Lincoln Restler became the thorn in the side of the Brooklyn Democratic Party Machine—and its boss, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, now mired in scandal—two years ago when he eked out a victory over its favorite candidate for State Committeeman in North Brooklyn, an unpaid party-leadership position. Restler, 28, now faces a tough reelection in a redrawn district against community board chairperson (and Machine candidate) Chris Olechowski. They face off in the Democratic primary on September 13.
Remind everybody—what does a District Leader do?
As your District Leader—or State Committeman, as the position appears on your ballot—I’m the leader of the Democratic Party for Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Fort Greene [most registered Democrats in which will be able to vote in this race]. We’re trying to build a new progressive-left Democratic Party in Brooklyn to replace the old guard that has controlled Brooklyn politics since before any of us were born.
You turned a once little-known position into a much more public role. How’d you do that?
Even though my best friend refers to State Committeeman as a step below dog catcher, I see it as a platform to fight for our community. Local politics tends to be pretty obscure, but if our elected officials are actually making a difference on the issues that impact our lives—like our successful effort to stop the MTA from cutting the G Train route or creating more farmer’s markets, community gardens, and neighborhood parks—then people take notice.
Your district was redrawn—how did that happen, and how do you think it’ll affect the race?
I have been an outspoken critic of Brooklyn Machine boss Vito Lopez and, accordingly, he relished the opportunity to cut my old apartment out of the district I represent during the recent redistricting process. I represent a remarkably diverse district, but a majority of actual voters comes from the Hasidic community in Williamsburg. When we were victorious two years ago, we won 80 percent of the vote in Fort Greene, the Northside, and Greenpoint—but only won the election by 121 votes because of the power of the Hasidic block. This election is going to be just as close and we are going to have to mobilize every independent-minded voter in the district to win!
What’s at stake?
It’s about the future of politics in Brooklyn. Will the Machine stomp out every progressive activist and replace him with a yes man? Or will neighborhood residents come to the polls and stand up for the guy who has been standing up for our neighborhood? The gentleman challenging me has been spearheading efforts to impose a moratorium on liquor licenses for new bars and restaurants in North Brooklyn. He tried to shut down the Williamsburg waterfront concerts, and even led a war on Sunday brunch! I think focusing on these issues works to divide our changing community, and we need a more nuanced perspective to bring people together.
How will Vito Lopez’s recent censure by the Assembly for sexual harrassment, and his decision to step down as Brooklyn’s Democratic Party chairman, affect your campaign?
The Machine still controls a big block of votes—especially in the Hasidic community. The revelations that Vito is a sexual predator have brought even more attention to this scandal-scarred figure and his corrupt reign atop the Brooklyn Democratic Party. His [political] demise represents an opportunity for us to build a new Brooklyn Democratic Party that finally reflects the values of Brooklynites. If we are ever going to create a national Democratic Party we’re going to be proud of, then we should be forging the model in a bastion of progressivism like Brooklyn.
What’s wrong with the DemocraticParty in Brooklyn?
The old Democratic Machine has been more focused on maintaining its patronage mill than addressing the needs of our neighborhoods. What we’re trying to prove is that progressive elected officials committed to the reform values of transparency, accountability, and integrity deliver better results for our community.