“Look, this election is a whole lot bigger than just one person, especially a little guy like me who needs to stand on this chair,” 28-year-old Lincoln Restler declared as he artificially towered over a packed room at the Brooklyn Winery in Williamsburg a couple of weeks ago. “The machine has their candidate, they’re going to pour all of the resources they’ve got into this district leader race. But, for every hack elected official that they’ve got on payroll, we’re going to have to reach out to 10 of our neighbors.”
The “machine” in this case is the Kings County Democratic Party and its chair, Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Mr. Restler sees his re-election campaign as a critical aspect of the effort to topple what he describes as the corrupt status quo in Mr. Lopez’s organization.
Mr. Restler, who has the honor of holding the obscure position of district leader, is very aware of the fact that despite the lofty rhetoric of his campaign, he’s talking about an unpaid office with few official responsibilities.
“Any elected office, even an elected position you’ve probably never heard of, is a platform to advocate for one’s community,” Mr. Restler said in his speech, still standing on the chair. The crowd rightfully laughed after “you’ve probably never heard of.”
New Yorkers have a hard enough time remembering who represents them at the City Council, State Assembly, State Senate and congressional levels, so the idea of caring about who represents your district on the executive board of the county Democratic organization indeed seems a little laughable on the face of it.
However, Mr. Restler has managed to elevate his position and is often mentioned as a potential challenger for the City Council seat held by Lopez ally and onetime-staffer Steve Levin—and the district leader job is a potential stepping stone. In what some of Mr. Restler’s supporters see as an effort to head off such a possibility, Mr. Levin has recruited Community Board 1 chairman Chris Olechowski to run against Mr. Restler for district leader.
“Lincoln challenged somebody else, and now somebody challenged him, and he’s crying all over the place, and I guess you have a right. He’s shooting from the hip at everybody, including me,” Mr. Lopez put it bluntly. “That’s the name of politics. If I didn’t do anything, people would say that’s not an active political organization.”
Before he was elected by the barest of margins in 2010, Mr. Restler was simply an activist who organized on behalf of the Obama campaign in 2008. After the presidential election, Mr. Restler’s allies approached Mr. Lopez about getting involved in his organization.
“He brushed off our interest in getting involved and eventually told us joining the community board was the only way for us to get active in our neighborhoods,” Mr. Restler said of their efforts when we talked last weekend over huevos rancheros on a patio near McCarren Park.
“We decided we wanted to recruit emerging leaders in this borough to run for state committee,” Mr. Restler continued. “And I promise you, we asked smarter, better looking, more dynamic people in the 50th Assembly District to run before me, and when they said no, I eventually stepped up to the plate.”
In that race, he ran against Warren Cohn, the son of the man who held the post for almost three decades prior. The election, which Mr. Restler described as “seriously intense,” had a rather intense conclusion as well: he won by only 121 votes despite raising more than $60,000, a gigantic sum for a district leader race.
The closeness of the race can be attributed to Mr. Lopez’s significant political sway in northern Brooklyn. One of the largest constituencies in the district is Williamsburg’s Hasidic community, where the largest sect consistently delivers a huge bloc of votes to Mr. Lopez’s candidates. Additionally, Mr. Lopez chairs the housing committee in the State Assembly and has a significant amount of electoral influence in public housing projects, creating a favorable environment for allies like Mr. Cohn in 2010, or an unfavorable one for ongoing opponents like Mr. Restler.
Mr. Lopez actually occupies a Bushwick-based district that neighbors Mr. Restler’s current one, but the similarities between the two end there. Mr. Restler fashions himself as Mr. Lopez’s chief antagonist, and he frequently points out that three of the last four heads of the Brooklyn Democratic Party have been indicted for corruption and hints the same may be eventually true for the current leader, thanks to investigations into a large nonprofit Mr. Lopez founded.
And outwardly, the two could hardly be more different. Mr. Lopez—a gruff, 70-year-old man whose large frame can dominate a small room, strikes a marked contrast with horned-rimmed glasses-wearing, brownstone Brooklyn-raised Mr. Restler, whom The New York Times once wrote “looks as if he could play Harry Potter.”
And, of course, in terms of power, they are miles apart. Mr. Restler is one of just a few district leaders who passionately oppose Mr. Lopez’s leadership, and Mr. Lopez is working to defeat several of them, including Mr. Restler, in the voting booth this year.
“I do know that more people respect where Brooklyn is now than they ever did,” Mr. Lopez said, defending his party from criticism. After ticking off a list of additional African-American, Haitian, Russian and Dominican officials elected in the borough during his tenure, Mr. Lopez exclaimed, “Brooklyn is back!”
When it came to Mr. Restler’s faults, Mr. Lopez focused primarily on his fundraising abilities and the wealth of his parents, which he felt had an undemocratic impact in the race. Indeed, Mr. Restler’s father works in private equity and contributed just over $10,000 to his efforts in 2010, a significant portion of his overall sum (Mr. Restler counters this argument by pointing to a plethora of small donations to his campaign).
“Say it’s disgusting,” Mr. Lopez suggested for this story’s focus. “The headline should be: ‘Can Lincoln Restler Buy Another Election?’”
Mr. Restler will undoubtedly need every penny he can get, however, as he faces what all observers think will be an incredibly tight re-election battle. His former apartment and part of his electoral base in Fort Greene were cut out of the seat in this year’s redistricting process, and the Hasidic voting bloc will be an even higher percentage of the overall vote than it was in 2010. And, complicating matters further for the incumbent, he faces a very credible opponent in Mr. Olechowski, who has an impressively deep résumé for a district leader candidate.
“He’s an eminently qualified candidate, he’s been in the neighborhood for many years, over 40 years,” said Councilman Steve Levin, who asked Mr. Olechowski to run. “He has a professional track record in the community.”
And, as supporters of Mr. Olechowski are quick to point out, he has deep ties to the large Polish-American community in Greenpoint in particular.
“The Polish community—you’re not going to write about it—are working to elect the first Polish community leader,” Mr. Lopez said of the race, suggesting Polish political empowerment should be the focus of this article instead of Mr. Restler’s re-election efforts. “They’re really caught up in his candidacy.”
Mr. Olechowski also heavily framed the election as a way to encourage the typically apolitical Polish community to participate more in civic life, citing the cause as his campaign’s raison d’etre.
“I found it as an opportunity to energize and empower … the Greenpoint community, which really doesn’t have a very good track record of voting in local elections,” he explained. “I thought that there’s a constituency that I’ve been involved with for many, many years, people in the Polish community especially, that I would really like to challenge myself to get them to vote—and not only vote for me because I’m running, after all, for an unpaid political position.”
He declined to overly criticize the incumbent, simply saying he hasn’t heard much from Mr. Restler during his short tenure in office.
“I don’t know what Lincoln has really done,” he opined. “I know he’d like to do a lot of things, but I know a lot of people who would like to do a lot of things. I think the question is: what have you done?”
Mr. Lopez described Mr. Restler’s record in less charitable terms, suggesting Mr. Restler’s primary role is that of an acolyte of another one of his rivals, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez.
“Tell me what he’s done,” he said. “Nydia doesn’t represent much of that area, and he’s up her butt—and that’s fine. He’s right next to me as a leader, and we’ve never met, and he doesn’t want to meet.”
For his part, Mr. Restler and his supporters ticked off a long list of tangible things he’s played a role in, including helping to bring a new supermarket into Fort Greene and organizing the initial petition efforts for maintaining the G-Train service on the southern extension of its route.
The irony, of course, is that despite all the talk of accomplishment, district leaders aren’t really supposed to be doing things. Indeed, Mr. Restler’s touted record largely consists of things unrelated to his office’s perfunctory duties. Nevertheless, he insists that the platform of the position is not only important to deliver results but central to his efforts to eventually expand his reform coalition beyond its current base in gentrifying and upscale neighborhoods in northern Brooklyn.
“I can help lead that effort, as an elected leader, as I would never be able to contribute to from the outside,” Mr. Restler said. “Moreover, every day that I’m sitting there at an executive committee meeting, I demonstrate to people, to Brooklynites, this man who is so feared can be beat.”
Mr. Lopez, unsurprisingly, was less than impressed with Mr. Restler’s desire to fundamentally change the course for the local Democratic Party.
“Does that help build the Democratic organization, does that give energy to Democratic candidates throughout the borough?” he asked. “Infighting does no one any good.”