Brooklyn Politics by Erik Engquist

February 21, 2005

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February 21, 2005  



            ONE “FEIN” MESS: The reason four candidates spent over $1 million combined running for surrogate judge of Brooklyn in 1996 is that the surrogate doles out tens of millions of dollars in legal fees, largely from the estates of dead people.

            But that wasn’t enough for the winner of that race, Michael Feinberg, who allowed his law school buddy Lou Rosenthal $2 million in fees over and above the $7 million they could have gotten away with, according to the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

            The commission, after investigating for more than two years, determined on February 10 that Feinberg should be removed. The judge is appealing and could hang onto his seat until the fall or even next year, though he is likely to be suspended this week.

            The governor would then name an interim surrogate. Sources said for a Democrat eligible to run for the post (i.e., under 70 years old) to be chosen, he’d have to agree to let some Republicans feed at the trough for the duration of his tenure.

            The governor could also name a Republican, who wouldn’t bother to campaign, or someone over 70 not eligible to run, such as Supreme Court Judge Ira Harkavy.

            Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres is very interested in running, a possibility that must be making Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s blood pressure rise. He has helped keep Lopez Torres off the Supreme Court, which doesn’t have primary elections. However, the surrogate’s race does, and in 2002 Lopez Torres (no relation to Vito) was the top vote-getter in a boroughwide primary for Civil Court.

            With the same help from the editorial boards and reform clubs she got in 2002, Lopez Torres figures she could win the surrogate’s post.

            Other contenders are Supreme Court Judges Bruce Balter, Ted Jones, and Larry Knipel (husband of Flatbush Democratic district leader Lori Knipel), and perhaps Civil Court Judge Loren Baily-Schiffman.

            Jones might not want the job, one insider said, in which case another black judge would almost certainly be recruited to run. “There are plenty of black judges in Brooklyn” to choose from, the source said.

            Assemblymen Frank Seddio and Joe Lentol would also consider running for surrogate but only if the election didn’t coincide with an Assembly election. The bet here is the elections will be simultaneous (in 2006) and Seddio and Lentol will stay put.

            One person who, if she runs for surrogate a second time, will find little of the support that she had in her 1996 race against Feinberg is Civil Court Judge Lila Gold. Sources said she has since burned most of her bridges.


            ARMER DROPS HAMMER ON BANK: This column has been known to poke fun at folks who oppose just about everything, be it the Nets arena, Ikea in Red Hook, Brooklyn Bridge Park apartments, a battered women’s shelter in Carroll Gardens, even (long ago) a home for the blind in Sheepshead Bay.

            But even we admit that the suburban design proposed for a new drive-thru Commerce Bank on 5th Avenue in Park Slope was simply hideous, not to mention unsafe.

            Which is why it was a big victory when the bank dropped the drive-thru, responding to pleas from the First Street Block Association, a new group called Park Slope Neighbors, the Park Slope Civic Council, Assemblywoman Joan Millman, Councilman Bill de Blasio, and Community Board 6.

            No one minded when the bank and the elected officials asked that the new design be kept under wraps until it could be rolled out at a press conference to maximize the good publicity for the bank, the politicians, and the civic groups.

            But Community Board 6 Chairman Jerry Armer, who had been told the news in the strictest confidence by a Commerce vice president, announced at the February 9 board meeting that the drive-thru had been scrapped.

            Sources told us the Commerce Bank people and Councilman de Blasio were furious with Armer. Said one person, “Jerry’s jumping the gun at the Wednesday meeting strikes everyone as the rawest, pettiest form of political credit-grabbing.”

            Armer’s not running for office, though, so he might have simply misunderstood the arrangement. But nonetheless, the community groups were also unhappy with him, given that they’d done much of the heavy lifting to get Commerce to alter the plan.

            The First Street Block Association was first to voice objections and in July 2004 had sought the Park Slope Civic Council’s help in dealing with Commerce. The council didn’t immediately act, but neighborhood opposition grew in the fall, and Park Slope Neighbors re-engaged Civic Council President Tom Miskel, who agreed to reach out to the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association.

            At that point, the effort stalled. It’s possible that major 5th Avenue landowner Tony Schiccitano, who is leasing the property to Commerce, swayed the merchants association. (Incidentally, word is that one condition of the Commerce lease is a lifetime parking spot for Schiccitano.) Or perhaps it was because Judi Pheiffer, president of the merchants association, saw no problem with a 29-foot-wide driveway.

            But Miskel ultimately agreed to let a Park Slope Neighbors member speak for three minutes at the council’s January meeting. The trustees immediately voted against the Commerce design. About a week later, the drive-thru was gone.


            REALITY CHECK FOR NY TIMES: The New York Times called it “an unexpected setback” to Rep. Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign when the Democratic clubs of Councilman Lew Fidler and district leaders Bernie Catcher and Mike Geller endorsed other candidates.

            Our question is, unexpected by whom?

            Given that Weiner has no patronage or pork to offer, his chances for endorsements by clubs and other politicians are minimal. We’re not sure why the Times ran a story at all.

            Certainly endorsements by these (or any) clubs are not crucial to a campaign. As one reader noted, Geller’s Kings Highway club backed Mark Green for mayor in 2001, yet Mike Bloomberg got 71 percent of the vote in the club’s 45th Assembly District.

            In 1998 the club also endorsed Joel Garson over the late Lena Cymbrowitz for Assembly (Cymbrowitz won with 40 percent, Garson was a distant third with 17 percent) and Dan Feldman over Weiner for Congress (Weiner won, Feldman finished fourth).


            HELENE’S ABOUT-FACE: Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein has lost her enthusiasm for the death penalty and now, as chairwoman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, is a major roadblock to reinstatement of capital punishment in New York.

            Weinstein told The New York Times, “My vote 10 years ago was 10 years ago. There’s a lot of new information, important information, about DNA testing, about innocent people being convicted, and so on.”

            The irony is that Weinstein owes her job in part to the death penalty, which was strongly supported by the constituents who in 1978 elected her father, Murray Weinstein, over Assembly Speaker Stanley Steingut, a capital punishment opponent. Two years later, Helene Weinstein ran in her father’s place and won.

            (Helene was the original candidate in 1978, but was found to reside outside of the district, so her father was substituted for her.)

            Councilman Lew Fidler, who ran the Weinstein campaign’s field operation, suggested we not overstate the role capital punishment played in the upset victory.

            “Was the death penalty an issue? Absolutely,” said Fidler. “Was it the issue? Absolutely not.”

            Fidler explained, “Stanley Steingut lost because he had grown extraordinarily distant from the community that he and his father had represented.”

            Still, Steingut’s opposition to capital punishment was used against him by the Weinstein campaign, and today, 26 years later, Helene Weinstein is essentially acknowledging that Steingut was right.


            PATAKI BOOSTERS LIE LOW: We haven’t heard much lately about New York’s flagging Republican governor from the Brooklyn Democrats who endorsed him in 2002: State Senator Carl Kruger, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Councilman Kendall Stewart, district leader Mike Geller, and others.

            George Pataki’s approval rating has sunk to 34 percent, its lowest ever, partly attributable to the scandal of the state Republican Party hiring two personal maids for Libby Pataki (“We are not amused,” one Kings County Republican official told us, noting that Brooklyn Republicans had sent the state G.O.P. money).

            But plainly bad governing is also to blame—for example, Pataki’s proclivity for running up debt (state debt rose from $14.4 billion to $46.9 billion from 1990 to 2004) and his addiction to gambling revenue.

            Why is gambling bad policy?

            As New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman put it, “State-sponsored gambling is particularly adept at prying money loose from poor people. Check out the line for lottery tickets at the grocery store. See many men and women dressed in Armani, do you? Few officials are more partial to this soak-the-poor technique than Gov. George E. Pataki, who would like to fill the state with video lottery terminals, souped-up slot machines that detractors refer to as video crack.”

            Of the Brooklyn politicians we named, only Kruger had a practical reason to endorse Pataki: the governor saved Kruger’s job by scrapping a redistricting proposal that would have sliced his district into pieces.


            PINTO EXPLODES: During a February 8 taping of the BCAT show “Hardfire” with former City Council candidate Russell Pinto, we were reminded of those Ford vehicles that blew up when hit from behind.

            On a panel with yours truly, Pinto didn’t appreciate our noting that President Bush had lied during the State of the Union by saying Social Security would be “exhausted and bankrupt” by 2042. (According to the Congressional Budget office, the trust fund wouldn’t zero out until 2052, at which point Social Security taxes would still fund 81 percent of promised benefits.)

            Minutes later, as we headed into a commercial, Pinto, of Windsor Terrace, animatedly asked us how it feels that over 50 percent of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing.

            Would Pinto ask that of the minority of Germans who disapproved of Adolf Hitler in 1939? Our point is not to compare Bush to Hitler. It’s about approval ratings.

            Besides, an approval rating in the 50s is very low by historical standards for a recently reelected president.

            Finally—and this highlights the danger of quoting approval ratings during a taping that won’t air for 13 days—Pinto’s numbers were immediately outdated. A poll conducted Feb. 7-9 showed Bush’s approval rating at just 45 percent.


            OWENS ON SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: Congressional candidate Chris Owens criticized the mayor for appealing a court decision that would pave the way for same-sex marriage in New York.

            “I don’t believe that moral people of good will would accept this hesitancy if we were talking about mixed-race marriages, and in some parts of this country mixed-race marriages used to be perceived as a violation of the concept of marriage in the same way that same-sex marriages are today,” Owens said in a press release.

            Owens is drawn to that comparison because he was born to an African-American father (Rep. Major Owens) and a white mother who were married at a time when mixed unions raised many eyebrows. His father later divorced and remarried.


            TIDBITS: One reason Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes might have remembered incorrectly that the Brooklyn Democratic organization endorsed then-Assemblyman Dan Feldman over him in 1989 is that the organization was poised to do exactly that—until, a few days before district leaders were to vote, Gov. Mario Cuomo called Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, the party chairman, and persuaded him to back Hynes.

            Golden agreed but never called a vote of the district leaders since he couldn’t persuade a majority of them to switch sides. At least, this is the story the late Assemblyman Tony Genovesi told a friend of his…

            …Do some Brooklyn Bridge Park supporters fear NIMBYism in Brooklyn Heights is plaguing the project? It sure seems so from this e-mail excerpt: “Those people want neither apartments nor recreation facilities. No park would be the best of all worlds for them. That is, until Wal-Mart or the new Battery Park City comes in its place. The problem with the Heights conspiracy theory may be that some of the conspirators don’t realize they are in on it.”

            …Online political columnist Maurice Gumbs on Councilman Al Vann’s endorsement of Gifford Miller instead of Freddy Ferrer: “At the age of 70, Al Vann simply continues what has been a long, consistent history of opposition to Latino empowerment, and in fact to any empowerment except his own.” Pretty harsh, and perhaps not fair to suggest that anyone who endorses Miller is opposing Latino empowerment…

            …Last summer, East Flatbush political hopeful Wellington Sharpe denied that his candidacy for State Senate could result in former City Councilman Noach Dear defeating State Senator Kevin Parker. “Noach Dear cannot win this race. The numbers tell you,” Sharpe said.

            But Dear nearly did win in the predominantly black and Caribbean district, surprising many. Dear’s strong showing reportedly has Councilman Simcha Felder concerned about 2005, when Dear is eligible to run for Felder’s seat, which Dear held for the prior 19 years…

            …Democrat Peter Abbate, whose been in the Assembly for 18 years, traces the perennial lateness of the state budget to the late 1980s, when Democratic Governors Hugh Carey (formerly a Brooklyn congressman) and Mario Cuomo began tying controversial legislation to the budget.

            He recalled Cuomo attaching to the budget a provision allowing for the early release of state prison inmates. That was a more radical notion 15 years ago than today. Crime has since receded as a political issue.


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Erik Engquist founded this column in 1994 and wrote it until 1996 when he left for four years of daily newspaper reporting in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He resumed writing Brooklyn Politics in April 2002 and continued through May 2005, when he accepted a position at Crain's New York Business reporting on city and state politics and government. He continues to welcome political news via phone at 212-210-0745 or e-mail at