He’s retired, out of politics,” says Brooklyn district leader Geoffrey Davis regarding former Democratic party boss Clarence Norman. But then again, Davis adds, “Does anyone ever really retire?”
Since his return from prison in 2011, Norman has indeed steadily reasserted his influence. Starting with Ken Thompson’s successful 2013 effort to topple his nemesis, District Attorney Joe Hynes, Norman has played a key role in local elections. This past May, Norman effectively chose the Brooklyn party’s candidate for surrogate court judge on this fall’s ballot.
Judge selection may not sound like a consequential move, but backing candidates is one of the party organization’s main functions. And picking judges has been a primary concern of the current Democratic boss, Frank Seddio.
Norman went to prison for a slew of campaign violations, including extortion in civil court judge campaigns. His return to backstage influence raises important questions about the future of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party. That’s especially the case because many insiders predict that Norman, via his ties to the ascendant Hakeem Jeffries wing of the party, will exert plenty of influence when it comes to choosing Seddio’s successor.
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For various county party organizations, the local courthouses function like a Tammany Hall patronage mill, albeit for white-collar types. Queens Democratic boss Joe Crowley, for example, has long ensured that his cronies control that county’s surrogate court, where unclaimed estates serve as a piggy bank for connected lawyers. Crowley’s consigliere, Gerard Sweeney, reportedly collected more than $30 million from 2006-2016 for his work “administering” the estates of people who died without heirs.
— Seth Barron (@SethBarronNYC) July 14, 2016
The civil branch of Queens Supreme Court that Crowley and Sweeney run is considered by many to be a “foreclosure mill.” Frank Seddio, whose law firm represents lenders, has been trying to help Brooklyn’s civil Supreme Court match that rep. Two judges who have worked on behalf of borrowers have both fallen out with Seddio (and as a result, both were smeared in the New York Post). In her federal lawsuit against Seddio, former judge Laura Jacobson alleges that the party boss helped ensure a former bank attorney would oversee the accelerated foreclosure process in Brooklyn.
During Norman’s reign as party leader in the 1990s and early 2000s, several Brooklyn judges he helped elect found themselves in the headlines, although not because they were fighting on behalf of the little guy. One Kings County Supreme Court judge accepted cash as wells as cigars and rum in exchange for favorable divorce proceedings. Another was caught taking $18,000 in unmarked bills in court. Meanwhile, one of Norman’s surrogate court judges, Michael Feinberg, steered millions in excessive legal fees to a longtime colleague. After Feinberg was forced out, his replacement was none other than Frank Seddio, who resigned two years later amid allegations that he funneled campaign money to his inner circle.
In 2003, Hynes began to investigate Norman, his former ally, for allegedly “selling judgeships.” The editorial boards and Mayor Bloomberg cheered Hynes’ crusade, although many insiders suspect that the DA was motivated mainly by his anger at Norman, because he felt that the party boss didn’t work hard enough to squash Sandra Roper’s upstart 2001 campaign for him. Between 2005 and 2007, Brooklyn prosecutors — led by Hynes hatchet man Mike Vecchione — brought four trials against Norman. After scoring various convictions for minimal campaign infractions, Vecchione nailed Norman for forcing civil court judge candidates to pay his preferred consultants.
Late in his ill-fated attempt to fend off Ken Thompson’s 2013 bid to unseat him, Hynes began warning of Norman’s role in helping Thompson’s campaign. But the charge didn’t help the six-term incumbent, whose tenure was marked by a large number of wrongful convictions. In last year’s race, Norman — via his longtime ally, political consultant Musa Moore — initially supported Patricia Gatling, one of the two black candidates in the race. After first pocketing between $18,000 and 30,000 from Gatling, Moore then began to work for Eric Gonzalez, pocketing another $30,000 from the eventual winner. Such handiwork puts the former party boss on better terms with the current DA.
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While Norman has mostly operated behind the scenes, his name surfaced in the headlines last year during the Bedford Armory controversy. BFC Partners, the project’s developer, pledged at least $500,000 to the Local Development Corporation of Crown Heights, which Norman oversees. Norman was allied with Laurie Cumbo in her reelection bid last year against Ede Fox, who made the Armory a central issue. Critics of the project fear that it will only contribute to the area’s gentrification, but political players gain far more by working closely with developers than against them.
The transfer of properties at Surrogate Court also can accelerate gentrification. Norman’s pick for that position, Civil Court Judge Harriet Thompson, has been part of a team of Brooklyn judges tasked with reducing the backlog of foreclosure cases in Brooklyn. While Thompson reportedly closed nearly 400 cases in 2017, whether she did so on terms favorable to lenders or borrowers is not clear. Her actions in such proceedings would be fair game if she faced a competitor in the race, however.
But at the moment, Thompson has no challenger. According to veteran Brooklyn political consultant Gary Tilzer, who has managed several successful campaigns by judge candidates not backed by the party, the uncontested race is part of a larger trend. “The reform political clubs in Brooklyn no longer care about challenging the machine,” laments Tilzer. “And the courthouse is the lifeblood of the party.”
One reform-oriented group that is calling attention to party decision-making, New Kings Democrats (NKD), was recently accused of “political gentrification” by a handful of black district leaders. NKD is organizing a “Rep Your Block” campaign aimed at expanding membership in the party committee. “We’re trying to do basic things like get open agendas for the committee meetings, yet we’re seen as the enemy,” says NKD president Brandon West.
District leaders appear to fear that NKD’s effort could eventually undermine their current power to pick the next party leader. Norman, among others, is taking a keen interest in who that figure will be. The current favorite is Walter Mosley, who occupies the Clinton Hill assembly seat formerly held by his mentor, Hakeem Jeffries. Mosley has made no secret of his interest in becoming the next party boss. The only question is whether he will challenge Seddio this September or two years from now.
Mosley’s ascension would expand Jeffries’s control over the party, and Norman has longstanding ties to Mosley too. Seddio’s base is in South Brooklyn but he’s also close to Borough President Eric Adams as well as to the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats and other political clubs. Yet other than control over the courthouses, ballots and other turf, it’s not clear what any of the factions of the Brooklyn Democratic Party actually stand for.
What is clear is that Clarence Norman, still only 66 years old, shows no signs of retiring anytime soon.
Photo: THE BOSS: Frank Seddio. Credit: Asaf Shalev.