopez, 71, resigned his position in the state Assembly May 20 after the Joint Commission on Public Ethics released a report detailing sex-harassment allegations from former staffers. He still intends to run for City Council, as long as his health holds out.

His political foes finally smell a chance at victory. “He should resign immediately and step away from serving public office,” said Antonio Reynoso, Lopez’s main opponent in the 34th district Council race. “There’s no remorse. There’s no realistic understanding of what he’s done. And that’s the biggest crime.”

Reynoso, chief of staff to current and term-limited Council Member Diana Reyna — a former top aide to Lopez turned bitter foe — is Lopez’s strongest opponent in the Council race. He has gained the support of Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, who launched a “Women for Reynoso” campaign and said in a statement: “We must ensure that Vito Lopez never sets foot in City Hall.”

The dark-horse candidate is Tommy Torres, an educator and athletic coach from Greenpoint.

Even though Lopez is weakened by the allegations of a pattern of sordid behavior, beating him won’t be easy. “He runs an old-fashioned type of operation that’s very much based on loyalty,” said John Mollenkopf, a professor at the Center for Urban Research of the CUNY Graduate Center. “This will be a test of that loyalty.”

Vito Lopez, rappelling the rungs of public service.

After being accused of sexual harassment by several former female employees last year, Lopez, who has represented the district in the state Assembly since 1984, was censured and stripped of his housing committee chairmanship, the very seat of power he used to funnel funding to his constituents.

Then came the ethics report on May 15 that spelled out the shocking accusations in disturbing detail. It concluded: “Lopez engaged in an escalating course of conduct with respect to multiple female staff members.”

A second investigation by Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, serving as a special prosecutor, cleared Lopez of criminal charges. But it called into question Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s handling of two initial sex harassment complaints against Lopez that resulted in quiet settlement deals.

The disgrace has not yet undone the deep ties Lopez cemented in Bushwick, Ridgewood and Williamsburg by steering state money to his district for low-income housing and a popular senior center.

“He’s got a base of support through his social services that’s going to vote for him no matter what,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College.

“In the ‘should’ world, this should kill him. But the ‘is’ world is another story.”

The scandal has given ammunition to his detractors. Last month, well before the ethics commission report was released, 20 protesters gathered on the sidewalk next to a posh restaurant facing the East River where Lopez was holding a fundraiser.

“It’s outrageous that someone who’s been accused of sexual harassment has the chutzpah to run for City Council,” said Lincoln Restler, a member of the New Kings Democrats, an opposition political club.

“I want to see Vito, and tell him shame on you,” said America Ruiz, 65, a public school teacher, who like Restler supports Reynoso.

Still, on the streets of Bushwick, Lopez’s constituents care more about his largesse than the allegations of improper behavior.

“They take care of us, that’s all that matters,” said Lalo Burgos, 73, who lives in the neighborhood and runs a barbershop near Maria Hernandez Park. “He’s a wonderful man, a wonderful politician.”

“I think certain people are trying to make trouble for him,” said Caesar Bettencourt, 72, standing next a stoop on St. Nicholas Avenue. He goes to the senior center regularly. “I think it’s all a setup.”

“It’s politics,” he said.

Reynoso, 30, and Torres, 40, will probably compete for the votes of progressive Democrats in the primary, while Lopez would rely on his established base of support in Bushwick and Ridgewood.

A split could hand Lopez the spot on the Democratic ticket, tantamount to election in November. “It’s politics 101. If you want to win — split the competition,” Muzzio said.

So far Reynoso has raised around $86,000 for the race, while Torres has raised about $25,000. Lopez has managed to net $38,000.

Reynoso cut his teeth working for Reyna, learning the mechanics of the City Council from the inside.

He grew up on the south side of Williamsburg before leaving for Le Moyne College in Syracuse. By the time he was back in Brooklyn, Reynoso knew he wanted to be in politics. But he didn’t know where to start. He went out one day with two resumes, one for Reyna and one for Lopez.

Lopez’s office was closed that day; Reyna hired him. “God steered me in the right direction,” said Reynoso.

Torres, a public school teacher, grew up in Cooper Park Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development in Greenpoint. He went to St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights on a baseball scholarship, then got a masters degree in education from Mercy College in Westchester County.

“I took advantage of the public schools,” said Torres over the phone after a baseball game. “I came back to continue the good work.”

Torres has been a teacher at P.S. 157 and P.S. 120 in Brooklyn for 15 years and is athletic director of the Grand Street Campus Athletic League.

At the fundraiser protest, Daniel Abramson of the New Kings Democrats explained why he likes Reynoso. “He’s an aspiring progressive politician, which I love to see. And it’s what we work for.”

Reynoso has been endorsed by Quinn and Bill de Blasio, and he has the backing of major unions — support Muzzio said will be a key factor in the race. To beat Vito, he said, “You need organizational muscle.”

It doesn’t take very many votes to win a council primary. Reyna won in 2009, when there was no mayoral race, with 3,865 votes.

In 29 years, Vito Lopez may well have been able to make that many friends.

“You vote for somebody, they fight for you,” said Burgos, heading back into his barbershop.