Volume 75, Number 7 | July 6 - 12, 2005

Villager photos
From left, David McWater (coaching the Lower East Side Gauchos), Allen Bortnick and Roberto Caballero.

Shots are traded, but not counted, in East Village political bar brawl

By Lincoln Anderson

Capone and Ness move over. Make room for McWater, Bortnick, Caballero, Kavanagh, Brightharp, Mendez, Doc Holliday and the whole cast of characters.

In the latest salvos in the East Side alcohol war, the bar-owning chairperson of Community Board 3 is firing back at candidates in the District 2 City Council race and a pair of political operatives, calling them hypocrites for their attacks on him and the candidate he’s supporting, Rosie Mendez.

David McWater said he had to laugh when he read The Villager’s article about a forum hosted by the Village Reform Democratic Club at which six of the seven District 2 Council candidates present vowed not to take financial contributions from bar owners from that point forward. Mendez was the only candidate who wouldn’t take the pledge at the May forum, noting that a bar owner who she didn’t name was a friend and that she had taken a contribution from him. She was obviously referring to McWater, a longtime ally and former neighbor who is chairperson of C.B. 3. He also owns half a dozen bars, including Doc Holliday’s, the Library, Nice Guy Eddie’s and Julep on Avenue A and Vasmay Lounge on E. Houston St.

McWater charges that a leading candidate in the race other than Mendez, as well as the political operatives have asked for his support — and that one of the operatives even tried to sell him a device to count alcohol shots.

As reported by The Villager, at the end of the V.R.D.C. forum, Allen Bortnick told the newspaper he planned to expose that Mendez had in fact received bar-related contributions from others besides McWater.

A few days later, Bortnick — who is collecting ballot petition signatures for Michael Beys, a candidate in the race — and Roberto Caballero — a former Lower East Side Democratic district leader who is campaign manager for Reverend Joan Brightharp, another candidate — both contacted The Villager to report they had found a smoking gun — maybe make that a smoking beer bottle: They had “uncovered” bar-related campaign contributions to Mendez’s campaign from three other individuals. According to the Campaign Finance Board, two persons, Nicholas Bodor and Raymond Baugham Taro, listed as managers in Flycatcher Management, have given money to Mendez — Bodor $500 and Taro $750 — while Angela Benetos, a Doc Holliday’s bartender, has given $140.

McWater, listed as Flycatcher Manage-ment’s president, has contributed a total of $2,000 to Mendez.

“I own Flycatcher Management,” McWater confirmed. “Yes, I think other employees of mine have donated [to Mendez’s campaign].” McWater said the other two Flycatcher contributors are in “upper management — shareholders, front office people, bar managers — not somebody working for tips.”

He didn’t pressure anyone to contribute, he noted.

“Obviously, a lot of the people around me are going to care about politics, because I care about politics,” he said.

More to the point, he said, the other candidates and operatives trying to make an issue out of his owning bars and contributing to Mendez’s campaign are being disingenuous — because in some cases they’ve come to him for support themselves or have openly supported him in the past.

McWater says two years ago — when Margaritz Lopez was awaiting a court’s ruling on whether she would be term-limited out of the council or could seek another two-year term — Bortnick and Caballero visited him at his office above his Library bar on Avenue A. He claims they sought his support for Dan Garodnick, a candidate who was considering a run for either District 2 (Murray Hill, East Village and Lower East Side) or District 5 (Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village and part of the Upper East Side). If Lopez had been barred from seeking reelection, Mendez, her former chief of staff, was expected to run for her seat.

McWater recalled of Bortnick, “He stood right there in my business office and asked me for money for Dan Garodnick to run against Rosie. — Now he’s acting like Rosie’s a criminal.

“[Bortnick] tried to tell me how the district wasn’t Latino anymore and Rosie couldn’t win,” McWater continued. “He brought some tall, slender guy with him — he was younger. They asked me not to raise money for Rosie. They said, ‘If you don’t want to raise money for Garodnick, would you at least sit this one out?’ ”

Bortnick confirmed the meeting occurred. At first, he described it as a political “fishing expedition.”

“This guy’s a major contributor,” Bortnick said. “I came to see him about the possibility of supporting other candidates. And I threw out Dan’s name among others. I was not working for [Garodnick]. What I said to him is, ‘You are supporting candidates locally. Would you support others?’ What I was asking about was to see if he would go beyond the reach of Margarita [in] contributing money. I was on a fishing expedition — to see how far this guy wanted to reach and how far his intent in politics goes.”

Bortnick admitted he’s no fan of Lopez, her protégé Mendez or Coalition for a District Alternative, their political organization.

“I do not like Rosie. I do not like Margarita,” he said. “I do not want to see CoDA continue as a force in politics.”

Bortnick, who lives in Brooklyn, sells his services as a consultant and petition gatherer — collecting signatures to put candidates on the ballot — dabbles in printing and, on the side, sells electronic gizmos. On second thought, he told The Villager he had mainly stopped by McWater’s office to interest him in one of the latter he was selling, a computerized bottle nozzle that measures how many shots of liquor have been poured, used to insure bartenders are charging customers correctly and not skimming profits.

“He tried to sell me that too,” McWater said of Bortnick’s shot-measuring contraption. But McWater said he’d have none of it, since he believes in buybacks (free drinks for customers who have had a few or are regular customers). “If you can’t get a buyback — it’s not a like a community. No one wants to go to a bar like that.

“It’s ironic,” McWater added. “This guy who’s trying to trash Rosie on the bars — he’s going around selling stuff to bars.”

Talk about a smoking gun — how about a smoking shot-bottle nozzle?

Bortnick has recently been writing letters to the editor to The Villager attacking Harold Kramer, a co-owner of Raven Bar, for claiming bars can positively affect communities.

Caballero recalled the meeting.

“It was McWater sitting behind the desk, me on the left and Allen on the right,” he said. “It had something to do with Allen and some type of product that he sells to bars — it started with that and then it evolved into a political discussion…. [McWater] said that he’s locked into Mendez and he’s locked into CoDA.”

Caballero keeps a diary with him that he jots things down in. He said his May 15, 2003, entry includes some notes on the meeting.

“Garodnick’s name is in my book for that date — along with some other names,” he said.

Told of Caballero’s diary record, McWater said, “He’s an honest man.”

Caballero claims he said nothing at the meeting until McWater asked about the Committee to Defeat Margarita Lopez, of which Caballero is a founder.

As for some of the other candidates who said they won’t take contributions from bar owners and/or who have made bar-bashing a campaign platform, McWater had some choice words for them too.

In February, candidate Brian Kavanagh met with McWater in his office above the Library, McWater said. The meeting happened after McWater heard about some remarks Kavanagh made at a candidates’ forum organized by Congressmember Carolyn Maloney and McWater invited him down to talk about it.

“The day he met me here, he asked for my support,” McWater said.

Micah Lasher, a campaign spokesperson for Kavanagh, said, “Brian did meet with David McWater. At the time he was already supporting Rosie Mendez and Brian knew that. They had a nice time discussing the race and the issues at hand.”

According to sources, it was McWater who first introduced to Kavanagh the idea of using zoning to limit the proliferation of bars — an idea Kavanagh has touted at candidates’ forums.

McWater charged Gur Tsabar, another candidate in the race, was “actively courting the nightlife industry” — noting that Andrew Rasiej, a former president of the New York Nightlife Association, threw Tsabar a fundraiser at his home.

But Tsabar said Rasiej hasn’t been president of NYNA for a number of years and also, to his knowledge, no longer has an ownership interest in Irving Plaza, the live music club he founded. On the contrary, Tsabar said, Rasiej has virtually remade himself and was a key technology advisor on Howard Dean’s Internet campaign and is currently running for public advocate.

McWater also criticized Brightharp, a C.B. 3 member, for her comments at the V.R.D.C. forum when she said, “We have people on our community board who owns bars — why is that?” He noted Brightharp voted for him for C.B. 3 chairperson in last year’s election.

Brightharp confirmed to The Villager she did vote for McWater last year, saying she did so because she agreed with him on a divisive board issue at that time involving the selection process for the new C.B. 3 district manager. This time, though, Brightharp said she planned to vote against McWater at last week’s election.

McWater — who faced no opposition in winning reelection as C.B. 3 chairperson last week — is weary of the attacks.

“Am I in some kind of illegal business?” he asked. “My money’s as good as Reverend Brightharp’s…. I bet if I said I don’t support Rosie Mendez, they’d all be over at my house in 10 minutes asking me for money,” he said of the other candidates.

Meanwhile, more recently, some anti-bar watchdogs noted CoDA threw a party at Julep, one of McWater’s Avenue A bars, after a training session for petition gatherers. The trainees got free food and drink — though the anti-bar watchdogs zeroed in on “drink.”

“They booked the room. They paid for it. It’s no freebie for me,” McWater said. “I probably overcharged them for it.”

McWater noted that Chris Papajohn, another candidate, recently rented the back room at Cabin, a bar McWater manages.

“I’m a business,” McWater said. “If people pay for the room, they can come in. If someone has a swastika on their clothes, they can’t come in.” Tired of the critics, McWater said, “They’re trying to take me out of the process and keep me from doing what I’m trying to do.”

He was speaking on a cellphone from East River Park as his baseball team, the Lower East Side Gauchos were warming up for practice. “Hey, don’t pick him up like that, you’re gonna drop him!” he warned some players clowning around.

McWater said his relationship with Mendez — and Lopez for that matter — transcends politics. He was their neighbor on E. 11th St. for years.

“How do you turn your back on a friend?” he asked. “All the backyard barbecues…. This isn’t just politics. I practically grew up with Rosie and Margarita. I was 25 when I moved in on that block.”

Said Mendez: “David lived on my block, was a friend for many years and then he had to move. He continues to be my friend. He’s an activist and he’s a good person. He’s just a member of the community who happens to own bars.”

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