Judge Finds Against Rivera’s Bronx Democrats

Carl E. HeastieAssemblyman Carl E. Heastie is the legitimate Bronx Democratic leader, a judge ruled. (Photo: John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times)

A State Supreme Court justice ruled this afternoon that Assemblyman José Rivera was not the legitimate leader of the Democratic Party in the Bronx, leaving the organization in the hands of a rival group led by Assemblyman Carl E. Heastie.

Justice Robert G. Seewald of the State Supreme Court in the Bronx ruled that a party organizational meeting presided over by Mr. Heastie in September was legitimate and that a group loyal to Mr. Rivera that took over the stage at that gathering did not conduct a credible Democratic Party meeting. Mr. Heastie was elected at that meeting as the new chairman of the Democratic organization in the Bronx.

The ruling ends one chapter of a long period of infighting within the Democratic Party in the Bronx. The strain had become intense in the last year, with the feuding becoming so high-pitched that two rival groups had operated separate headquarters.

As a result, politicians throughout the state and beyond were reluctant to deal with Bronx Democrats for routine matters like seeking political support and seeking party volunteers for the November elections. To approach either official, they reasoned, would very likely offend the other. Assemblyman José Rivera had been the party boss since 2002, when he succeeded Roberto Ramirez to become the second Puerto Rican leader of the organization.

In recent years, Mr. Rivera has faced increasing criticism from officials who have characterized him as a divisive force among Bronx Democrats. His strength of his leadership in an organization accustomed to winning races has been questioned recently, including when the Bronx machine suffered some striking losses in the Sept. 9 primary.

The most prominent loss was in a borough wide race for a Civil Court judgeship, in which Mr. Rivera supported Maria Matos. However, the so-called rebel group supported Elizabeth A. Taylor, who won by a wide margin.

“I’m happy that the court decided in our favor,” Mr. Heastie said. “I’m ready to get to work. There is a lot of healing that needs to occur in the Bronx. And that process needs to begin immediately.”

He added: “The Bronx has not been looked highly upon lately. And I want to change that image.”

When asked if he planned to meet wit Mr. Rivera, Mr. Hestie said, “I plan to speak with everybody.”

Michael D. Nieves, a spokesman for Mr. Rivera, said that the former chairman was out of the city for the Thanksgiving holiday and had not yet discussed his view on the decision.

“But the judge made a ruling that we’re reviewing,”: Mr. Nieves said. “But we’ll abide by what the court has to say.”

The warring between the two sides reached its most contentious moment on Sept. 28, at a scheduled meeting of the Bronx Democratic Party. At that raucous meeting attended by hundreds of people, a group loyal to Mr. Rivera, led by City Councilwoman Maria Baez, took control of the podium and, by a voice vote, re-elected Mr. Rivera chairman.

But Mr. Heastie, who was chairman of the party committee in the Bronx, presided over a second meeting in the same site, the Utopia Paradise Theater on the Grand Concourse. At that meeting, a majority of the party’s district leaders elected Mr. Heastie as head of the party. In the end, Mr. Heastie had the support of 15 of the party’s 24 district leaders.

After that meeting, both sides contended that they were the rightful leaders of the Democratic Party in the Bronx. But neither side knew how to resolve the impasse, without going to court. In the weeks between the testimony and the decision, both sides sought to work out a deal, but in the end none was reached.

But Judge Seewald’s 27-page decision stated that “upon careful consideration of the facts and circumstances, the court finds that the Baez meeting conducted on Sept. 28, 2008, was invalid and all documents filed thereafter by the Rivera slate are null and void.”

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who is now recognized as the chairman of the Democratic Party’s county committee and who was the plaintiff in the suit on behalf of the group loyal to Mr. Heastie, said that much work remains to be done.

“We’re going to be holding an meting tonight with the elected officials and district leaders and start planning for what we have to do,” Mr. Dinowitz said. “We have to unite the party and bring back people who were on the other side. In some cases, that won’t be easy.”