Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/701 Sat, 21 Oct 2017 08:42:15 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Squadron Departure Spotlights Importance of County Committee http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7128:squadron-departure-spotlights-importance-of-county-committee http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7128:squadron-departure-spotlights-importance-of-county-committee squadron auditorium crop

Former state Sen. Daniel Squadron (photo: @DanielSquadron)


Since Daniel Squadron announced his resignation from the New York State Senate last week, there has been a lot of conversation about “County Committee.” The vacancy in Squadron’s seat will be filled in a special election in November, and state law requires that the Democratic nominee for the seat be selected by the Democratic Party, as opposed to being decided in a primary election.

This means that, in all likelihood, the next State Senator for the 26th District, which includes parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, will be chosen by a group of fewer than 500 people, since the Democratic nominee is so heavily favored in a general election.

This situation has a lot of people asking, “wait, what is the county committee and why do they get to decide?”

Each Election District in Manhattan (about one city block) elects two to four county committee members. These members are unpaid, political party posts, and have no official government role. They are expected to attend one meeting every two years to elect the County Party Chair and other leadership positions. Beyond this one biennial meeting, county committee members are generally only called upon when there is a vacancy.

In 2011, Assembly Member Jonathan Bing resigned from the State Assembly to take a job within the Cuomo administration. A special election was called and the County Committee members from the 73rd Assembly District were convened to choose the Democratic nominee. Dan Quart was selected, and he went on to win the special election with 63 percent of the vote.

More recently, Bill Perkins' victory in a City Council special election created a vacancy in the State Senate, which was filled by Brian Benjamin, who won the Democratic nomination by virtue of a county committee vote.

Adding to the confusion over county committee is that each county committee seat does not hold equal weight. The value of a county committee seat is determined by a formula based on how well the Democratic candidate for Governor performed in that particular election district. You may want to read that bit of random-seeming trivia one more time -- and think about how that weighted system can then affect the election of new state senators and Assembly members.

If this whole process seems onerous and confusing, that's because it is. There is no question that it benefits insiders and folks who have learned how to work the system. But it is the process we currently have, and the one in which we need to work to ensure that we elect the best candidates (while we also work to change election laws to make them more small-d democratic).

This year, the Four Freedoms Democratic Club, of which I am a member, aggressively recruited local Democrats to run for New York (Manhattan) County Committee. We reached out to community activists, local Indivisible chapters, and longtime Democratic club members. Our pitch was simple: if you’re frustrated with politics, or with the Democratic Party, then the best way to create change is at the grassroots level.

Anyone who is a registered Democrat in Manhattan can run for New York County Committee. To get on the ballot you simply need to collect signatures: five percent of the active registered Democrats in that particular election district, or anywhere from 15 to 50 signatures. This year, in Manhattan alone, there are over 40 contested county committee races, which means voters will have the chance to decide who represents them to the New York County Party.

There are those who believe it’s time to do away county committee votes for party nominees for state level seats, perhaps by shifting to the New York City system, which requires non-partisan special elections to fill vacancies. While that type of system seems preferable in theory, these types of special elections have absurdly low turnout. In that Harlem special election in which Bill Perkins was elected, for example, less than 10 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. There is currently a bill in the New York State Senate that would implement such a system, sponsored somewhat ironically by now former Senator Squadron. In our current legislative culture, however, the chances of enacting any kind of meaningful election reform are slim to none.

In the meantime, we must continue to contend with the current system, and that means working to ensure that we are electing good people to county committee. I encourage anyone who is interested in this process to get involved in your local Democratic club. You can find more information about the Manhattan County Committee on the Manhattan Democrats’ website.

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Kim Moscaritolo is a District Leader in the 76th Assembly District on Manhattan’s East Side. On Twitter @kimmosc.

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Squadron Departure Spotlights Importance of County Committee Mon, 14 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Special Elections Deserve Democratic Deliberation, Not Backroom Deals http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7126:special-elections-deserve-democratic-deliberation-not-backroom-deals http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7126:special-elections-deserve-democratic-deliberation-not-backroom-deals squadron ltgovhochulny

former State Sen. Dan Squadron, right, with other officials (photo: @LtGovHochulNY)


When Daniel Squadron released his statement resigning as a New York State Senator, many of us were surprised and disappointed to see a legislator committed to progressive reforms go. In particular, Sen. Squadron fought the LLC loophole allowing corporations to exceed donation limits by contributing through multiple entities treated as individuals, and Squadron cited the dysfunction of Albany as one cause for his decision to step down.

With a district that spans the Brooklyn waterfront and lower Manhattan, the voters who elected a reformer deserve a fair, transparent process for selecting his successor. As Squadron himself has acknowledged, that may very well not transpire.

What happens now?
Because 2017 is not a state election year, a special election will have to be called. Squadron stated that he timed his announcement with the intention the seat being filled, and thereby ensuring district representation, as soon as possible. Governor Cuomo will need to set the date for the special election, which is anticipated to be the same as the general election on November 7.

State election law states that “[p]arty nominations for an office to be filled at a special election shall be made in the manner prescribed by the rules of the Party.”

The rules of the State Democratic Party provide for a system of filling vacancies in political subdivisions (such as Assembly or Senate districts) through election by members of the county committee representing that area. County committee members from that particular political subdivision (such as Senate or Assembly district) come together and vote, in accordance with the county party rules, on a replacement candidate for a special election. The candidate elected by the Democratic county committee then appears on the ballot as the Democratic nominee in the special election.

In Manhattan earlier this year, for instance, the party used the New York County Committee to select the nominee to fill the State Senate seat vacated by Bill Perkins, with a special election held in May that saw Sen. Brian Benjamin elected.

This is one of the few substantive powers that county committee members are empowered to exercise. County committee members, in Kings County (Brooklyn) especially, are afforded few other meaningful roles, and quite often act as a rubber stamp for the party leaders. It is the closest to democracy that we have for special elections, especially since county committee seats are open to any Party member who can collect the necessary petition signatures.

However, when a vacancy occurs in a political subdivision that spans more than one county, such as Squadron’s Senate District 26, the rules of the Democratic Party of New York State permit the chairs of the respective county committees to select the candidate who will appear on the special election ballot. Though Frank Seddio and Keith Wright are the party bosses for Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, the county committee chairs are actually Charles Ragusa for Kings County and Nico Minerva for New York County.

So what?
There are several problems with this system. Two Democratic Party insiders will alone choose who will be the Democratic nominee for this State Senate seat in the general election this year. There will be no primaries.

Because Senate District 26 is vastly Democratic, the nomination process will likely decide who the future State Senator will be. Once elected, on average across the state, two-thirds of incumbents don’t have challengers in their party primaries -- meaning that the nominee is likely to be State Senator for quite a while (there are no term limits in the state Legislature). In other words, two people have the power to pick a Democratic candidate who could stay in office the rest of their life.

The county chairs are under no obligation to state their criteria or rationale for selecting a candidate, nor are they required to consider the opinion of voters or even county committee members. Doing as little as is required would be not transparent to voters and not fair to candidates, and it would also further reduce the power of rank-and-file Democratic county committee members to influence who represents them and their neighbors. This would be disempowering to county committee members who would be stripped of the one important role they would otherwise have.

Whomever is chosen for the Senate position will essentially be handed a seat for as long as they would like to keep it, or, as Squadron decided, they are tired of dealing with the inaction and corruption of Albany and move on to greener pastures.

Citizens deserve to have a say in who represents them in government, lest we want to cast away our democratic principles.

What should the process be?
In his letter to the party leaders, Squadron called on Seddio and Wright to permit the county committee members from both New York (Manhattan) and Kings (Brooklyn) Counties to come together to pick the candidate, and we at New Kings Democrats echo this call. County party leaders have the ethical responsibility to conduct the process with a commitment to transparency and inclusion.

The county committee chairs should defer their votes to the county committee members in a meeting open to the general public to observe.

The parties involved should disclose the weighting of each county committee member’s vote in an accessible and timely manner to ensure that the vote is in compliance with State Election Law. The parties should be diligent and timely in all of their notifications regarding this meeting, including by taking steps to notify committee members by using multiple means of communication (snail mail and email, if not phone calls as well) and identifying the candidates under consideration.

The parties should also work to ensure that the people living in Senate District 26 are aware of the chance to vote in an even more important general election in November. Allowing the party leaders to handpick a candidate with no public participation or communication would be unacceptable.

This instance also impels us to consider whether the rules of the game need to be changed. Reformers from across the state are paying closer attention to Democratic Party rules -- and realizing they are not as democratic as they ought to be.

Just two weeks ago, New Kings Democrats and fellow Brooklyn reform clubs Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, Southern Brooklyn Democrats, and Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform were able to get the Democratic Party of Kings County to pass some key reforms. For instance, the Party may no longer endorse or support a candidate who has been convicted of a felony related to corruption or malfeasance in public office or their party position. Modest changes were also made to the notorious proxy system, which enables the party boss to hold undue power in the county committee, by making it easier for county committee members to designate their proxies to someone else by filling in a blank space following the executive committee chair’s name.

Reformers outside New York City are organizing as well. Ulster County Democratic State Committeewoman Kelleigh McKenzie introduced a set of reforms to the State Democratic Party. Two of those reforms were passed a few weeks ago, and make some much-needed steps toward improving communication with and cultivating participation from Democratic State Committee members.

While both sets of reformers have proposals that did not pass or have not passed yet, the openness of establishment Democrats to accept criticism and work together to form a more functional and democratic Democratic Party is critical at this moment in time.

At a minimum, we hope that the chairs of both relevant counties agree to convene their county committee members within Squadron’s district and fairly endorse a candidate. This is in the best interest of democracy, and of the Democratic Party. We can’t cry foul at the Republican Party’s attempt to forgo democratic processes across the country, and be caught doing the same here in New York.

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Brandon West and Anusha Venkataraman are on the executive committee of New Kings Democrats, a progressive Democratic club in Brooklyn. On Twitter at @NewKingsDems.

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Special Elections Deserve Democratic Deliberation, Not Backroom Deals Mon, 14 Aug 2017 02:06:55 +0000
Democratic Club Calls On Wright To Choose Between Party Leadership & Lobbying Job http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7074:democratic-club-calls-on-wright-to-choose-between-party-leadership-lobbying-job http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7074:democratic-club-calls-on-wright-to-choose-between-party-leadership-lobbying-job 8453828934 4a9a3cd556 z

Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright (photo: Governor's Office/Flickr)


A Manhattan Democratic club is calling on Assemblymember-turned-lobbyist Keith Wright to either resign from his role as chair of the Manhattan Democratic Party or give up his lucrative job at the lobbying firm Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, arguing that the dual role creates a conflict at the “very top of our County Democratic Party.”

A letter sent last month by the Village Independent Democrats (VID), obtained by Gotham Gazette, explains that holding the Democratic Party leadership position while working for private clients who deal with government agencies “reflects poorly” on the Democratic Party at a time when it is trying to “rebuild and present itself as an alternative in the upcoming 2018 elections.”

The missive, which is signed by the group’s executive committee and club president Erik Coler, followed a meeting at VID’s West Village clubhouse in late June, during which committee members raised concerns with Wright about the job he accepted as government affairs director at the firm earlier this year.

“After [an] exhaustive discussion, VID felt that we had to take a bold stance to strengthen public trust in our public and political institutions,” Coler told Gotham Gazette. “We respect all that County Leader Wright has done for the Democratic Party and for the people of New York, and felt that we had to communicate our views to him.”

Wright’s role at the firm, which began in January, is in a consulting capacity since the state’s Public Officers Law prohibits him from lobbying before the state Legislature for two years after leaving the Assembly. Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, which bills clients $550 an hour for Wright’s services, represents a bevy of government relations clients including Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, real estate developers and labor groups. Among those are also a number of clients whose interests tend to conflict with the goals and values of the Democratic Party, such as the National Tobacco Company, and Metropolitan Package Store Association, which actively opposed raising the minimum wage in New York last year.

The VID letter stops short of a giving Wright an ultimatum, but Coler said the committee hopes that other Democratic clubs will join them in calling on Wright to resign. Wright was not made available for comment on this article.

VID, which is one of the oldest Reform Democratic clubs in Manhattan, according to its website, has among its ranks just one district leader, Keen Berger, who wields six of 24 votes for county leader in the 66th Assembly District. (Each of Manhattan’s 12 Assembly districts get 24 votes, and each district leader is granted an appropriate fraction of that vote, according to a spokesperson from the Manhattan Democratic Party. AD 66 has four district leaders, which allows each one a quarter of the district vote.) However, if other political clubs follow VID in its call, it could pose a problem for the well-liked county leader, who is up for re-election in September.

Government watchdogs, who have in the past criticized Wright’s dual role and called on him to drop one of his posts, commended the political club for speaking out.

“If ever there was a time for Democrats to step up and lead on clean government, it’s now, given what’s happening nationally,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany. “You can’t reconcile being the county political boss with what is functionally lobbying. It’s impossible; there is an inherent conflict of interest.”

The position taken by VID reflects a national trend, in which Democratic Party leaders who have worked as lobbyists representing entities like tobacco or pharmaceutical companies -- which have interests directly conflicting with their stated progressive goals -- faced blowback from their left-leaning base. Prior to his run for Democratic National Committee chair, Jaime Harrison resigned from his lobbying position at Podesta Group -- which reps tobacco companies, coal companies and banks -- for that reason.

In California, progressives are challenging the election of state Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman, previously the party's vice chairman, over their preferred candidate because of actions they percieved as lobbying. Last year, through a private consulting firm he runs with his husband and another partner, Bauman accepted $12,500 a month to aid pharmaceutical companies in fighting a Democratic initiative to reduce drug costs, while also working full-time as an adviser to California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Barry Weinberg, executive director of the New York Democratic Party said Wright has no intention of stepping down from either post, citing the former Assemblymember’s 30-year record of public service, and reputation for integrity. He noted that during Wright’s 24 years in the State Assembly, he voluntarily eschewed any outside income from the private sector.

“Similarly, after leaving elected office and before joining the firm, he made sure that his job at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron did not have any conflicts of interest with his role as County Leader, an unpaid party position,” said Weinberg.

A statement from Wright’s firm, Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, noted that the company has a full-time ethicist on staff to consider potential conflicts of interest.

“The firm will not allow its principles to be compromised, nor will the firm allow Keith to compromise his principles. DHC does not comment on matters regarding specific clients,” the statement reads.

Correction: An earlier version of this article described Bauman as a lobbyist. A spokesperson for the California Democratic Party clarified that Bauman's company is a consulting firm.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

 

Read the VID letter below:

June 27th, 2017 - Village Independent Democrats

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Democratic Club Calls On Wright To Choose Between Party Leadership & Lobbying Job Wed, 19 Jul 2017 23:32:24 +0000
Special Election Shows Need for Democratization http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6187:special-election-shows-need-for-democratization http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6187:special-election-shows-need-for-democratization silver seat KALC

Charles Youn, executive director of KALCA, speaks at a press conference


Any good democracy should reflect a society’s diversity in its leadership. The undemocratic way in which the 65th Assembly District special election is unfolding should galvanize all communities, particularly underrepresented ones, to push for reforms and encourage underrepresented New Yorkers to be more civically engaged.

America does not always have accurate and inclusive representation in government. This is especially true in state legislatures. A few weeks ago, a study released by the New American Leaders Project found several distressing trends. Although 38% of the U.S. population identifies themselves as people of color, only 6% of state legislators come from such a background.  Furthermore, the New American Leaders Project’s survey of non-white legislators found that during some of their campaigns, they were actively discouraged from running by their own political party.

This problem is painfully apparent in New York. For the past 40 years, Sheldon Silver ruled over the 65th Assembly District, commonly referred to as a majority-minority district. This district includes Chinatown, a neighborhood that has steadfastly served as the epicenter of growth and opportunity for many Asian immigrants since the 1900s.

Silver is said to have had a vice-like grip on his seat, and only released his hold when the courts forced him to leave upon a federal corruption conviction. His departure and the subsequent special election should have given New Yorkers the opportunity to vote for new candidates who actually reflect their community. However, residents of the district were robbed of that opportunity.

Since the announcement of the special election, the deck was stacked against any possible candidate outside the local political machine, one which Silver still controls. On January 30, despite the protests of the media and good government groups such as Common Cause New York, a special election date of April 19 was announced, which was five months earlier than the strongly suggested September 13 New York State primary date. Just a few hours later, local blogs and newspapers revealed that the Democratic County Committee, a subset of the state Democratic Party, would determine the Democratic nominee for the special election in one week, effectively ending an election just seven days after its start.

The candidate the local county committee selected on February 6 was Alice Cancel, the wife of the Democratic County Committeeman and political club boss of the Lower East Democrats, John Quinn. Cancel has had no qualms praising Silver.

The quick and fixed process prompted one candidate, Yuh-Line Niou, to refuse to be considered for the Democratic line, stating that “this process is not one anyone would have chosen to reflect the diversity of our district, and to be fully democratic.”

The election in April will be a farce, with only one name on the Democratic ballot line in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 8 to 1. Come fall, the Democratic pick will have an incumbent advantage, and Chinatown may once again be represented by someone who has not democratically earned the right to do so.

This is a mockery of American democratic values, and we must all act to ensure it does not happen again.

There are two ways we as concerned citizens can do so. First, push to adopt the policy recommendations from Citizens Union’s 2013 report on political clubs to curb excess influence over institutions like the Democratic County Committee. The report found that the financial and personal ties within and among political clubs, machines, and individual politicians were suspect and strong. For example, during the 2011 federal trial of former City Council member Larry Seabrook, it was discovered that he had used the Northeast Bronx Democratic Club as his personal ATM. To fix this, Citizens Union recommended that a political club’s financial activities be transparent and regulated.

Citizens Union recommends, among other things, defining precisely what constitutes illegal coordination between political clubs and candidates’ campaigns.

Secondly, underrepresented communities must become more civically engaged. During the midterm elections in 2014, Asian-American voter turnout was abysmal—only 4% of the eligible population voted. We can and must do better.

Civic engagement does not start or stop at the polls. Being engaged means joining a community board, voting in primaries, participating in candidate forums, reading political news, and joining organizations that advocate for people’s rights.

What has happened in Chinatown proves that now is the time for our underrepresented communities to get involved and make a difference.

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Serin Choi is the Advocacy Chair for the Korean American League for Civic Action, a non-partisan non-profit organization that advocates for increased Asian leadership in the public sector.

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Special Election Shows Need for Democratization Mon, 22 Feb 2016 19:58:44 +0000