County Party Chair Remains Powerful, If Poorly Understood, Position

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The resignation of Vito Lopez as head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party means that, in a few weeks, Brooklyn Democrats will get a new party chairman. What, exactly, that means and why it’s important can be difficult to understand for those not deeply steeped in the arcane world of intra-party politics. There might be a long-held stigma around the Tammany Hall imagery of a Boss Tweed running things from smoke-filled rooms, but the fact remains that the chair is still a powerful position to hold.

“In the old days, county leaders were in fact bosses. That is: they really held huge amount of power in terms of determining party nominees and allocating party resources,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College.

While they might not have as many jobs or apartments to hand out, Sherrill said, county leaders like Vito Lopez still derive much of their power from their control over the political nomination process.

“[Lopez] had a lot of control over nominations and in Brooklyn — in most of Brooklyn still today — if you get the Democratic nomination that is tantamount to election. As a result, he had a lot of influence over elected officials,” Sherrill said.

As chair, Lopez has been instrumental in some of the city’s power struggles. When Christine Quinn wanted to become council speaker in 2005, she pursued a county leader strategy. Rather than focusing on individual council members she approached the people most responsible for supporting candidates: the county leaders.

Lopez was one of the leaders that supported Quinn, and he leaned on council members in his borough to support her. The strategy ultimately succeeded, in large part, because of the role the county leaders like Lopez played.

His attempts at control, however, have created what some believe is a deeply divisive county organization. For his supporters, demanding loyalty from other pols is a sign of a strong leader. For his detractors, like district leader Jo Anne Simon, it’s a deep character flaw.

“Vito is always pushing people to do what he wants. He is retaliatory. He picks fights,” she said.

His aggressive demeanor and desire for elected officials to follow his script, and his alone, have led to open political war. From district leaders like Simon to at least one member of congress, Nydia Velazquez, Lopez has shown that those that did toe his line would face a political fight in the party’s primary process.

Lopez’s decision to not run for re-election, rather than resign, also shows his desire to influence, if not outright pick, who his successor will be.

The process of becoming chair requires a person only be a district leader. To become a Democratic district leader in Brooklyn, someone registered in the party runs for one of the gender-based slots (one woman, one man) in each of the county’s state assembly districts. The chair is selected by the district leaders.

Shortly after becoming the county chair, Lopez had the rules changed to create 11 new at-large district leaders. In other words, on top of numerous leaders who have their job because of Lopez’s support, he has an extra stable of 11 leaders who have a constituency of one. This has helped ensure that Lopez always has the votes needed to get his agenda passed.

On September 19, a successor will take over a divided Brooklyn Democratic Party. Currently, former judge and assembly member Frank Seddio leads the pack of contenders seeking to be county leader, which includes Simon, Assemblyman Karim Camara and others.

Whoever ends up as the new chair will have to work to bridge those divides could, early on, decide whether a strong-arm county chairmanship will continue in Brooklyn.