“It looks like somebody’s birthday,” a lady at the bar says, describing the six balloons floating beside an empty stage. She’s close—it looks like a Bar Mitzvah. Maybe it’s because of the several Chasids standing around like made men; or the smiling father, shaking hands and soaking up the congratulations for the accomplishments of his son—the man of honor—who still looks like a bit of a kid, like he has yet to grow into his curly mop of hair.
But this is not really a Bar Mitzvah at Teddy’s, in Williamsburg, tonight. It’s the victory party for Lincoln Restler, the newly minted Democratic leader of Brooklyn’s 50th Assembly district, which encompasses Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Fort Greene. He’s a reformer who defeated his establishment opponent, the son of a 27-year incumbent who took the job a year before Restler was born. The win was considered a blow to the borough’s corrupt Democratic machine, run by Assemblyman Vito Lopez.
The invite said this shindig kicked off at 8, but at five minutes past the only people who’ve showed look like Restler’s aunts and uncles. One of these sports-coated men hands Lincoln the night’s $3 special, a frozen margarita—which, in the dim light, could pass for a virgin pina colada—he accepts before heading to work the door, shaking the hands of the steady stream of new guests. The room slowly fills with counterbalancing youth until you can’t get near the bar, and you have to keep sliding out of the barback’s way. It’s not that the kids weren’t coming. It’s just that they were fashionably late.
When the speeches start around a quarter-to-nine, even the back corner of the room, where there’s a table with plastic tubs of kosher condiments, has swelled with on-lookers. Every under-30 aide and intern in Brooklyn, every progressive-minded local with a beard and glasses, seems to have shown up to celebrate what the bar matron calls “one of the most important moments that’s happened to this community, politically.” Even several political heavyweights have turned up to pay their respects.
Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez is the first to speak. “It’s important to have hope,” she says from the stage. “And that’s what you’ve brought to this part of North Brooklyn.”
The Obama parallels drawn throughout the evening are striking. As the first reformist victor in recent memory, Restler comes to embody the aspirations of an entire movement: he is the face of success, the proof that the good guys can win just by fighting hard—even though he holds a low-level post, even though most of the people in this very room still don’t know what his job is. His victory is treated as a triumph of the grassroots, of the forces fighting against dishonest representation. Velazquez tells him, “This is the people’s victory!” Councilwoman Letitia James calls him “a small rock in the ripple of corruption.”
“Reform has come to Brooklyn!” she shouts. “You are the father of the revolution. I’m the grandma of the revolution.”
Not unlike Obama, Restler right now seems to easily absorbs his supporters’ projections. Like any candidate he can be prone to speaking in platitudes and slogans. (Though I’ve heard him speak passionately, if briefly, about specific local issues, like a need for a supermarket on Myrtle Avenue.) A few days before, a local activist emailed me, suggesting I interview Lincoln “and find out what the muthafucka stands for.” But tonight is not the night for wonky talk: it’s a time for celebration, for hard-earned self-congratulations.
When Restler finally takes the stage, his voice loses the soft-spoken lilt it’s had as he worked the room and adopts what could only be called an Obama-like inflection. On stage, he talks like a preacher. He’s charismatic, cracking jokes, always smiling. As for the content, he thanks a lot of people of whom you’ve never heard.
“When are we gonna start the ‘Lincoln for President’ chant?” one onlooker at the back of the room cracks to a friend.
When Restler finishes, the Elias Meister Group, a jazz combo, starts its regular Wednesday night set, which has been delayed an hour for the speechifying. The room loosens up. I sip whiskeys with Daniel Herbert, an acquaintance whose fantasy baseball league Lincoln declined to join, citing a busy schedule.
“We’re gonna remember this night when Lincoln’s the mayor,” he tells me. “Or president, or something.” It’s obviously what everyone in the room is thinking.