Former Assemblyman Vito Lopez received a warm welcome at Ridgewood Bushwick’s annual picnic in July. (Photo by Aaron Short)
The unforgiving sun beat down on former Assemblyman Vito Lopez and some 2,000 Brooklyn senior citizens milling about the picnic grounds on one of the hottest days of the year.
Lopez clutched a plastic water bottle that he would soon empty and stood near a roped-off table, greeting a line of seniors waiting for their steaks to finish sizzling on the grills.
“I love you, Vito!” one woman said, as she shook his hand.
“I love you, too,” Vito said, smiling.
The charity Lopez had founded brought the crowd to Sunken Meadow State Park, on the north shore of Long Island, in 40 air-conditioned coach buses for a relaxing day out of the city.
Many of the seniors, predominantly Latino, Asian and African-American, live in public housing and frequent adult day care centers run by the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, and they are among the poorest elderly residents in the city. They have been coming to the annual picnic for the better part of a decade, thanks to the generosity of Ridgewood Bushwick and a handful of legislators loyal to Lopez who fund the picnic from their discretionary funds.
The picnic also attracts a bevy of city and statewide candidates for public office. Gov. David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have made the pilgrimage to Sunken Meadow in past summers, as have John Liu, Bill de Blasio, Bill Thompson and others, in order to meet the seniors and pay homage to the Brooklyn boss.
A wide-open race for mayor and scores of City Council seats—including one that Lopez covets—should have attracted a fleet of pols.
But today there was only Vito.
A chasm opened this year between Lopez and New York’s political establishment in the wake of an explosive sexual harassment scandal that swallowed up his party chairmanship and Assembly seat.
Some of his closest allies abandoned him. His successor as chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, Frank Seddio, endorsed a Lopez rival for City Council. His former colleague and collaborator, state Sen. Martin Dilan, is running his own candidate to replace Lopez in Albany instead of backing Lopez’s preferred choice, Maritza Davila. Lopez no longer talks with his political protégé, City Councilman Steve Levin.
Now Lopez is seeking to extend his political career largely on the strength of name recognition in his former district.
He is counting on the goodwill built up with thousands of seniors, families and youths that Ridgewood Bushwick has served for decades as well as nearly 2,000 of the charity’s employees.
He may not get it.
James Cameron, Ridgewood Bushwick’s new chief executive officer, said the lack of candidates at the picnic was no coincidence.
“I didn’t want any of my staff being seen as being political,” he said. “We didn’t invite the candidates, we didn’t invite everybody. We purposely wanted to make it a nonpolitical event because of the sensitivity of the situation.”
Cameron wasn’t referring to Lopez’s harassment charges. He has been steadily rebuilding the charity’s reputation since city officials forced out its former CEO and Lopez’s campaign treasurer, Christiana Fisher, in 2012, after a damning Department of Investigation probe found sloppy accounting practices, unqualified board members, widespread mismanagement and fraud.
Fisher made headlines for getting board members to boost her salary from $363,000 to $782,000 in 2009 and then misrepresenting the figure on the organization’s tax returns. Her colleague, Ridgewood Bushwick housing director and Lopez’s girlfriend, Angela Battaglia, also received a salary increase but was not charged with any wrongdoing.
Last fall Fisher pleaded guilty to falsifying tax documents and received a year of probation in lieu of jail time. She has since disappeared from both the nonprofit and political worlds, refrained from contributing money to political campaigns and is no longer Lopez’s campaign treasurer.
Cameron arrived at Ridgewood Bushwick far removed from the world of Brooklyn politics.
A retired U.S. Army colonel with experience running complex nonprofit organizations, Cameron wasn’t looking to jump-start a second career. He began consulting with the group’s nursing home, Buena Vida, in 2008 and stayed on when its director took a medical leave of absence and did not return. Two years later, when the city ordered the charity to replace its management as part of a corrective action plan, he became Ridgewood Bushwick’s chief operating officer.
So Cameron set about to steer the organization out of its titanic mess. He consolidated its accounting functions and developed a centralized budget. The charity’s total revenues are down about $500,000 from the previous year—from $19.1 million to $18.53 million, according to 2011 tax forms. The organization also cut spending by nearly $3 million, from $22.35 million to $19.17 million. And it is finally in compliance in its tax filings and with the city’s recommendations.
“We have very good programs,” Cameron said. “[Investigators] tried to turn them upside down to find corruption, and they didn’t find any. The city and state know this a top-shelf agency and we work very closely with the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services.”
Cameron and the new board of directors are developing a strategic plan for Ridgewood Bushwick this summer that will have wide-ranging effects on housing, social services and healthcare in North Brooklyn.
They see health and home care and job training programs as the primary growth areas for the agency, particularly as Latino and Asian baby boomers living in Brooklyn reach an age where they need services. And there are plans to launch a development office—something the organization never had before—and hold regular fundraising events.
The group took in $13.39 million in government contributions in 2011, but government funds for nonprofits nationwide are diminishing. Cameron acknowledges that the group must move away from relying on funds from agencies and elected officials.
“We’re trying to establish that mission in the future and adapt to the changing needs of this community,” he said. “My mandate is to be politically neutral, and I am. That’s what my staff is instructed to do. As politicians are elected and re-elected, we will work with everyone.”
But the neighborhood’s political upheaval and changing demographics have put the charity at a crossroads.
Ridgewood Bushwick is developing a number of projects throughout North Brooklyn, but it can no longer afford to acquire lots in its own neighborhood because of rising property values.
The agency reported about $2 million in revenue from program services, and another $1.2 million from management and development fees for its properties— income sources the agency should be able to maintain.
But Ridgewood Bushwick has likely lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in projected revenue, thanks to a lawsuit over the rezoning of a 33-acre site in South Williamsburg that has stalled development of several buildings.
Now its housing office is looking at properties in East New York, Crown Heights and other farther-flung neighborhoods outside its traditional base.
“Because of lack of city-owned land, we’re branching out to other areas,” said Maria Viera, a deputy director of Ridgewood Bushwick’s housing department. “We’re partnering with private developers to continue to develop mixed properties. We’re trying to talk with developers and convince them affordable housing is a desperate need.”
Providing affordable housing has been a core of Ridgewood Bushwick’s mission, along with senior services, but the organization can no longer play offense against the neighborhood’s creeping gentrification.
“The core mission is the same, to take care of people’s needs, but how do you articulate that?” Cameron asked. “If housing is satisfied, what do you do next? Do you go out of business, or do you pick up and try to solve other problems in the inner city? The poverty is moving, and we have to chase the poverty if we have to continue our mission. That’s what I’m interested in.”
Politics is another matter.
Under Christiana Fisher, Ridgewood Bushwick provided senior services—along with a receptive audience and an eager get-out-the-vote operation for its political patron.
Lopez still speaks with affection about Ridgewood Bushwick’s success, calling Buena Vida the “best hospital in the region” and touting the group’s youth center for “doing wonderful work” at its annual picnic.
But under Cameron, even before the sexual harassment scandal broke, Ridgewood Bushwick distanced itself from Lopez.
“I don’t want to be quoted about Vito,” Cameron said. “I am totally neutral on this election. We need to reach out and work with whoever wins that seat.”
In the past, politicians unfriendly to Lopez did not receive the same access to senior centers as Lopez allies, and were sometimes escorted from the premises if they arrived unannounced. Councilwoman Diana Reyna, a former ally who became one of Lopez’s staunchest enemies, said the organization prohibited her from visiting even though she had given the group discretionary funding.
“I haven’t been able to visit seniors there since 2005,” she said. “They made my life a living hell.”
Top Ridgewood Bushwick staff often encouraged workers to volunteer on campaigns. Some even ran for higher office themselves.
But the policies at Ridgewood Bushwick are changing.
Lopez’s City Council opponent Antonio Reynoso has visited several senior centers this summer without incident, and he may bring Lopez critics Rep. Nydia Velázquez and Reyna with him on future visits. Lopez himself has not yet made an official visit beyond the picnic.
“I feel they have treated me well,” Reynoso said. “Everything they say they can do, they will do. They didn’t do anything to detour communications with the seniors.”
Rank-and-file Ridgewood Bushwick staffers said the culture has been changing since Fisher left.
They say that the pressure to volunteer for political campaigns is less intense than in previous years, and that they can focus on providing services instead of dealing with Lopez’s political drama.
Cameron noted that the nonprofit does not allow any work on campaigns at any time, and that employees face disciplinary action if they violate these policies.
“People are free to work on campaigns after work,” he said. “This is America, but there’s zero tolerance during work hours.”
A campaign source said that about two dozen Ridgewood Bushwick workers and former employees are involved in Lopez’s operation.
Battaglia has taken a leave of absence from work this summer to manage Lopez’s campaign. And a handful of loyalists who gathered petitions for Lopez plan to work on the campaign through Election Day.
“When we host meetings in public housing and on buildings in the south side, it’s easy for us to say, ‘Vito is running a campaign and we need help,’ ” Lopez treasurer Andy Marte said. “Is there some overlap between Ridgewood Bushwick people and community people? Sure.”
Lopez foe Velázquez has noticed that Ridgewood Bushwick does not have the same presence in Lopez’s campaigns as in previous years.
“I believe they are working very hard as the organization becomes more sensitive and responsible,” she said. “They know the whole world is watching. I’ve been told the message has been sent that people have to stay out. They cannot use the organization.”
But Reyna believes the connection between the nonprofit and Lopez has become subtler.
“I don’t think the nonprofit itself is the key, it’s how [Vito] leveraged the nonprofit to lure others in,” she said. “And Angela is still there. It’s the influence of being a supervisor and being charged with hiring and firing.”
One Brooklyn political operative believes that Ridgewood Bushwick’s longtime managers will help out Lopez in the end.
“Those people who have reaped the benefits from the organization and have lived in the community, they’re going to do what they have to do to maintain the status quo of what they have,” said the operative, who declined to be named. “Vito is still a district leader. Some of those people will be at the polls, there’s no doubt.”
What effect they will have on the outcome of the race is less clear.
Lopez said he considers himself the underdog in the race, but Marte is confident his candidate will succeed this fall despite a rash of negative media coverage.
“I haven’t heard one person say anything,” Marte said. “We went to a bunch of block parties, not one person mentioned it. If anything, you hear the other way around. ‘It’s all BS. It’s politics.’ That’s what people think.”
If Lopez wins, Ridgewood Bushwick might receive an infusion of City Council cash.
He told legislative colleagues earlier this year that one of the reasons he was exploring a run for City Council was that he could give out discretionary funding to groups in Bushwick, according to an Assembly source.
Reynoso stopped short of saying that he would give Ridgewood Bushwick any Council funding.
“We have to be very clear that those things are not happening any more before we can talk about any kind of funding [for Ridgewood Bushwick],” he said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but right now I have to win.”
Reynoso is playing hardball.
He has battered Lopez in the media and has racked up a slew of endorsements, including Seddio, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and scores of unions and women’s organizations.
Reynoso’s election lawyer moved to bump another rival, Tommy Torres, from the ballot due to a residency issue, and Torres may suspend his campaign as a result.
Lopez, sensing that his career is winding down, often raises his legacy of accomplishments during the few times he has spoken in public.
But thanks to the sordid details of a state ethics report, he has lost control of that legacy. Now Ridgewood Bushwick is beginning to contemplate life without Vito Lopez, whether he wants them to or not.
Tags: andy marte, Angela Battaglia, Antonio Reynoso, brooklyn, Buena Vida, Christiana Fisher, City Council, Frank Seddio, James Cameron, Maria Viera, Maritza Davila, Martin Dilan, Ridgewood Bushwick, Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, steve-levin, Sunken Meadows, Vito Lopez