“I’ll tell you what. Monday is Columbus Day, I usually cook something,” Frank Seddio, the newly-elected Chairman of the Kings County Democratic Party said to begin our conversation in his Canarsie law office earlier today. “I’ll make you some eggplant parmesan. No reporters, just come as a person. Eggplant parmesan. I’m making a real special Sicilian dish that’s called ‘pasta con le sarde.’ It’s macaroni with sardines and it tastes ten times better than it sounds!”
We met Mr. Seddio in the morning, so the table before us lacked trays of food, but reporters interviewing him earlier this week were plowed full of macaroni, meatballs, sausages and breaded Italian-style chicken, he said, ticking off the list of dishes he had offered others. At one point in our discussion, a mailman walked in the room and Mr. Seddio urged him to drop by his Columbus Day feast as well. “Everybody comes to eat here when we have food,” he said.
As the head of one of the largest Democratic county organizations in the United States, Mr. Seddio clearly isn’t what one would expect from his position, which is often referred to as “political boss.” For example, Mr. Seddio’s predecessor, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, was an imposing, old-school type, known for intimidation tactics and demanding fierce loyalty. Mr. Lopez eventually saw his control of the county party burst into flames when two sexual harassment claims were placed against him and found “credible” by the Assembly Ethics Committee, a situation which could lead to criminal charges. Several of Mr. Lopez’s predecessors were indicted for corruption and Mr. Lopez was under federal investigation for years before the sexual harassment charges dropped.
Mr. Seddio, in contrast, is a genial lawyer passionate about esoteric hobbies in addition to backroom wheeling-and-dealing. Indeed, with all of the drama surrounding Mr. Lopez’s political implosion and the subsequent maneuvering to succeed him, the new leader said serving pasta was his “therapy” and kept him relaxed.
His other passion? Christmas.
“I have about 500 moving animated dolls along with 500,000 lights, without exaggeration,” Mr. Seddio said, showing us photographs of his decorations going twenty-five years back. Online, he has a personal Facebook page entitled “Canarsie Christmas” rather than his given name. “I kid around and tell people we even coordinate with Rockefeller Center because we don’t want to take any crowds away from them. When we have an opening night here–this year it’s December 2nd–we have anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people out and we close the street.”
“On any given Saturday or Sunday in November, if you come by, there’ll be twenty people calling ‘Uncle Frank’ out,” he explained. “I’m kind of the maestro of it. There was a time when I’d climb up a ladder or be hanging off the roof, but I’m too old and too fat to be doing that these days.”
Mr. Seddio describes his priorities in life as, in order, his grandchildren, Christmas and then politics. He added his wife should also be included somewhere near the top as well. “I got to go home at night,” he said, laughing.
“It’s an interesting point, I loved politics my whole life,” Mr. Seddio energetically answered when we asked why he wanted to be Brooklyn’s Democrat-in-charge. “I love being with people. I get involved in campaigns. It’s like adrenaline.
To prove the point, Mr. Seddio shared a story.
“I remember many years ago,” he began. “I was sitting in a doctor’s office with somebody who’s very involved in politics–his kids and mine went to the same allergy doctor–and he’s complaining every week. I say to him, ‘Why do you this?’ He says, ‘You know Frank, there’s that one time you work and the person you work for gets elected, and the thrill of that is almost like, there can’t be anything better.’ Actually, he says it’s almost as good as sex.”
Mr. Seddio said he began his political career by volunteering for campaigns and joining the influential Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club when he was just 18-years-old. Mr. Seddio would eventually rise to become the organization’s president, and after powerful local Assemblyman Tony Genovesi died in a car accident in 1998, Mr. Seddio was appointed to be his replacement.
“I’m not crazy about Albany,” he said of his time in the State Legislature. “Probably one of the most exciting things you can do in Albany is on Tuesday mornings, they have the specials at the local supermarkets, you get there early enough you can get the good buys on things. But it was an interesting experience, a great learning experience.”
After serving six years in the State Assembly, Mr. Seddio accepted the nomination to become a surrogate judge, where he only served a brief stint before resigning. At the time of his departure from the judiciary, the Commission on Judicial Conduct launched an investigation into political contributions he gave from his Assembly campaign account. In our interview, he claimed he left the bench to pursue a run for the City Council, but was thwarted when the City Council extended term-limits in 2009.
Instead, Mr. Seddio ran for a district leader position that opened up when local powerbroker Bernie Catcher passed away in 2010. He quickly became one of the more influential district leaders in county politics, no small thanks due to the Thomas Jefferson Club’s ability to deliver votes and gather petition signatures over a wide swath of territory.
As Mr. Seddio worked his way through the Party’s ranks, Mr. Lopez ruled the Kings County Democratic organization by instigating a constant state of civil war and running primary challenges against legislators who opposed him. Now that he’s in charge, Mr. Seddio said he plans to do things differently and vowed to not back challenges to incumbent Democrats.
“We’ve started not only with words, but with actions,” Mr. Seddio said when asked to contrast his leadership style with Mr. Lopez’s contentious one. “The good thing is that I don’t have a shit list. As a matter of fact, a lot of my friends say I’m the worst Sicilian they’ve ever met, because I never remember why I’m mad at anybody. It’s just not worth it. Anger and hate are too time consuming, they use too much energy, it doesn’t serve any purpose.”
Indeed, when Mr. Seddio took over the party last month, he immediately gave plum political positions to his critics and skeptics. He also eliminated the controversial “at-large” district leaders who were undemocratically appointed by past county leaders and mounted an aggressive charm offensive with multiple visits to reform-oriented clubs that would have probably preferred someone else lead the county Democrats.
“New Democratic County Leader Frank Seddio has visited CBID, IND and LID to present himself to the reform Democratic clubs in Northwest Brooklyn. He brought awesome cannolis with him to each meeting,” Chris Owens, one of the few district leaders to openly back alternatives to Mr. Seddio after Mr. Lopez’s collapse, wrote on Facebook last night. “In general, Mr. Seddio’s presentations were engaging and generally informative; it appears he will be making a concrete attempt to create a different culture within the Democratic Party leadership structure.”
Councilman Lew Fidler, one of Mr. Seddio’s closest political allies, similarly sees future progress in the Kings County Democratic Party under Mr. Seddio’s leadership.
“Time and trust will heal our wounds. Remembering why we are all Democrats to begin with will heal wounds. Making the trip to (proverbial) China is a good beginning, a gesture of good faith and intentions,” he said in an email to Politicker this afternoon. “Of course, the cannolis can’t hurt. Wait til he takes them to a deli!”
For his part, Mr. Seddio urged patience. “Tell me the progress we’ve made in six months,” he said of potential criticism. “If I’ve done it right, I’m hoping that you’ll give me the credit for it. If I haven’t and I actually misled you, you can call me a bum.”
Mr. Seddio also promised not to let his new position go to his head.
“I think you got to remember the Roman emperors, whenever a conquering general came into Rome to be honored, he’d have somebody–a poet or a philosopher–riding with the general and say, ‘Remember thou art mortal,'” he explained. “That’s kinda what you got to do. It’s not about you; it’s about doing the right thing.”
After all, he has other things on his mind.
“I don’t really have an ego about this right now,” he said. “Except for Christmas.”