New-Age Political Machine
Growth of a New-Age Political Machine
by Martin Gottlieb
February 7, 1993
In struggling neighborhoods from the northeast Bronx to southeast Queens, a new sort of political warlord is walking the ground that once belonged to the powerful Democratic county bosses in New York City. And none is more successful than a Brooklyn Assemblyman who is scarcely known outside political circles or his own dilapidated Bushwick neighborhood: Vito J. Lopez.
Over 17 years of near obscurity, Mr. Lopez has built the prototype of the modern inner-city political machine, one capable of generating thousands of votes and armies of volunteers, largely by exploiting its links to a social-service organization that Mr. Lopez founded and that is now the largest employer and economic enterprise in his neighborhood.
The machine is potent enough to induce pilgrimages from mayors, senators and, last year, a Presidential candidate named Bill Clinton, who arrived in a 15-car motorcade during last year's New York primary campaign.
The organization, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, employs 1,400 people through more than 50 grants budgeted at more than $33 million annually. Yet at the same time many of those taxpayer dollars -- allocated for pressing human needs -- have been put to work for private, political purposes as well.
They have paid for an agglomeration of power that has stunted the neighborhood's political diversity, rewarded a handful of Mr. Lopez's proteges with well-paying jobs, enriched politically connected contractors and produced programs that in several instances have been criticized for accounting and performance.
Like the social-service groups connected to Representative Floyd H. Flake in Queens, Assemblyman Albert Vann in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Pedro Espada in the Soundview section of the Bronx, the Ridgewood Bushwick council has managed to fill the vacuum left by the dimming influence of county political bosses and the decade-long decline in Federal anti-poverty money. The strongest of the organizations have been able to wrest money from increasingly tight-fisted government agencies.
While several investigations and audits have found nothing illegal in the activities of Ridgewood Bushwick or Mr. Lopez, a look at the agency illustrates the conflicts between governmental and political interests and raises questions about whether well-meaning programs are hurt.
Each day, the council cares for 900 homebound people, provides lunch for more than 600 elderly people and houses several hundred people in $20 million worth of government-subsidized apartments.
Operating far beyond the orb of the standard program for the aged, it counsels tenant organizations, provides legal help in Housing Court, markets private houses, runs youth employment and immigrant rights programs and arranges for people to go to college in Ridgewood Bushwick-sponsored programs. While operating predominantly in Bushwick, it also offers programs in Ridgewood and Glendale in Queens and East New York in Brooklyn.
But politics infuses it from top to bottom: Ridgewood Bushwick's executive director and deputy director serve as a chief fund-raiser and treasurer of Mr. Lopez's political campaigns. The Ridgewood Bushwick official who has run its immigrant assistance program is the co-leader of Mr. Lopez's political club.
Ridgewood Bushwick employees and contractors are asked to pour time and money into Mr. Lopez's races and those of his allies. And his political supporters help the organization secure lucrative grants and then reap political i.o.u.'s.
Making this more extraordinary is the ethnic disparity between Mr. Lopez and the four top Ridgewood Bushwick officials on one hand, who are white, and Bushwick's population, which is 95 percent black and Hispanic. The Assemblyman, who speaks limited Spanish, owes his surname to a paternal grandfather from outside Barcelona.
In an interview, Mr. Lopez described the links between Ridgewood Bushwick and his political endeavors as fundamental to building neighborhood influence in a politically anemic community. He took pride in his political empire, berated detractors, and defended Ridgewood Bushwick's performance and his commitment to Hispanic causes.
"The top social service centers in Bushwick are run by FEGS, Catholic Charities, N.Y.U. in Bushwick High School, the Grand Street Settlement," he said. "They're all from the outside. There has to be an empowerment of local groups. Once you do it, it's called politics, but I'm proud of it, I really am." Finding Bushwick On the Political Map
When he arrived in Bushwick as a civil servant in the city's Human Resources Administration in the early 1970's, Mr. Lopez was in his words, "wearing flowered shirts and into anything but politics." The son of a wire service photographer, he grew up seven miles away in Bensonhurst, had organized anti-war demonstrations, and "didn't know where Bushwick was" when he was sent to Stanhope Street to convert an empty welfare office to a senior center.
Of predominantly Italian heritage, he found a constituency in the Italian clubs and cafes that still dotted the increasingly Hispanic neighborhood. He built the center's staff and programs by convincing local organizations to lend him 10 workers apportioned under a Federal jobs program.
When the Reagan Administration killed the program, many workers and projects moved to Ridgewood Bushwick, which was incorporated by Mr. Lopez in 1976 though the city prevented him, as a civil servant, from holding an office in it. He has never held a formal position with the council. Among the workers were two who now head the agency -- and also are instrumental in running Mr. Lopez's campaigns -- Christiana Fisher and Angela Battaglia. According to the State Attorney General's office, Ms. Fisher received $75,437 in 1990 as Ridgewood Bushwick's director and head of its home care program, while Ms. Battaglia was paid $61,400 that year as the agency's deputy director and housing director.
In 1982, Mr. Lopez was elected to the Assembly, and he developed friendships with such figures as Mel Miller, who would become Assembly Speaker, Mayor Edward I. Koch and Anthony Genovesi, now an Assemblyman, who is leader of probably the city's most powerful old-fashioned political clubhouse, the Thomas Jefferson Club in Canarsie.
Now, though he remains a fixture at picket lines, he practices modern organization politics that brings in money for the social service agency that he started and turns out votes for his allies. Those outside his loop say their chances of winning government contracts or building political power are often crippled.
"In Brownsville we could do anything as far as raising money -- the politicians would be just as happy as you that you got it," recalled Msgr. John Powis, who worked for more than two decades in Brownsville before becoming pastor of Bushwick's historic St. Barbara's Roman Catholic Church. "In this neighborhood, all government programs come through Vito Lopez."
Richard C. Wade, distinguished professor of urban history at the City University, described it as "post-party politics."
Mr. Wade, referring to the Great Society era of President Lyndon B. Johnson, said, "Unlike the 60's when the feds were running wild, there's not much money around and whoever gets it is a real big shot. These guys are the post-Johnson poverticians." It's Politics, Politics And More Politics
The interwoven relationship between the social-service goals of Ridgewood Bushwick and the political needs of Mr. Lopez can be seen in ways both blatant and subtle.
For instance, the program printed for Mr. Lopez's fund-raiser of March 2, 1990, carried many advertisements from Ridgewood Bushwick officials and agencies, including its four top officers, board chairman, two lawyers, housing department, education department, home care operation, adult training program and two employment programs whose financing was ended after they repeatedly failed to meet training and job placement goals. Also buying ads in the program were three contractors who built housing for the agency, two architects who designed buildings for it, one of its landlords and the university with which it runs an education program.
The Internal Revenue Service bars nonprofit organizations from "engaging in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office." But an I.R.S. spokesman said that it was often difficult to establish violations and that the agency tried to bring not-for-profits into compliance rather than remove their status.
Four past or present Ridgewood Bushwick employees said in interviews that they were asked to help Mr. Lopez's political efforts. The employees, who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, said supervisors asked them to collect nominating signatures for Mr. Lopez and his friends, to buy tickets to a $60-a-seat fund-raiser Mr. Lopez held last year, and to encourage friends to contribute goods and services to events of Mr. Lopez's political club. In an interview, Mr. Lopez adamantly denied that such activity took place.
Ms. Battaglia said: "It's never held against them if they don't do it. When we send letters and notices to our vendors, it's always, 'Would you like to?' If they say, 'No,' no big thing."
The Ridgewood Bushwick senior center at 195 Linden Street offers an example of the overlap of government and politics. The center provides lunch for 100 elderly people each day and is run by an engaging woman named Anna Gonzalez.
She also carries nominating petitions for Mr. Lopez and his allies. Last year she collected more than 100 of the 5,200 signatures that Mr. Lopez amassed, many at a table in the lobby of the senior citizen housing project that includes her center. Ms. Gonzalez said she took vacation days for political work and performed none of it at the center.
On Election Day, those at the center find voting easy. Three polling places are there. Eleven more are in other Ridgewood Bushwick senior centers and housing projects, eight in Mr. Lopez's Assembly district. In the 1989 mayoral primary, when Mr. Koch was losing poor and minority neighborhoods by margins of as much as 10 to 1, he had Mr. Lopez's endorsement in Bushwick and managed to poll 40 percent of the vote. Advantage of Allies In the Highest Places
When the agency faces a setback from bureaucrats, political influence has never hurt. In the mid-1980's, Ridgewood Bushwick applied to the regional office of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to build two housing projects for the elderly but was rejected in favor of higher-rated proposals.
But Mr. Lopez had in his corner Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, Republican of New York, who had been able to win other grants, including a $1.1 million swimming pool in Island Park, L.I., from personal discretionary funds controlled by Samuel R. Pierce Jr., then the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Mr. Pierce awarded Ridgewood Bushwick more than $14 million out of his discretionary fund for the two projects. After the award, Ridgewood Bushwick gave the contracts to build the projects to the Jobco Company of Long Island, owned by an important D'Amato fund-raiser, Michael Puntillo.
According to the Housing Department's records, the builder's fee could run as high as $784,621. And when Mr. D'Amato went to Stanhope Street during his tight campaign last year against Robert Abrams, Mr. Lopez sang his praises.
Ms. Battaglia said politics had nothing to do with Jobco's selection. She said that the company had approached the agency and that its offer was the best. Zenia Mucha, a spokeswoman for Mr. D'Amato, said he fought for the Ridgewood Bushwick projects "as hard as we fought for every other project." She said the Senator leaves selection of contractors to sponsoring agencies.
When the projects, one on Himrod Street and the other on Goodwin Place, opened last year, they were fraught with problems. The Goodwin Place project had trouble putting tenants in the rent-subsidized apartment. In fact three months after opening, said Ms. Battaglia, the occupancy rate was "a mere 5 percent," which she attributed to extensive paperwork requirements.
After an inspection of Himrod Street last June, Gerald W. Sheridan of the H.U.D. area office cited 20 violations of varying import and wrote Ms. Battaglia that "procedures were found to be so deficient that we found it necessary to train your staff in the areas covered in this report."
In an interview, H.U.D. officials said the worst problems at the Himrod Street project had been corrected as a result of the training.
As Ridgewood Bushwick was working out these problems, it received H.U.D. approval for a third project for the elderly, which has a projected cost of $9.3 million. One housing official said that after the approval, Mr. Lopez began to seek a site change from the approved location of Troutman Street and Evergreen Avenue. Because of legislative redistricting, the location wound up two blocks outside his district.
Ms. Battaglia said a H.U.D. architect had first suggested the change, but Adam Glantz, a department spokesman, said that the proposal had come from Ridgewood Bushwick and that his agency was considering a new site. The new site happens to be within Mr. Lopez's district.
The Assemblyman denied lobbying for the change. "Show me a letter where I said the site should be moved," he demanded heatedly. But after a moment, more calmly, he added: "I don't mind it coming into my district. I'd love to get more programs in my district, and I'm committed to that. I'd love it. I really would."
Photos: The Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, founded by Vito J. Lopez, a Brooklyn Assemblyman, has become the largest employer and economic enterprise in the neighborhood, encouraging visits from many politicians. (Edward Keating/The New York Times); Vito J. Lopez (Ruby Washington/The New York Times) (pg. 35); The Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council cares each day for 900 homebound people, provides lunch for more than 600 elderly people and houses several hundred more. Vito J. Lopez, right, addressed members of the group. With him, from left, were Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato and Pamela Fisher, director of the Stanhope Street Senior Citizen Center. (Edward Keating/The New York Times) (pg. 38) Map/Chart: "Serving Bushwick and Its Voters"; describes and indicates location of many offices associated with Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. (pg. 38)