Sunday, December 26, 2010

Glory Daze - The Mysteries of Nydia Velázquez and Her Powerless Ascension by Laura Nahmias - City Hall News

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Over the course of nine terms, Nydia Velazquez has quietly consolidated her power in New York City politics, both as a significant voice in the Latino community and as a counterweight and opponent to Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Vito Lopez.

When most politicians have the kind of year that she did, between her position with Andrew Cuomo's campaign and her role with a few key local reformer victories, people start chattering about what they want, and where they might be headed. With Velazquez, there are still a lot of people who are not even sure who she is.

In a world where politics is often about press hits and relationships, her underthe-radar maneuvering, in Congress and back in Brooklyn, may have clipped her effectiveness.

But her supporters say her role in the Brooklyn reform movement, which seeks to undermine Lopez's grip on the borough's political machine, cannot be underestimated.

"It's important to think about the landscape in north Brooklyn. Most of the other elected officials are linked intimately to Vito Lopez," said Lincoln Restler, an anti-Lopez state committee member whom Velazquez helped get elected this year. "She is one of a couple of independent leaders."

But because Velazquez makes few waves, others were less certain about her efficacy as a politician. 
Many elected throughout Brooklyn declined comment when asked for their thoughts on the congresswoman, each citing a lack of a working relationship with her.

Much of Velazquez's clout in the reform movement stems from her seniority in Washington and the respect she commands among the state's political leadership as the senior Latina official in New York. This year, Velazquez pushed for passage of the DREAM Act, legislation she sponsored to provide conditional legal status to undocumented students. She took quiet control of the House Committee on Small Businesses, passing the Small Business Lending Act, while earning a reputation for bipartisanship. And along with former city Comptroller Bill Thompson, she was a co-chair of Andrew Cuomo's campaign, taking a more active role than expected for someone in that ceremonial job and then as co-chair of Cuomo's transition team.

When she arrives back in Washington in January, though, her status in Congress will be much diminished, along with the rest of her Democratic colleagues. And as for building up more power in Brooklyn, Velazquez's is never among the names floating as potential successors if and when Lopez's troubles force him from the county leadership.

She wouldn't want the job, said one Brooklyn Democratic operative. "It's too much politics."

Because while most people in local politics know her as an icon for Latinos, few seem to actually know her, even though she has represented a district that is now split between slivers of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, as long or longer than nearly everyone else in the city's congressional delegation.

"I honestly have no idea about her style as a politician," said Lew Fidler, a one-time Lopez loyalist who has since broken off from the county chair. "You couldn't get farther away from my world."
Luis Garden Acosta, founder of El Puente, a community group within

Velazquez's district, said she is not a selfpromoting legislator like Anthony Weiner or Peter King.
"There aren't a lot of press releases from Nydia Velzquez," said Garden Acosta, who has known Velazquez since before her time on the City Council, when she worked for Rep. Edolphus Towns. "Frankly, [she's] too busy, too focused on the campaign at hand, to be putting much time into even publicizing the fact that she's doing it."

"I am physically and emotionally drained," she says, drawing out each syllable of the words. "You don't know what it took Oh my god, you don't know what it took."

Acosta described her passion about issues relating to reform and social justice, but not necessarily harboring any desire to be in charge.

"She's got one speed: intense," he said. "She's absolutely rare, an activist that just happens to be a politician."

That passion comes across the day after the passage of the DREAM Act, as she takes a moment before boarding a plane back to New York to discuss her career.

"I am physically and emotionally drained," she says, drawing out each syllable of the words. "You don't know what it took Oh my god, you don't know what it took."

Her genuine sense of relief, of exhaustion, of dire feeling, allows her to create relationships in Washington, she said. But in a few weeks, she will see much of her leverage disappear: her chairmanship of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as her two-year term expires, and her chairmanship of the Small Business Committee.

Her new responsibilities are within the stateas an advisor to Cuomo's transition team, and mentor to a new slate of reform candidates in Brooklyn politics. Her ideas for Cuomo's administration are not small-bore.

"He has to open the doors, and make government an institution that not only serves the different communities, but also that is willing to recognize that among other ethnic groups like Asian and Latino groups, that there is so much talent, and new blood, that can help him and serve him well," she said. 

"He needs to put together a government and administration that reflects New York."
Velazquez worked with Cuomo when she was on the housing subcommittee in Congress and he was the head of HUD. Her push against Lopez could benefit from a strong relationship with Cuomo, who has his own complicated relationship with the Brooklyn boss.

Meanwhile, Velazquez has also become the highest-ranking mentor of the anti-Lopez reform candidates trying to slowly seep into Brooklyn county politics. Velazquez took Lincoln Restler as her guest to a state dinner, and provides vocal support to Council Member Diana Reyna, another Lopez opponent.

"I think the burden for me is to know that a lot of people who didn't feel they have a voice, that they look up to me," she said. "That I have a role to play in people connecting the dots, that it is important to be engaged, important to believe that we cannot allow for cynicism and disillusion in the political process to take hold."

This is an important mission for her.

She was reportedly offered Hillary Clinton's Senate seat in 2008, but declined largely in order to prevent Lopez from installing a loyalist in her Congressional seat and to continue acting as a foil to Lopez's political machine.

When asked whether that was the case, the congresswoman laughed.

"I do not want to spend my time discussing Vito Lopez," she said. "I do want to use my time and my energy to address the dire needs of my community.