In one of his first public appearances since becoming engulfed in a sexual harassment scandal that cost him much of his political power in Albany, Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez held a fundraiser Thursday as part of a possible bid for a City Council seat.
Lopez said he was looking into whether he could raise money for a potential campaign. Guests paid between $100 and $1,000 to attend the event at a Brooklyn banquet ball.
The Democratic assemblyman filed to run for a City Council seat earlier this month, despite harassment allegations and a series of health problems.
"It's America," he told NBC 4 New York. "You're saying me as a citizen, based on allegations, I have no right to explore whether to even run?"
"If anything, I've become the insurgent, independent candidate in this race," he said.
The once-influential Lopez lost his job as Brooklyn Democratic party boss and was stripped of his Assembly leadership role last year after allegations emerged that he had sexually harassed female staffers, which he denies. Two claims were secretly settled for $103,000, using taxpayer money.
Outside the restaurant Thursday, two dozen protesters said they don't want Lopez running for any office.
"I'm incensed that a man is abusing his power and abusing women in the process," said Melissa Quesinberry of Brooklyn.
"Shame on anyone who's inside that building giving him money," said Shirley Ranz of Brooklyn.
Lopez dismissed the protesters as supporters of his likely opponent for the Council.
The state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics investigated the settlements paid out to Lopez's accusers. The findings were filed with the Legislative Ethics Committee but haven't been disclosed. Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, appointed as a special prosecutor, is investigating.
The investigation gripped the state political scene last summer with tales of a groping assemblyman and a confidential, publicly funded settlement sanctioned by powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Protesters and some politicians, including Silver, urged Lopez to resign, but he refused, saying his constituents should get to decide who should represent them. They did, re-electing him in November to the seat he has held since 1984.
Silver has said that he regrets making the secret June deal but that the accusers requested it.
Lopez, 71, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1993 and announced in 2010 that he had esophageal cancer. He said in February that he had pneumonia for the second time in nine months, his mobility was limited and his health was "deteriorating."
Still, talk circulated of a possible council run, especially after a panel that draws council district maps crafted one last fall that popped his block into the district he's now filed for — currently held by term-limited Democratic Councilwoman Diana Reyna — rather than the less politically appealing district where he'd been. The maps were redrawn after criticism.
It's possible to run for a district from outside it, but a successful candidate would have to move in.
Also, in New York, an elected official can run for another elective office but cannot hold both offices at the same time.