Leaders of the Kings County Democratic Party—the organization former Assemblyman Vito Lopez kept under his thumb for seven years until deposed by scandal—today lamented the once-powerful politician’s death this morning.
“As he faces the judgment on the value of his life, my hope is that all the good work that he did will outweigh the unfortunate way in which his career ended,” said Brooklyn Democratic Chairman Frank Seddio, who succeeded Mr. Lopez in 2012. “Vito Lopez was my friend for over 30 years and I am saddened by his death.”
Lopez succeeded former Assemblyman Clarence Norman as the boss of Brooklyn in 2005, after Mr. Norman was arrested for selling judgeships and receiving illegal campaign contributions. Lopez controlled the organization with a tight hand until 2012, when allegations emerged that he had groped and sexually intimidated two young female staffers.
Several people the Observer spoke to had negative recollections of the late assemblyman, remembering either the scandal that ended his political career or the brusque and heavy-handed way he dealt with those who challenged his chosen candidates. But Frank Carone, law chairman for the Brooklyn Democratic organization, said Lopez had been a warm and caring figure and a mentor to many.
“When you got to know him well, he was a very loving, generous guy,” he told the Observer. “To his adversaries he seemed immovable, but that to me was not really Vito.”
Mr. Carone said that Mr. Lopez phoned him last night, looking to speak to friends in his last hours. He, like Mr. Seddio, argued that Mr. Lopez should be remembered as a man who oversaw the extensive construction of low-cost apartments in a traditionally poor but now gentrifying section of the borough.
“I will challenge anyone to think of anyone who has done more for affordable housing and transformation of the community in Brooklyn’s history,” he said.
Mr. Lopez, an Italian-American who claimed some Spanish ancestry, was born in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn in 1941. He moved to the then-predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood of Bushwick in 1973 and founded the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, which came to offer an array of social services to residents of all ages—but attracted controversy for its high salaries to politically-connected employees and, in 2010, for falsifying records relating to city funds.
A number of budding politicians served in some capacity at Ridgewood Bushwick, including Assemblywoman Maritza Davila and Councilman Stephen Levin, who also once served as Lopez’s chief of staff. Besides Ms. Davila and Mr. Levin, Lopez helped usher a number of politicians into office after he entered the Assembly in 1985—including State Senator Martin Dilan, former councilman and now-Assemblyman Erik Dilan and former assemblyman and current Councilman Rafael Espinal.
“Vito Lopez dedicated his life and career to making sure that everyone in need, no matter who they were or where they were from, got the services they deserved,” Mr. Levin remembered of his old boss in a statement. “His legacy is the thousands of units of affordable housing he worked to build and preserve, the many community, youth and senior programs he started in Bushwick and Williamsburg, and the countless people he helped.”
The sexual harassment allegations that emerged in 2012 led to censure in the Assembly, the loss of the influential chairmanship of the housing committee and his eventual resignation both from his leadership role in the county organization and from the State Legislature. In 2013, he ran for the Council seat that had belonged to Diana Reyna—a former protege-turned opponent—but lost to her ex-chief of staff Antonio Reynoso, who enjoyed Mr. Seddio’s backing.
Lopez held onto the unpaid party position of district leader, and last year was widely rumored to be looking to make a political comeback.
Today, even those who spent years fighting against Lopez-led County operation and its candidates today expressed a certain sadness at his passing.
“Whatever I said in the past, I said in the past, and now is not the time for that. Now is the time for condolences to his family,” said Brooklyn Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, who opposed Lopez during her tenure as district leader for Brooklyn Heights.
Sources told the Observer that Mr. Lopez has two surviving children by his ex-wife and several grandchildren. He was widely known to be romantically involved with Angela Battaglia, who served in a number of capacities at Ridgewood Bushwick, as well as on the City Planning Commission under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Updated to include comment from Ms. Simon and Mr. Levin.