The Way We Remember

Ridgewood Bushwick Seniors Citizens Council - the humble power hub of the Lopez empire. Courtesy of the New York World.

Ridgewood Bushwick Seniors Citizens Council – the humble power hub of the Lopez empire. (Courtesy of the New York World.)

The pews of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei were packed, with more standing in the back. The choir’s lead sang a gorgeous “Ave Maria.” Misty eyes listened to the recollections of friends and family. I was at the funeral for Vito Lopez, for many years one of New York’s most powerful politicians. Lopez passed away a few days ago, but his political career slipped away in 2013, under a wave of sexual harassment allegations and the rise of a new political generation in Brooklyn. I did not know Vito Lopez, but I knew his impact on his community of Bushwick was substantial, and it was appropriate to pay my respects.

Lopez’s career followed a classic trajectory, from young idealist to community success to victim of his own abuse of power. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he was a fount of energy, mobilizing a forgotten part of Brooklyn and agitating for housing that would help the poor and the old. Elected to the New York State Assembly in 1984, he became chair of the Housing Committee, and directed public funds back to his neighborhood, resulting in thousands of affordable housing units. North Brooklyn was a discarded pocket of the world when Lopez ascended, and by the early 2000s he’d helped bring it back to its feet.

In 2005, Lopez replaced the latest in a string of scandal-clad Kings County Democratic Chairmen. He dominated local elections, doled out judgeships, and regaled big time pols who came to kiss his ring. Corruption was rampant, but was considered par for the course in Brooklyn politics. The sexual harassment allegations that later brought him down were an open secret in Albany long before charges were formally filed. Back home, an intellectual band of gentrifiers teamed with the enemies he’d made along the way to give him a real opposition, though it was laughably dismissed as recently as a few years ago. But then in 2013, sexual harassment charges compelled his resignation, and his final, failed campaign for City Council saw his opponent flanked by the entire Democratic establishment, the same people who either saw no wrong in Lopez a year earlier, or perhaps were too cowed to say anything.

The funeral at Our Lady of the Rosary showed that Lopez still had friends. Lots of them. Some were from the political class, like Councilmember Steve Levin, who one eulogizer remarked was there whenever Vito called for him, and had the grim task of calling the ambulance his final night. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries looked solemn. Deputy Brooklyn Borough President Diana Reyna, Lopez’s former Chief of Staff, wept. Others were poor, some were very old, and the racial composition of the crowd was as mixed as a New York subway car. (Except for fewer Asians.)

At the podium, Lopez’s daughters put human touches on the man, from dramatic Yankees playoff games to casual gin rummy at the political clubhouse. Others thundered about the “false allegations” that had brought Lopez down. Most compelling was Lopez’s longtime partner, Angela Battaglia, who mixed tears and laughter into a forceful eulogy that connected the personal and political.

When I moved to Williamsburg in 2007, I heard of Battaglia as Lopez’s “girlfriend” who made obscene amounts of money directing Vito’s nonprofit. Now that I’m a little more wizened, I know that “girlfriend” is a diminishing term for two people who were so close for a very long time; I also know that a lot of people in the nonprofit world make a lot more than they should. Battaglia’s pain brought forward a different person than the Enemy of Reform I’d read about on the printed page and heard about at campaign rallies for so many years. That doesn’t make any of the criticisms of him wrong, but it was a gentle reminder that fellow New Yorkers, my neighbors up the JMZ, may have felt differently.

If it sounds like after two hours at a funeral I’ve seen the light, and become an apologist for Lopez, fear not. I come to bury Vito, not to praise him. But the night before the funeral, the streets of Paris ran with blood. The world opened its hearts, and we were reminded of our collective humanity. We cannot be reminded enough.

Paris was on my mind in that church. I have not been to many funerals, failing to see the purpose after missing my father’s as a child. But that church was filled with love. And after Paris, what we need in this world is not hatred, but “love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer.”

Vito Lopez was not my friend, Vito Lopez was not my enemy. He abused power and did harm to vulnerable people, but he also wielded power for good to help vulnerable people. He’s practically a Robert Caro character.

People who work in politics look upon people as widgets, campaigns as war, and elected officials as heroes and villains. None of that is right. In the end, we are all frail humans, riddled with flaws, sometimes doing our best. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Not so with Vito – he can always point to those concrete blocks of senior housing.

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