Un-Correct Wit: The Art of Political Patronage

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Kings County Surrogate Court Judge=-elect Rosemarie Montalbano, left, and Kings County Civil Court Judge Dweynie Esther Paul, right.

Editor’s Note: Un-Correct Wit is the initial column from PoliticsNY Political Editor-in-Chief Stephen Witt. 

You would think with all the trash-talking editorials and stories following last week’s landslide victory of Rosemarie Montalbano over D. Esther Paul in the Kings County Surrogate Court judicial race that political patronage as we know it has ended.

The truth is Brooklyn won either way. Montalbano is a respected jurist. She will serve the borough well, but this doesn’t make Paul any less a respected jurist. Both have the background and credentials to fill the Surrogate Judge’s fiduciary role of determining how assets from the estates of deceased people in Brooklyn are distributed.

The main issue that separated the two candidates was their views on the Surrogate Court’s appointment of the Public Administrator, whose role is to appoint attorneys in private practice to manage the decedent’s assets, while billing the estate an hourly fee. 

Stephen Witt

In some cases, as has been documented in a recent comptroller report and in news stories, when the private practice attorney’s done, the money from the estate disappears through legal fees and other courtroom proceedings.

On this issue, Montalbano backed state legislation to take the appointment of public administrator away from the Surrogate Judge and give it to the mayor. Paul said she believed in transparency and accountability, but opposed the shift of patronage to the politicians at City Hall. 

Another difference between the two candidates was their base of support.

Montalbano’s base was largely the brownstone belt based out of the all-white or nearly all-white Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights “reform” clubs, the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID) and the Independent Neighborhood Democrats (IND).

Paul, the first Haitian-American elected to the Civil Court, had the support of Kings County Democratic Party Chair Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte — also a Haitian-American — which put the progressives and “reformers” in a tizzy that she was the machine candidate.

But in reality, Paul’s campaign was based in Bed-Stuy with a coalition of labor unions, churches and community leaders.  Not South Central Brooklyn where Bichotte is based.

Here’s where things get interesting. 

The state legislation shifting the appointment of public administrator from the courts to city hall was authored by Assemblymember Bobby Carroll, whose grandfather founded CBID. As a politically connected, attorney-laden family, the Carrolls’ know a thing or five about the art of political patronage. They’ve practiced it for generations.

Additionally, as PoliticsNY previously reported, the de Blasio Administration’s court appointments have also been steeped in political patronage.

Here’s an idea. Maybe attorneys’ representing dead people’s estates should be government salaried employees. That takes away the risk of private connected attorneys possibly pilfering dead people’s estates.  

As stated earlier, Montalbano is a respected jurist and we have every reason to believe she will do the right thing. 

But do take note: political patronage has always been a two-way street and those covering it should look both ways before crossing.

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