Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

The Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club: lasting connections to a Brooklyn power base have meant Atlantic Yards support

Within the amazingly (and disturbingly) detailed 1988 book, City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York, by Jack Newfield (R.I.P.) and Wayne Barrett, just let go by the Village Voice, is a highly unflattering portrayal of Meade Esposito, for 15 years the chair of the county Democratic Party until his resignation in 1984 (and his later conviction in an influence-peddling scandal).

Esposito's homebase was the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Canarsie, described in the book as "patronage-rich."

The AY connection

What's the Atlantic Yards connection? Well, the club remains one of the city's most powerful, and longstanding ties among those spawned by the club mean support for Atlantic Yards.

Specifically, Forest City Ratner Executive VP Bruce Bender, a former chief of staff to City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, comes out of the club, as Matthew Schuerman of the Observer pointed out 5/31/06.

And that's partly why politicians from southern Brooklyn, like Carl Kruger (under investigation, and a beneficiary of Ratner campaign cash), Marty Golden, Lew Fidler, Mike Nelson, and Alan Maisel, have been staunch supporters of Atlantic Yards, even though it's hardly a priority for their constituents.

And that's partly why the New York Times reported, 12/18/06, that it was unlikely that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as a member of the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), would block Atlantic Yards:
“I’ve articulated my concerns to the speaker in writing, and beyond that, I think it would be counterproductive at this time to discuss the matter publicly,” said Mr. Jeffries, who said he was “confident” that Mr. Silver would take into account the views of the Brooklyn delegation.

That includes, however, a cluster of state lawmakers from south Brooklyn, who are almost unequivocal in their support of the project as it now stands. Forest City Ratner’s chief lobbyist, Bruce Bender, is close to those members; like many of them, he began his career in the area’s leading political organization, the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club.

Some history: 1980s

As Nicholas Pileggi reported in the 6/30/80 New York magazine:
The city's political clubs, especially those connected with Esposito's Democratic organization in Brooklyn, have long been on intimate terms with the city's school system. The clubs have been quietly dividing the community school boards' patronage ever since decentralization in 1970. Individual club members have been the beneficiaries of multi-million-dollar Board of Ed contracts. In addition, clubhouse lawyers find themselves much in demand to handle million-dollar personal-injury and contract-compliance claims. And no wonder: Since the board's headquarters is at 110 Livingston Street, in Brooklyn, all legal actions involving the board are dealt with in Brooklyn courts, before Brooklyn clubhouse judges, aided by clubhouse law secretaries and clerks. None of this is lost on savvy litigants.

...More than 25 percent of the state's legislators and City Council members owe their election to his Brooklyn organization, as does Mayor Edward Koch. Through his 44 district leaders, Esposito has control over judicial nominees. He can influence zoning decisions through his eighteen community planning board and affect the schools directly through the borough's twelve community school districts.
Touching on issues raised in the Koch book, Pileggi, in a 5/8/86 New York article, noted how Esposito denied influence from mob members he knew as a bail bondsmen and from his youth:
Nonetheless, in the 261-acre Brooklyn Navy Yard, for example, where Esposito long held the patronage key, it was discovered a few years ago that the job had somehow managed to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipyard elevator-repair contracts, despite the fact that the repair company had no employees and operated out of the rear of a Brooklyn cafe. The contracts were rescinded.
Into the 1990s

The Times reported 5/21/91:
Two members of the New York City Districting Commission charged yesterday that the panel's chairman unilaterally altered a proposed City Council district for Brooklyn, and one said the change was intended to help a political ally of the chairman.

Commissioner Luther Blake said that in a district in East Flatbush, the chairman, Frank J. Macchiarola, decreased the number of black and Hispanic people and increased the number of white voters to help a white candidate for the Council seat who is a member of Mr. Macchiarola's political club.

...Mr. Blake accused Mr. Macchiarola of changing the district lines to help the Council candidacy of Carl Kruger, the chairman of Community Board 18 in Canarsie. He said Mr. Kruger and Mr. Macchiarola were political allies who belonged to the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club.

Mr. Macchiarola dismissed the accusations yesterday, denying that he sought to help Mr. Kruger. He said populations shifts were made throughout the plan, and people were added to other central Brooklyn districts. He also noted that all the changes were approved by a majority of the commissioners on Thursday. Mr. Blake, Ms. Simmons and Commissioner Evelyn Cunningham voted against the plan.
The Times reported 12/29/91:
Traditional Democratic factions in the borough, once divided among three or four local political groups, have splintered as well, leaving a dozen more vaguely defined forces -- both racial and ideological -- that align and realign themselves intermittently with each other.

Mr. Genovesi's Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, for example, has often allied itself with Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez's club in Bushwick and Mr. [Mel] Miller's club, the Independent Democrats of Flatbush.
End of an era? No

The Times reported 8/13/98 on the death of Assemblyman Anthony Genovesi:
From the moment he took Mr. Fink's Assembly seat, it was widely assumed that his political experience would make Mr. Genovesi a strong contender to become Assembly Speaker himself. After all, few in the chamber knew better than he did the strengths -- and, perhaps more significantly, the vulnerabilities -- of their colleagues.

But Mr. Genovesi never did succeed in becoming the leader of the Assembly and, in fact, saw his power wane even in Brooklyn. Twice, he lost out to become the head of the borough's Democratic organization. And for the last several years, he had been locked in a nasty, mostly self-wounding battle with one of the men who beat him, Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., over everything from candidate endorsements to patronage to judgeships.

The Times reported 8/16/98:
While the Thomas Jefferson has been a powerful club, some political observers wonder if Mr. Genovesi's death will lead to an erosion in its strength. The club's membership has already dropped from a high of about 1,500 when Mr. Esposito ran it to the roughly 1,000 members who are now active. In part, its leaders say, the shift reflects the changing demographics of the neighborhood. As the club's membership has aged, many have moved from the district. At the same time, the neighborhood, once largely Italian and Jewish, has become steadily more black and Hispanic, with a large number of Caribbean immigrants, and the number of old-timers leaving the club has been greater than the number of newcomers who have signed up.

Still, several members suggest that Mr. Genovesi began in recent years to reach out to civic groups and block associations whose members were predominantly black and Hispanic.

"Tony realized that times were changing,'' said John L. Sampson, 33, a first-term state Senator and the club's most prominent black member. ''He understood the changing demographics of the area, and wanted to make sure everyone knew there was room for them in the club. He reached out to me, and the club is reaching out to others in the community. I think it will continue to be a power force in Brooklyn politics.''
Indeed, Sampson emerged as a leader in the Senate, a beneficiary of Forest City Ratner fundraising, and a key player in the "Brooklyn Buy-In" for the failed AEG Aqueduct "racino."

As the Times reported 8/20/98:
Over the years, the Jefferson Club has been known for its prowess in helping to elect officials in the area, and for sending its members beyond the boundaries of the 39th Assembly District to assist in the campaigns of Mr. Genovesi's allies. It was the club where Meade H. Esposito, the once powerful Brooklyn Democratic chief, oversaw the details of politics in the borough, and it was the club of Stanley Fink, the longtime Assembly Speaker.
The Bender influence

The Voice reported 10/26/99 how Council Member Mike Nelson reversed his public statement supporting tenants and voted for a lead-paint protection law preferred by landlords, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Council Speaker Peter Vallone:
Council sources say Nelson was heavily leaned upon particularly by Vallone's chief of staff, Bruce Bender. "Word was that Nelson wanted to vote against the bill so he could represent his constituents, but because his ties to leadership are so strong, he was forced to vote with them and smart enough to realize he had to vote with them." Bender, who did not return calls, and Nelson both hail from Brooklyn's famous Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, which still flexes muscle as other political clubs are retrenching..
The Sharpton issue

The Daily News reported 11/2/01:
Four aides to Mark Green met with top Brooklyn Democrats and discussed strategies for highlighting Fernando Ferrer's ties to the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Daily News has learned.

...Several participants said the meeting focused on how to galvanize Jewish voters for Green by highlighting Ferrer's relationship to Sharpton, who is reviled by many Jews.

According to two of the Democrats there, state Sen. Carl Kruger and City Councilman Michael Nelson, the participants discussed using an inflammatory New York Post cartoon showing Ferrer kissing the behind of a grossly overweight Sharpton.
And not only Bender but now-FCR spokesman Joe DePlasco were involved in the story:
The Democrats attending included Kruger, [Council Member Herb] Berman, [Assemblyman Steve] Cymbrowitz, Nelson and Assembly members Frank Seddio, Bill Colton and Adele Cohen. Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Weiner sent staff.

Also present were numerous party district leaders, such as Mike Geller, Jacob Gold and Bernard Catcher. Many have been associated with the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Brooklyn, which Berman and Catcher lead.

[Fran] Miller said she did not know who paid for the food - which included helpings of lobster, crab, squid and shrimp - or chose the site. But one participant said he believed that Bruce Bender, a former chief of staff to Berman, had covered the bill. Bender, now a senior vice president with developer Forest City Ratner, also helped organize it, the source said.

...Asked whether those who pushed the anti-Sharpton line would be kept out of a Green administration, Green spokesman Joe DePlasco noted that no one had tied the meeting to the anonymous anti-Sharpton campaign.
More recently

As the Observer reported 12/19/06, the clubs holiday party attracted the likes of Democratic county leader Vito Lopez, Rep. Jerry Nadler, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, and Assemblywoman Joan Millman.

In April 2008, the Voice's Tom Robbins, who resigned yesterday in sympathy with Barrett, wrote:
Kruger is a product of one of New York's last and best-functioning political machines, the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Canarsie. He launched his political career the proper way, as an aide to one of the club's proudest sons, former Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink. When the local state-senate seat became vacant in 1994, Kruger got the nod. He is now so popular that Republicans don't even bother running against him. In his last race, he got 95 percent of the vote.

Despite that electoral comfort zone, Kruger has banked some $1.6 million in his campaign kitty, much of it from city real-estate moguls who appreciate his support. This is more money than even the senate's mighty leader, Joe Bruno, has in his own war chest. Kruger's campaign coffers earned so much interest last year that he had to pay the IRS $22,000 in taxes.
Maintaining power

Political operative and gadfly Gary Tilzer explained how it works in an October 2008 Daily Gotham post:
The late former Assemblyman Tony Genovese, who made the Thomas Jefferson democratic club into a powerhouse with the late county leader Meade Esposito, invented the scheme which uses member items and other government funds to build political power for their club in their district. They set up an umbrella nonprofit called New Perspectives that received and distributed government funds to most of the local nonprofits in their community... Genovese and Esposito’s genius created the umbrella nonprofit funded by the government tied to the clubhouse to keep the Thomas Jefferson Club powerful in an era in which most clubs were dying off.

Since that time, elected officials and consultants throughout the city have copied Genovese’s umbrella nonprofit model. Brooklyn Democratic Leader Vito Lopez, an early protégé of Genovese, funds the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Center as an umbrella-type nonprofit with millions of dollars in government patronage to his district... Former Thomas Jefferson Club leader Bruce Bender, now working for as chief lobbyist for Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner, helps fund Borough President Markowitz’s umbrella nonprofit Best of Brooklyn.

Note: in a comment, Council Member Lew Fidler, the main subject of Tilzer's post, stated that "about 95% of the facts presented in it are simply either totally untrue or maliciously constructed half truths."

Maybe, but the Lopez and Bender mentions are pretty solid.