Southern Brooklyn

Dirty Old Men Have Sleazy Sense of Power

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Former Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman and current Assemblyman Vito Lopez, in happier times. Photo by Aaron Short

“Politics are a labyrinth without a clue.” – John Adams

BETWEEN THE LINESMore than a year ago, Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned after he admitted taking part in virtual trysts with other women over the course of several years. The stupidity of that incident — and numerous others that preceded it — has apparently not penetrated the minds of shameless politicians as to what constitutes inappropriate conduct.

For decades, from casting to corporate couches, men in positions of power have taken advantage of women in the workplace. Decades after feminism inspired equal rights for women and brought such matters to light, you’d think the sleazy, obnoxious “boys will be boys” mindset would have fizzled out, but the creepy practice still permeates our culture.

For what it’s worth, let’s call groping, womanizing and related acts the “Dirty Old Man Syndrome,” though age, clearly, has no bearing on the matter.

Have some politicians been popping too much Viagra or do these gropers think they are invulnerable to scrutiny and can just get away with it? Last year it was Weiner. A few years ago Eliot Spitzer had liaisons with several high-priced call girls, which ended his 15-month tenure as governor of the State of New York.

In the latest Dirty Old Man Syndrome episode, several former female staffers for Assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Vito Lopez have accused him of sexual harassment. Within days of the scandal going public, and pressure from fellow Democrats, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, the legislator was stripped of his committee chairmanship, barred from employing young people, and censured after an Assembly committee determined that he had sexually harassed two female employees this summer. Lopez has resigned his post as Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman, but has refused to give up his Assembly seat.

Lopez denies he ever sexually harassed anyone in the face of two investigations being conducted to determine if he did, indeed, break the law. The city’s lone Republican prosecutor, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, is leading one probe. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes would customarily lead the inquiry, but, due to his close ties to Lopez, had to step aside and appoint a replacement. The case is simultaneously being reviewed by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

More than a week ago, the New York Post published portions of a press release from the office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — another politician with a large sphere of influence — which charged the Brooklyn boss with creating “a hostile workplace that included physical and verbal abuse.” It also outlined such brazen behavior as “multiple incidents of physical contact” and placing his hand “as far up between her legs” as he could.

It has been reported that, several months ago, Silver endorsed payments of more than $100,000 — of taxpayer funds — to settle the two sexual harassment cases against Lopez. However, Silver has admitted that authorizing the payment was a mistake and was turned down when he asked Lopez to resign from the Assembly.

Last week, The New York Times reported that five other women interviewed described “an atmosphere of sexual pressure and crude language, with frequent unwanted advances by him and others,” as well as fears of reprisals if they complained. They also said Lopez told some women to wear short skirts and go braless at the office.

Lopez was first elected to the Assembly in 1984 and became the most powerful political force in the borough after he succeeded his disgraced predecessor, Clarence Norman, as the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss in 2005. That post comes with tremendous influence and gives him power in judicial nomination and filling vacant political seats.

Perhaps, this turn of events will produce changes for a party that once ruled Kings County. After the recent election results to replace Carl Kruger, it’s obvious the once-powerful Democratic Party, which had at least a seven-to-one voter advantage, has lots of work to do to regain its potency.

Frank Seddio, a former judge and assemblyman, who is reported to be the front runner to succeed Lopez as Brooklyn’s Democratic Party leader, would have to reform an organization badly in need of reforming. With a party that has a distinct voter advantage, lip service and hollow pledges are no longer tolerable. We’ve heard it before, but when push came to shove, little, if anything ever got reformed. When politicians vow to “clean house,” nothing should be swept under the rug the way it usually is.

More than 200 years after John Adams recited the words above, it’s obvious some politicians still don’t have a clue when it comes to ethical conduct — and some never will. A few elected officials may even believe that their position entitles them to remain above the very rules and laws they legislate.

However, those in power — whether in government, business or the private sector — have a larger responsibility to uphold the laws than the rest of us and, despite their lofty status, any behavior that violates the law can never be tolerated.

You just have to wonder how Vito Lopez would react if a female family member of his was treated in the same manner that he treated his employees.

You might think that, in this second decade of the 21st century, everyone would be respectful and alert to the boundaries that constitute sexual harassment. But, obviously, there are those who still live by an archaic, misguided 20th century “macho” set of standards.

The gist of our moral code is: Treat people the way you’d like to be treated. Anyone, regardless of rank or level of power, who doesn’t get it, does not deserve to hold elected office.

Vito Lopez, who has quickly gone from political boss to political pariah, must resign before he jeopardizes any opportunity for the Brooklyn Democratic Party to regain its former dominance.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.

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