Brooklyn Politics by Erik Engquist

May 16, 2005

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May 16, 2005  

 

      

            DOGS, CATS PLAY TOGETHER: Here’s a rarity in Brooklyn politics: Reps. Jerry Nadler and Vito Fossella, respectively the most liberal and conservative members of Brooklyn’s congressional delegation, voted yes on a bill opposed by the other Brooklyn House members: Reps. Anthony Weiner, Major Owens, Ed Towns, and Nydia Velazquez.

            The bill was for another $82 billion for the U.S. military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would also require uniform driver’s license features in the 50 states, make it tougher to get asylum here, send $200 million to the Palestinians and $300 million in humanitarian aid to Darfur, allocate $55 million to secure nuclear materials outside the former Soviet Union, and allow a fence to be built on the California-Mexico border.

            The bill, which also included plenty of traditional pork, passed 368 to 58 on May 5.

            Nadler frequently votes against bills favored by the Bush administration and opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union. But he supported this one despite his objection to portions of the “Real ID Act” contained within it, such as the asylum provisions.

            While Nadler opposed the war in Iraq, he feels it would be unfair for the U.S. to withdraw before Iraq is stable. Put more bluntly, he doesn’t want the Kurds to be massacred again, said a source close to Nadler.

            Weiner’s opposition to the bill is, likewise, perplexing at first, given that he voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq (unlike his Brooklyn Democratic colleagues). But now he regrets that vote.

            “I’ve just been so frustrated with the lack of planning and rationale, and I’ve been burned before giving the administration my trust,” Weiner said.

            Moreover, he said he dislikes these emergency bills, which can be passed outside the House’s balanced-budget rules.

            “We lurch forward from emergency funding bill to emergency funding bill without any clear strategy and without the accountability that comes with going through the traditional budgeting process,” Weiner said. “I just think it’s no way to run a war.”

            Weiner also objected to giving the Palestinians $200 million. He had introduced an amendment to remove the money from the bill, but it had failed on a voice vote.

            “If we are going to allocate funds to the Palestinians it should be based on performance…let’s say on their compliance with the road map for peace. We pass these appropriation bills with our heart rather than our head. We invest based on what we want to happen rather than on what has happened in the past.”

            AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, didn’t have a problem with the Palestinian aid. But Weiner said, “AIPAC always supports what the administration’s position is, and the administration supports this bill.”

***

            PETERS PACKING CLUBS? The buzz at Independent Neighborhood Democrats in advance of the club’s May 11 endorsement for Brooklyn district attorney was that candidate Mark Peters had packed the club with supporters. In fact, we heard Peters packed Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats and Lambda Independent Democrats as well.

            Clubs generally frown on this kind of thing because, while it does provide a small infusion of cash from the new club members’ dues, it gives the impression that the endorsement votes are rigged. Which they are.

            In a weak attempt to prevent this, the clubs have provisions in their by-laws such as a requirement that members must be in good standing at least 45 days prior to a vote to receive a ballot. Peters got around that easily—his people have been joining the local clubs since at least January.

            We questioned his campaign person, Sara Forman, about club-packing at the time. On January 19, she replied, “I joined CBID, as did some of my campaign workers, since I think it’s important to be a part of your local club when your candidate is running for a local office.”

            This is why we keep barf bags handy.

            IND also doesn’t allow members to vote both there and at another local club, such as CBID, but we’re told that provision is not easily or readily enforced.

***

            MARTY’S RAP SHEET: Last year, after pleading guilty to accepting money the state for driving expenses he hadn’t incurred, Assemblyman Roger Green claimed Borough President Marty Markowitz had committed a similar crime 20 years ago without being forced out of the state legislature, as Green was.

            Was Green exaggerating? The New Yorker recently published a description of Markowitz’s crime that made it seem like an honest mistake trumped up to something more as payback for his challenging the political establishment. Here’s what the magazine wrote:

            “He first ran for Borough President in 1985, against the incumbent, Howard Golden…That bid for office resulted in Markowitz’s being charged with failing to disclose a campaign contribution from a local businessman: he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a nearly eight-thousand-dollar fine [actually $7,500], and performed seventy-five hours of community service.”

            That didn’t seem to be the equivalent of Green’s stealing from taxpayers. (Of course, Green says he mistakenly thought he was entitled to the money.) But The New Yorker made Markowitz’s mistake seem much more innocuous than it really was, according to Maurice Gumbs, a political opponent of Markowitz who followed the Markowitz money trail.

            Markowitz’s plea agreement, negotiated with Liz Holtzman, the Brooklyn district attorney at the time, winnowed multiple felony counts down to just the one misdemeanor, Gumbs recalled. Markowitz had been indicted for taking four-figure campaign contributions from a credit union and reporting them as if they’d come from elsewhere, Gumbs said.

            Gumbs went to Albany to examine Markowitz’s campaign disclosures, tracked down some of the addresses from which the contributions originated and found them to be empty lots and abandoned buildings. So did the Village Voice, which wrote a couple of scathing articles.

            It also seems probable that the charges can’t be chalked up as a consequence of Markowitz’s 1985 campaign for borough president, as The New Yorker put it. More likely they came to light during a federal investigation of the credit union, called HYFIN (Help Your Friend In Need). HYFIN’s treasurer was Edmund Lee, a longtime buddy of Markowitz.

            Lee made a bunch of contributions to Markowitz’s campaign apparently using credit union funds, but attributed them to various businesses and people. Though Markowitz didn’t know them from a hole in the wall (which some of the businesses literally were), he never questioned them.

            This approach is known as “hear no evil, see no evil.”

            For his part, Markowitz insists the magazine’s description was accurate. His chief of staff, Greg Atkins, wrote in an e-mail message, “The New Yorker got it right; he made a mistake in failing to disclose the true source of some contributions raised for his campaign. However, as was made clear at the time, he did not personally benefit, nor abuse his public office in any way. Beyond that, he had absolutely no knowledge of anything other than what he accepted as his responsibility and the D.A. concurred.”

            Holtzman, now in private practice, told us she can’t recall the details of the case. But she called Gumbs’s claim that she went easy on Markowitz because of political pressure “preposterous.”

***

            TWO VERSUS TISH: Another opponent for Councilwoman Letitia “Tish” James has emerged: Charles Billups, a board member of the Grand Council of Guardians, the fraternal organization for black law enforcement officers. Billups, who we believe hails from the Department of Correction, held a fundraiser in Fort Greene on May 5, but we were unable to reach him for comment.

            Billups’s sister, Denise Billups, was murdered in July 2003 in the Bronx, after which Billups and others held a press conference asking for information about the crime, which apparently remains unsolved. A few weeks later, Councilman James Davis was killed, creating the vacancy that James filled that November.

            Already in the race is Eric Blackwell, a former School Board 13 member. Blackwell had called for James to be denied a Wilson-Pakula to run in the Democratic primary, but James was granted one by member of the Democratic county committee in the 35th Council District, which includes Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, and Crown Heights.

            Opposition to the Wilson-Pakula was virtually nonexistent. All eight Democratic district leaders representing parts of the council district supported it: Alan Fleishman and Jo Anne Simon (52nd Assembly District), Shirley Patterson and Clarence Norman (43rd A.D.), Bill Saunders and Freddie Hamilton (57th A.D.), and Steve Cohn and Linda Minucci (50th A.D.).

***

            FENNER HAVING FUN: Braxton Freddie Fenner, a former assistant district attorney under D.A. Joe Hynes now running against his former boss, took special notice of the revelation that top Hynes aide Dino Amoroso lives in Long Island in apparent violation of state law. When he was hired by Hynes in November 1991, Fenner says Hynes required him to sign a statement that read, “I…recognize that the offer is conditional upon my becoming a resident of New York City before I begin work and remaining one during my service.”

            We’d be surprised if Fenner even makes the ballot, but at the very least he seems to be enjoying his campaign for the moment. On May 5 he issued his 13th press release, headlined, “The District Attorney Association of New York State has named Charles Hynes “Prosecutor of the Year.”

            Fenner wrote, “Braxton Freddie Fenner congratulates Mr. Hynes. And, I would like to recognize him for ignoring the residency law, ignoring individual rights, and ignoring prosecutorial misconduct. This truly is an outstanding record of accomplishment.”

***

            VITO’S SOCIAL PROBLEM: Earlier this year Rep. Vito Fossella told over 130 seniors, as reported by the Staten Island Advance, “I do not support the privatization of Social Security. I never have and I never will.” But he’s had trouble living up to it because he doesn’t reject President Bush’s proposal to divert Social Security money into private accounts administered by Wall Street (which Republicans have stopped calling “privatization” in favor of “reform”).

            But with Fossella under continuing pressure from Democrats, his spokesman told the Advance that “on the surface, Vito is skeptical” of Bush's proposal and is “concerned about the impact on the overwhelming majority of Staten Island residents.” Fossella says he’s studying the plan and will release his findings soon.

***

            TIDBITS: The Daily News sent a reporter and photographer to Rep. Anthony Weiner’s midnight hockey game at Chelsea Piers on May 9. We still find it hard to picture the rail-thin Weiner playing hockey. Well, we suppose if he’s ever targeted by goons, he could always disguise himself as a hockey stick…

            …We occasionally hear that Councilman David Yassky is thinking of running for Congress in the district to be vacated by Rep. Major Owens in 2006. But it’s worth noting that Yassky’s Brooklyn Heights residence is in Rep. Nydia Velazquez’s district. It would not be illegal for him to run elsewhere, but it’s nonetheless unlikely…

            …It could be 2006 before Councilman Bill de Blasio finds a full-time replacement for his recently departed Orthodox Jewish liaison Yeruchim Silber, but in the meantime he’s being helped informally by Yitzhach Fleischer, also known as Jules Fleischer. Fleischer is State Senator Diane Savino’s Orthodox Jewish liaison. Both de Blasio and Savino have large sections of Borough Park in their districts…

            …Transportation Alternatives project director Noah Budnick, a Brooklynite who was badly injured in a bicycle accident last month, is recovering and could be nearly back to normal in a few months. “He is a miracle of modern science!” wrote Paul Steely White, TA’s executive director…

            …Lambda Independent Democrats will meet to decide its endorsements for the Brooklyn district attorney and uncontested City Council races at 7:30 p.m. May 25 at the YWCA, 30 3rd Ave. At 7 p.m. June 6 it will endorse for mayor, public advocate, contested City Council races, and Civil Court at Old First Reformed Church, 7th Avenue and Carroll Street…

            …Bay Ridge Democratic district leader Ralph Perfetto and his club, the American Heritage Political Organization, endorsed Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes for reelection…

            …Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez and her colleague Annabel Palma of the Bronx held a Mothers’ Day press conference to call for a tax on incomes over $500,000 to reduce class sizes in public schools—not the kind of story that gets assignment editors very excited. But on a slow news day, sometimes there’s nothing else to cover, and in this case Newsday took the bait. Gonzalez, whose media presence is minimal, got a single quote into the humdrum article’s final paragraph…

            …A reader e-mailed us, “I do hope that Brooklyn Democrats are searching furiously for a replacement to run instead of [State] Senator [Kevin] Parker in 2006. It would be travesty if our choice in a primary were between the hot-blooded Parker and that idiot Noach Dear.” Better get ready for a travesty, then. The Democratic establishment won’t support a challenger to an incumbent Democrat…

            …Our small item on handicapped ramps for Coney Island beach generated quite a few responses from readers, most of them noting the existence of all-terrain wheelchairs. One e-mail came from E.M. Prentiss. When we replied that the Parks Department was planning to build ramps that dead-end at mid-beach but not provide beach-roving wheelchairs, Prentiss wrote back, “To be honest, having a ramp that gets me halfway down the beach is fine with me. I would never even dip my toe in the ocean, but would enjoy being getting out of the city and be able to wheel down the ramp and sit on a blanket under an umbrella.”

 

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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 eengquist@crain.com.