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After Clarence Norman: Is Reform Possible?
by Amy Ngai
Clarence Norman, a notorious political powerhouse in Brooklyn, was recently convicted of three felony counts and one misdemeanor for soliciting and receiving illegal campaign contributions. The unanimous verdict is just the latest installment in a larger investigation into the claim that judgeships are for sale in Brooklyn. District Attorney Charles Hynes, who himself once had the support of Norman and the Brooklyn Democratic organization, has been pursuing this case since 2003.
Although Norman, who has now given up his seat in the State Assembly and his leadership of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, was not charged directly with selling judgeships, the case has brought needed attention to the process by which judges are nominated and elected, and to the political potency of the Brooklyn Democratic organization. The growing scandal prompted Mayor Michael Bloomberg to call for a reform of the judicial selection process and the political patronage that surrounds the process. “It’s high time to clean out the smoky backrooms of the judicial selection process,” the mayor said at a recent event for Citizens Union (the good government group affiliated with Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.)
Hynes’ prosecution of Norman and the inquiry into the workings of the Brooklyn Democratic organization have also illuminated the undemocratic process of filling vacancies in elected office.
FILLING NORMAN'S SHOES
The Norman verdict created a political vacuum, opening up two leadership positions in the Brooklyn Democratic Party and creating a vacant seat in the State Assembly. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the worst kind of party politics has guided the selection of all three posts, even the elected office.
In a closed selection process at the St. Mark’s School in Crown Heights, 127 members of the party county committee chose Reverend Karim Camara, a colleague of Reverend Clarence Norman Sr., as the Democratic nominee to replace Norman Jr. in the 43rd Assembly District.
Geoffrey Davis, the candidate of the Independence Party, in an interview with the New York Sun likened the process to a “Mafia style” selection when “the Godfather goes to jail and picks his successor.” Also running is Kenneth Cook, a previous candidate for Brooklyn Borough President. He has the support of the Republican, Libertarian and Conservative party.
The Democratic nomination not only virtually ensures Camara’s victory in the special election in the overwhelmingly Democratic district but, with the power of incumbency and the lack of term limits in the state house, he has, in effect, a lifetime appointment to a supposedly democratically elected office. Norman represented the district for 23 years and probably could have kept it for another 23 had he not been convicted and subsequently removed from office.
Additionally, current legislative measures actually perpetuate the status quo of keeping the voter out of the political process. According to the Public Officers Law, the governor has the authority to call a special election for vacancies that occur in the middle of an official term. The process requires that party nominations, filing of petitions, certification, and election must occur within 30 to 45 days. This truncated calendar eliminates the primary and allows for the closed-door nomination process instead. This fuels the notion that voters do not have a say in the selection of public officials and gives even the emasculated political machines a way to wield power.
Rank and file Democratic Party members also had no voice in the selection of the two leadership positions vacated by Norman. In a closed procession, the county organization picked Assemblymember Vito Lopez as the new county leader for the Brooklyn Democratic Party and party loyalist Moses Moore for Norman’s district leader post.
REFORMING THE JUDICIAL PROCESS
Although reform of party practices by the parties themselves seemss implausible, Mayor Bloomberg apparently believes judicial selection can be removed from political influences. In his speech at Citizens Union, he declared, “It’s time to take the back-room deals and politics out of our judicial system and move toward a merit-based system for the appointment of judges.” He called for the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to review all candidates for judge before they go before the voters. This would be similar to the appointment process for criminal and family courts. Such a change requires approval by the state legislature.
His reform proposal comes in response to a number of recent controversies, including the creation of a second Surrogate Court position for Brooklyn. As reported by Gotham Gazette, “In the middle of the night, both houses of the legislature passed a bill to create 21 new judgeships throughout the state.” Governor George Pataki signed the bill into law. Because the law passed after August 1 –- after the filing deadline for the September primary -- Brooklyn’s political leaders were able to appoint yet another crony to an elected position. For that plum position, the political machine chose longtime Norman supporter Assemblymember Frank Seddio.
In the case of the other Surrogate's Court seat in Brooklyn, both the Democratic machine and reform activists have taken their gloves off. The seat was left vacant after Judge Michael Feinberg was ousted because of misconduct. Despite efforts by the party backed candidate Diana Johnson to challenge the victory of reform candidate Margarita Lopez Torres in the Democratic primary, Torres won. A recount of questionable affidavit ballots ordered by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court doubled Torres' lead from 109 votes to 205 votes in the final count.
Amy Ngai is program associate of Citizens Union Foundation (publishers of Gotham Gazette).
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