Race Politics

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As far as elections go, Civil Court judge races don’t usually rank high on the political-drama meter. In one-party Brooklyn, the vast majority of such “elections” are uncontested, with the candidate endorsed by the borough’s county organization coasting to victory and only a few thousand voters even bothering to pull the lever.

While the question of who becomes judge may be very important for the people who have to appear in court, the job doesn’t usually count for much to the party hierarchy. “The civil court is really the people’s court,” says Steve Banks, a Legal Aid attorney who specializes in homeless issues. “It deals with housing, contracts, employment, small personal injury cases, civil matters of less than $25,000.” Patronage possibilities are limited, with only one law secretary’s job to hand out.

But in quiet 1999, an off-year for local elections, a little Civil Court contest is attracting a lot of attention.

In Brooklyn’s third judicial district, covering the heavily Latino neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick, voters will be treated to a rare sight: a contested primary with two strong candidates. Wayne Saitta is a Legal Services attorney with a long and distinguished record in the neighborhood, particularly in the area of housing, where he has represented more than 125 tenant associations in court. Williamsburg native Jose “Joe” Rivera is an attorney, social worker, and former official with the city’s Human Resources Administration.

The race has other peculiarities: the area’s Latino and Hasidic communities, who are usually at loggerheads, have joined forces to back Rivera. And the housing movement, new to the electoral arena, actively supports Saitta.

Politically, there’s much more at stake than one judgeship: It’s a proxy for a more significant and entrenched competition between two powerful Brooklyn democrats–Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and state Assemblyman Vito Lopez. “On the merits, both candidates would be good judges,” remarks one City Council aide. “What makes this interesting is the political lineup behind it.”

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Both men have substantial experience with community organizations and social services. Saitta cites his many years of work with Legal Services and his history with the civil court as his most important qualifications. “I bring an understanding of what life is like for people without a lot of money,” he says. “One of the main problems with the Civil Court is that judges are not patient with poor litigants. I won’t do that.”

Rivera, now an attorney for an insurance company, has never litigated a case, but says that shouldn’t be an issue. “Being a good litigator doesn’t mean being a good judge,” he says. “I have experience as a manager and a supervisor, and no one has ever questioned my honesty and credibility.” He also grew up in the neighborhood, and has been heavily involved in the local church.

So far in this campaign, though, qualifications have taken a back seat to politics. A perennial issue in Brooklyn is the lack of diversity in the courts, so electing a Latino to the bench is important to many in the neighborhood. (Saitta is Italian American.) “We’ve got to end once and for all this notion that it’s alright to run for office even though you do not come from the community,” says Luis Garden-Acosta, president of El Puente, an activist social services group. “Wayne is a good man, but when one looks at the issue of developing indigenous leadership, we have Joey, whose life is totally rooted in the Latino community.”

But the racial alliances in this campaign aren’t all obvious. For years, Saitta’s Legal Services chapter has spearheaded numerous lawsuits against the Hasidim, in cases that allege government favoritism toward the Orthodox Jewish community on such matters as housing, education and public safety. Not coincidentally, Hasidic leaders are backing Rivera. In a race such as this one, with only 5,000 voters (at best) expected to turn out, the Hasidim can be a crucial voting bloc.

The race has also sparked interest among the city’s housing activists, usually indifferent to such elections. Stung by the fight over rent-control laws in 1997, many tenant groups have become more politically active, forming political action committees and adopting other landlord-lobby strategies. The Tenants Political Action Committee, formed in the fall of 1997, will be running phone banks and knocking on doors for Saitta this summer. “The bottom line is, Wayne deserves it,” says Michael McKee, who is treasurer of the PAC. “He’s got a solid record on tenant issues, and he asked for our endorsement.”

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The PAC’s involvement makes sense, since the race could have far-reaching implications. “This race is a spillover, not just from the feud between Vito and Nydia,” as one high-ranking Democratic party official puts it, “but from the feuds in the Democratic party in the past.”

Saitta hails from the political club run by Vito Lopez, the powerful patronage-rich local assemblyman. He’s also been endorsed by Brooklyn’s Democratic party organization, which provides his campaign with legal and organizational resources. Rivera, on the other hand, has aligned with Lopez’s rival, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, and consequently has won the backing of her allies Congressman Ed Towns and City Councilmember Ken Fisher.

For these Brooklyn pols, who have greater ambitions, the election results may have important implications. Fisher has been mentioned as a potential Democratic mayoral candidate in 2001. Towns’ son Darryl, now an assemblyman, reportedly plans to run for borough president in two years. And Lopez, who flirted with the idea of vying for Velázquez’ congressional seat last year, now plans to run for Public Advocate.

But the race is just one chapter from a longer history of enmity between Lopez and Velázquez. Lopez refused to back Velázquez when she first ran for Congress in 1992. Instead he supported Liberal party member Ruben Franco, who went on to chair the New York City Housing Authority. Velázquez supports Puerto Rican independence; Lopez and his allies favor statehood.

The congresswoman also alienated many important party figures when she backed Towns in his abortive effort to topple county leader and assemblyman Clarence Norman, Jr. at the 1997 judicial convention, where Supreme Court judges are elected. That year she also helped Margarita López (no relation to Vito) defeat Judy Rapfogel by only a few hundred votes in a Manhattan City Council race; Rapfogel was chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The fact that Velázquez helped Margarita López enraged Silver, who helped arrange a favorable redistricting for her when the federal Supreme Court ordered her district redrawn.

Now, Towns and Norman, who had been harsh enemies during the past two years, have apparently buried the hatchet. Velázquez, however, remains at odds with the county leader. According to her, Norman asked her not to run Rivera this year, promising instead to help him get elected to the next vacant Civil Court seat. She refused. “I told him that this was not a decision I could make by myself,” she says. “There are too many people involved.”

With the backing of some of the borough’s most powerful institutions–the party machine and Vito Lopez’s vaunted Bushwick United Democratic Club–Saitta has the upper hand, most insiders say. But to hear Lopez tell it, his candidate is the David going up against Velázquez’s Goliath, fortified by Towns and Fisher. “It’s a grassroots Legal Services person with little money running against the political establishment,” says Lopez. “It’s me against two members of Congress and a City Councilmember who wants to run for mayor. That’s what it’s down to.”

As for the contention that this seat should go to a Latino, Lopez notes that the district is fairly diverse, with a sizable Polish and Italian community. “My club has helped elect seven Latinos to the bench,” he says. “Many whites in my district are asking for some balance.”

Lopez has his own weaknesses, too. Many Democrats resent the fact that county leaders allow Lopez to pick highly coveted judgeships, since he has repeatedly–and sometimes brazenly–endorsed Republicans over the years, from Rudy Giuliani to Al D’Amato. But Lopez remains important to the county organization for his ability to marshal resources and get out votes for candidates, and that will work in Saitta’s favor this fall. “County made a deal,” one senate staffer explains. “If you can’t beat Vito, you might as well join him.”