Gotham Gazette

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To Build a More Inclusive New York, We Need to Reform County Parties

speaker cojo council

New Yorkers (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to face a barrage of scandals, from sexual harassment accusations to his catastrophic mishandling of the state’s nursing homes during the darkest days of the pandemic, many New Yorkers rightly wonder how the governor and his confidantes have managed to amass so much power in the first place. It’s long been a “best-kept secret” in New York politics that the Democratic establishment, including Governor Cuomo, controls our city’s and state’s politics with an iron fist.

There is an important and overlooked piece of this puzzle that renders politicians like the governor essentially untouchable: the county-level Democratic parties. Until we reform the county party system and put power back into the hands of the people, a small group of elected officials, like Governor Cuomo, will continue to hold too much power, insulated from the constituents they claim to serve, and acting only in their own interest. 

Fortunately, there are clear reforms we can make to the county party system to democratize the Democratic Party and build an open, progressive, and accountable party. 

First, county parties must allow for real engagement from rank-and-file Democrats, instead of consolidating power to serve a narrow range of entrenched interests. That means genuinely opening meetings to rank-and-file members — and soliciting and valuing their input, something that is all too rare and actively discouraged by party leaders these days.  

In December, for example, the Brooklyn Democratic Party held its organizational meeting. A large and diverse coalition of members sought to pass rules to open up the process and encourage participation. Instead, what followed was a 25-hour meeting over two days, where people were silenced on Zoom, points of order weren’t allowed, and hundreds of people were disenfranchised. Bizarre irregularities also arose in vote tallies for several proposed rule changes. 

That sure doesn’t sound democratic, but that’s exactly how the county party wants it to be. The very same Brooklyn Democratic Party used the pandemic as an excuse to not hold meetings at all.

Second, we also need to reshape the County Committee structure to ensure the party is accountable to members. The County Committee is an elected body that decides county party business, including voting for party leadership, passing a party budget, and voting on other resolutions. In my work with New Kings Democrats (NKD), we recruited progressive candidates to run for County Committee, and created Rep Your Block to make it easier to do so. The party establishment fiercely opposed these efforts, even sending people door-to-door to canvas for proxy votes while claiming to be from NKD — and actually taking their votes for the party-aligned candidates. 

That proxy voting system effectively allows party bosses to hold hundreds of votes in their pockets, ostensibly from community members, and use them to quash unwanted, but necessary, reforms. We need to overhaul and replace the proxy voting system to give community members just as much of a say as party leadership. 

Third, we need to minimize the ability of party leadership at all levels to put its finger on the scale and unfairly influence elections. Recently, State Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs issued a scathing statement criticizing candidates who dared mount a progressive primary challenge against Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Instead of lambasting grassroots activists and unleashing bad-faith attacks against anyone who rightly asks questions of incumbent candidates, the Democratic Party should welcome debate and disagreement. The same is true of county parties, which exist to protect incumbents and entrenched interests, at the expense of democratic values.

While these sound like minor changes to a complicated system, they are necessary steps toward our goal: To create a Democratic Party that represents its members and encourages their participation. They may not change our politics overnight, but they will loosen the stranglehold a small group of powerful politicians has on our political system. 

We need to transform our county parties from being transactional vestiges that benefit those at the top, to responsive, accountable organizations that fight for the people. New Yorkers want politicians that represent their interests and their communities. We can start by reforming our county parties and giving the grassroots a chance to grow. 

Brandon West is a candidate for City Council District 39 in Brooklyn. On Twitter @brandonwestnyc.

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