This election year is changing that, as Owens, a longtime Brooklyn activist and former candidate for Congress and City Council, Lincoln Restler and other reform candidates make their move to wrest control of the county machine from Assemblyman Lopez.
The influential legislator enjoys the support of a majority of the borough's 42 male and female democratic district leaders - unpaid party officials responsible for hiring poll workers, endorsing judges and, among other duties, voting for the county chairman.
Lopez has used his support to wield influence over the appointment of judges and allocation of city contracts since he took over for disgraced former county leader Norman Thomas.
“I want to make sure that the current county leader does not gain any more strength than he already has,” said Owens, who is running for male district leader for the 52nd Assembly District, which covers Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights, and stretches south into sections of Gowanus and Park Slope.
Alan Fleishman stepped down from the position earlier this year. Owens has two opponents, Jesse Strauss, an attorney, and Steve Williamson, a handpicked Lopez protege.
The reform movement represents more than just a swipe at Lopez, or patronage politics, though those are driving forces. Owens said it's an attempt to refocus the party's base on grassroots organizing.
“I believe there's a lot of room in the 52nd District to mobilize folks and that hasn't happened,” Owens said. As a result, voters “have no idea what the great plan is for the Brooklyn Democratic Party.”
If that's the case, it doesn't mean they lack opinions of their own on party tactics or policy issues, from development inside of Brooklyn Bridge Park to the struggle for senior services in Gowanus; this is Brooklyn, after all.
“People are angry about the issues they care about,” Owens said, and “they still want to feel like they can do something about it.”
Community concerns are often dealt with by district leaders and community boards before they're taken up the line. Owens said he would organize forums and start a comprehensive online newsletter to better connect residents to their local representatives; another priority is raising enrollment among young people in the district.
Owens, the most experienced candidate in his race, has been endorsed by Comptroller John Liu, Councilwoman Letitia James, and his father, former Congressman Major Owens, as well as by several leading community organizations.
But for anti-Lopez candidates like Owens, winning this fall might be an easier hurdle than facing down an angry county chairman. “Sure we're going to be on the outs,” Owens said. “But we're getting into this knowing full well that one district at a time we're going to change things.”