The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)
When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics. But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.
“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.
During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.
As part of their platform, the New Queens Democrats called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage. “Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.
Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”
“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”
Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched a website in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which went online in 2013.
Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.
There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.
While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.
New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote effectively decides the winner of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.
The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.
The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “open seat project” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.
Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.
“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”
When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.
How the organizations choose to engage with the public is “a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.
Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee explainers on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.
Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.
“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.
While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.
“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”
Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.
While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.
“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.
Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.
Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, like Westchester County, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.
Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP is willing send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.
In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.
While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller).
Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.
“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”
The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.
"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.
However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.
Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for backroom deals when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent reporting in the news media about patronage.
The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.
Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012 by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.
While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s Councilmatic, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.
“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “Council 2.0” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.
While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.
If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.
The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.
“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”
One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.
Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, which allows people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.
"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.
Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.
“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”
When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post amid a sexual harassment scandal, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and the website was part of that, according to Rizzo.
The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.
“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”
One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.