Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Civil Court race becomes substitute for open political rebellion

by John DeSio
Riverdale Review, 08/28/2008

With primary day fast approaching, insurgent Democrats gathered on the step of the Bronx County Courthouse this past week to welcome new members to the "Rainbow Rebellion" and rally for their judicial candidate.

"Like in Washington, we are planning to make history this year," said Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene, dean of the Borough's Assembly delegation, as she introduced Elizabeth Taylor to the assembled media on the courthouse steps.

Greene was joined by the bulk of the so-called Rainbow Rebellion, a coalition of elected officials who have banded together to support Taylor in her race against Maria Matos, the preferred candidate of the Bronx Democratic Party machine and its chairman, Assemblyman Jose Rivera.

A third candidate, Verena Powell, is also running for the seat.

In addition to those members of the Rainbow Rebellion who have been public about their support for Taylor since she announced, a list that includes Greene as well as Assembly Members Ruben Diaz, Jeffrey Dinowitz, Carl Heastie and Michael Benjamin, State Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz, and longtime Bronx power broker Stanley Schlein, the rebels were joined by a number of new Taylor supporters.

Most notable among them was Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, who had actually placed Matos's name on his nominating petitions earlier this month. Also endorsing Taylor at the event was City Councilwoman Annabel Palma. Two other elected officials, State Senators Eric Schneiderman and Ruth Hassell-Thompson, have also signed on to support Taylor but were not present at the event.

At the press conference, Taylor's supporters spoke lovingly of their candidate and her potential on the bench.

"What do we want in a judge? We want the most highly qualified person, a person with an excellent legal background, a person from the community," said Dinowitz.

Dinowitz noted that Taylor's candidacy has brought a majority of the Borough's Assembly delegation to her side, adding that a clear majority of Bronx officials from all backgrounds and corners of the Borough are in favor of Taylor.

"This is The Bronx," said Dinowitz. "This is what The Bronx needs—a politically independent, highly qualified candidate for judge."

Assemblyman Diaz remarked that Taylor's understanding of The Bronx would give her the perfect temperament for the Civil Court bench and would enable her to be fair to the Borough's residents.

"People come into these courtrooms each and every day," said Assemblyman Diaz. "They don't want any favoritism. What they want is somebody who understands the situation, and they want a fair shake. This is why we support this young lady."

The rift between Assemblyman Rivera and the Rainbow Rebellion, and the subsequent insurgent support for Taylor, stem from what one insider termed a "broken promise" made by Assemblyman Rivera last year following the retirement of State Supreme Court Justice Janice Bowman.

Bowman, who is African-American, was forced to retire due to illness, and the Borough's black political leadership had hoped to replace her with another African-American judge. Instead, Assemblyman Rivera and the Democratic machine threw its support behind then-Civil Court Judge George Villegas to replace Bowman and promised the Borough's black politicos that it would back two African-Americans for Civil Court instead.

Last year County supported Donald Miles, an African-American, who was successful in his bid for Civil Court. Rebellionites claim, off the record, that until several weeks ago Assemblyman Rivera had expressed his support for Taylor in this year's election, only to back out of his agreement at the last minute to support Matos.

Allies of Assemblyman Rivera insist this is not the case and complain that Greene and others behind the Taylor campaign never bothered to approach the County machine and ask for its support.

The race has also become something of a proxy battle for next year's borough presidency. Insiders note that the race also represents a dry run for Assemblyman Diaz's likely candidacy for the Borough's highest office, where he will probably face the machine-backed City Councilman Joel Rivera, Assemblyman Rivera's son.

The race could also decide the future of Assemblyman Rivera's chairmanship of the Bronx Democrats. Should Taylor succeed over Matos, the Rainbow Rebellion is expected to mount a challenge to Assemblyman Rivera's leadership, according to Rebellion insiders.

For his part, Assemblyman Rivera has described the disagreement as a small family fight and has publicly stated that he expects Bronx Democrats to unite following the September 9th primary.