Gotham Gazette

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Reformers Take Latest Battle in Brooklyn Democratic Party Civil War

(l-r) Top: Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, Antonio Reynoso, Nydia Velazquez, Hakeem Jeffries; Bottom: Eric Adams, Brad Lander, & Jumaane Williams

Update: The 'Brooklyn Can't Wait' campaign ran 20 candidates for district leader who pledged to reform the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Thirteen of them, including incumbents, won their races in the June election. This gives reformers significant leverage, but likely not a majority of District Leaders, as the party moves into its next phases. Read the full story below for background and other context about the 'civil war' in the Brooklyn Democratic Party:

Brooklyn is the center of political power in New York City, and its influence has grown in recent years. It’s the home borough for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, considered among the top candidates to be the next Democratic Speaker of the House, New York Attorney General Letitia James, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Comptroller Brad Lander, and others. The borough was instrumental in electing Adams and his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, also a longtime Brooklynite.

But the Brooklyn Democratic Party — one of the largest county organizations in the country, representing 1.14 million registered Democratic voters — is in turmoil, contending with an internecine conflict between county officials clinging to power and a slate of young reformers seeking to depose them. The next battle in this civil war will be decided in this month’s elections, which could have broad ramifications for the political landscape across the city’s most populous borough and beyond.

The conflict has played out publicly over the last year. The county party leader, Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, fended off calls for her resignation after her husband allegedly made derogatory remarks about a sitting Assemblymember, the latest in a list of complaints lodged against her.

More recently, the party has faced allegations of forging ballot petition signatures, signing up people as candidates for county committee seats without their consent, and appointing dead people to empty party posts – several good government groups have called on Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonazalez to investigate the forgery allegations even as his office is already examining the appointments of dead people and people without their knowledge to party positions. And Hermelyn herself has been accused of retaliating against party officials who refuse to toe the party line, all while running the party with limited transparency and making attempts to marginalize opposing views.

There are many competitive and contentious local races playing out this month for local party positions as well as seats in the State Assembly, while reformers also look to boost the progressive slate in the imminent Democratic primaries for Governor, Jumaane Williams, and Lieutenant Governor, Ana Maria Archila while the party establishment backs Governor Kathy Hochul and Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado. The lines drawn are indicative of battles over the last several years, with each round of elections intensifying the split.

All Politics Local
County parties are the most local form of party governance. The Kings County Democratic Party’s state committee is made up of 44 district leaders – one male and one female from each Assembly district – who are unpaid party functionaries elected every two years and who choose the party chair. District leaders also help craft the party’s policy positions and candidate endorsements, nominate poll workers and pick candidates for Civil and Supreme Court judgeships. District leaders often wind up becoming candidates for City Council and state legislative offices.

In 2020, Assemblymember Bichotte Hermelyn, who represents District 42 centered in Flatbush and is also the elected female district leader, became the first woman to lead the Brooklyn Democratic Party, succeeding former longtime county boss Frank Seddio. There are also nearly 5,000 county committee positions, which are mostly unfilled, elected from election districts that cover small numbers of city blocks. The county committee members help pick judicial candidates, choose the party’s nominee in certain special elections, and otherwise help in deciding the policy platform for the party. 

Though it isn’t always apparent to the public, the county party wields significant power. The party throws its fundraising and organizing heft behind its chosen candidates in local elections, often all but assuring their victory. It selects judicial delegates who, more often than not, run unopposed and go on to decide the candidates that will seek election as judges, a process tightly controlled by party bosses.

The party chooses nominees in special elections, a process typically more akin to an appointment than an election. And party bosses help fill top positions at the New York City Board of Elections, a patronage hiring process that has long been a target for reform.

County parties can be influential but not nearly always determinative in many races for City Council, the State Senate and Assembly, the borough presidency, and citywide seats. In Brooklyn in the 2021 city elections, for example, the county party appeared to be helpful to Eric Adams in his victorious mayoral campaign, but reform-minded progressive Antonio Reynoso, who is aligned with the movement seeking to remove Bichotte Hermelyn and her allies, won the borough presidency. And while Public Advocate Williams and Comptroller Lander are Brooklynites holding the other two citywide positions along with Mayor Adams, they are more aligned with the reformers than the county party.

When Bichotte Hermelyn took over the party, she promised a new era of transparency, collaboration, and reform. “I have been extremely vocal about our plan for more transparency and accountability in our financials,” she told City & State in March 2020, after taking over the party that January and conducting a listening tour with Democratic clubs in the borough.

In December that year, a marathon 26-hour organizational meeting of the party took place over two days in which reformers led by the New Kings Democrats club attempted to pass a series of rules changes but were overruled. Shortly after, in an interview with City & State, Bichotte Hermelyn said, “As a Black woman, I’m trying to save the party, I’m trying to be unified, but I’m trying to do the right thing. I consider myself a reformer, a reform county leader because that’s where I came from. I didn’t come from the establishment. I want to work with New Kings Democrats, I do. And I want every other group and clubs to work with each other and be more active.”

But several elected officials like U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Borough President Reynoso, along with a group of reform-minded insurgent candidates, say she has led the party with an iron fist, silencing dissent and shutting down efforts to improve party functioning. They have tried to bring attention to various problematic long-running practices – the use of proxy votes, petition challenges, running candidates without their consent – to highlight what they see as fraud and corruption as they attempt to bring more democracy to the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

The split in the party is also apparent at higher levels. While Rep. Velazquez has been aligned with the reformers, Rep. Jeffries, her fellow Democrat, has backed candidates favored by the county party running against progressives. Jeffries recently endorsed Dionne Brown-Jordan’s county-backed primary challenge against Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus. Brown-Jordan is currently a district leader in the 46th district and assistant treasurer for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, while Frontus is aligned with the New Kings Democrats.

Notably, Jeffries did not follow the Brooklyn Democrats in endorsing Adams mayoral campaign. Jeffries and Adams have a history of backing opposing candidates but have long insisted that they are not political rivals. Jeffries instead endorsed Wiley, though he eventually announced Adams as his second choice in the ranked-choice primary.

Reform from the Inside
The movement to reform the party from within has been underway for years, as far back as 2008 when veterans of the Obama campaign formed the New Kings Democrats (NKD) to help induct young progressives into the ranks of the party. In recent years, NKD has led the “Rep Your Block” campaign to encourage Democrats to get in on the ground floor by running for county committee.

Those efforts culminated this year in “Brooklyn Can’t Wait,” the newest manifestation of the reform campaign backed by several political clubs including NKD, the Brooklyn Young Democrats, the North Brooklyn Progressive Democrats, the Lambda Independent Democrats, the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, South Central Brooklyn United for Progress, and the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats.

They have aligned behind a slate of 20 candidates who are running for district leader in this month’s election – 16 are challenging sitting Democrats while four are incumbents. If all are successful, those candidates would make up nearly half of the 44 district leaders who elect the county chair. While such a sweep is very unlikely, there are many existing district leaders who are either already opposed to Bichotte Hermelyn or are wavering in their support, said NKD spokesperson Tony Melone. “It's kind of a moving target. And my sense is that more and more people are frustrated with what the county leadership is doing,” he said of the potential for reformers to hold a majority of the district leader positions.

The “Brooklyn Can’t Wait” candidates have each signed on to a platform aimed at changing how the party functions, promising broader participation for members and voters, and greater transparency in the judicial nominating process, among other changes. The candidates have also been endorsed by a long list of Brooklyn elected officials indicative of the size and power of the progressive movement out of the borough, including Rep. Velazquez, Borough President Reynoso, Public Advocate Williams, Comptroller Lander, State Senators Julia Salazar, Andrew Gounardes, and Zellnor Myrie, Assemblymembers Jo Anne Simon, Emily Gallagher, Bobby Carroll, and Phara Souffrant Forrest, and City Council Members Lincoln Restler, Jennifer Gutierrez, Sandy Nurse, and Shahana Hanif.

Last year, Reynoso and Velazquez were among those who called on Bichotte Hermelyn to resign following an incident where her husband, Edu Hermelyn – himself a district leader from District 43, which neighbors Bichotte Hermelyn’s Assembly district – apparently made offensive remarks during a meeting towards Assemblymember Maritza Davila.

“It’s gotten to the point where, as elected officials, there’s a really severe lack of respect of culture,” Davila told The City at the time. “I’m not the only one — a lot of district leaders have been disrespected.”

Though the push to reform the party has been ongoing for more than a decade, it’s intensified in recent years. And the complaints of the reformers are many. They say decisions are made by leadership without consulting the rank-and-file members of the party (a complaint that existed well before Bichotte Hermelyn’s time), that incumbents are protected at the cost of inducting new blood and energy into the party, and that loyalty to the party is rewarded over qualifications.

In December 2020, when the party held the 26-hour Zoom meeting for the county committee, reformers had managed to get several new rules approved in the first half of the meeting that would have decentralized power in some ways. But, in the next half of the meeting, those rules were rescinded when a parliamentarian, Rob Robinson, hired by the party, ruled that the vote to adopt the changes violated the party’s rules and a judge’s order.

Prior to that meeting, the party held two county committee meetings every year but has held none since. By law, the party is required to hold at least one meeting every two years.

This year, The City and The New York Daily News have reported on several irregularities in the party’s election operations. The City reported in April that the county submitted forged signatures on ballot challenges to the Board of Elections, an allegation leveled by Rep Your Block. The publication also reported that the party had listed (at least) 20 people as candidates for county committee without their consent. The Daily News found that the party had even listed people who were deceased. Both those cases are being examined by Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office.

Many of the reform candidates also faced legal hurdles when they filed their petitions to get on the ballot. More than 200 individual objections were filed against various candidates, all of them being handled by the county-affiliated law firm of Abrams Fensterman, which was until recently headed in part by Mayor Eric Adams’ chief of staff Frank Carone. Seddio, the former party boss, was also once Carone’s law partner. At a rally outside Brooklyn Borough Hall this spring, reform groups and elected officials called on the party to reject old-school political tactics and “drop the objections” to the candidates.

Brooklyn City Council Member Lincoln Restler criticized the “endemic corruption” of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. “Tragically, it's as bad as it's ever been,” he said, adding that he was “deeply disappointed” in Bichotte Hermelyn’s leadership. “The actions she has taken this cycle are confounding and indefensible and I hope she pays the ultimate price in being dethroned as chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party this summer,” said Restler, who has long been aligned with Reynoso, Velazquez, and New Kings Democrats.

Some candidates have also pointed to more direct interventions by Bichotte Hermelyn. District leaders typically choose election inspectors to prepare poll sites, assist voters and other poll workers. But in certain districts, Bichotte Hermelyn decided to go around incumbent district leaders who are opposed to the county leadership and chose special election liaisons who will get to choose the inspectors, one of the many ways small and large in which the party leader can steer power and pay to allies.

The conflict has also come to a head in very ugly and public ways. In late April, Assemblymember Bobby Carroll, a progressive who represents District 44, publicly expressed frustrations with the party after his ballot challenge against a slate of county-backed judicial candidates was rejected by the New York City Board of Elections.

“So I guess this now means in @AMBichotte’s BOE, she can challenge anyone and no one can challenge her,” he tweeted. “She is breaking the Democratic Party. Rules should be followed but she clearly doesn’t care. Seems like we have our own Donald Trump in Brooklyn.”

Bichotte Hermelyn struck back at Carroll, saying he “failed to succeed at your attempt to throw a slate of people of color & first-time women candidates - off the ballot.”

“The only story here is that a privileged man is claiming the rules are stacked against him when they aren't,” she tweeted.

The county organization has sought to broadly rubbish most of the criticisms leveled against it from the petition challenges to the rules changes.

“New Kings Democrats and their allies have challenged the petitions of lots of candidates, including a slate of Pakistanis and Muslims trying to become active in the County Committee, so their protests about facing challenges are hollow and self-serving,” said Bichotte Hermelyn, in part, in a statement to Gotham Gazette through a spokesperson. “The County Committee has welcomed their participation, including the adoption of many rules changes they have proposed, but they apparently cannot take yes for an answer.”

The statement singled out Ali Najmi, an election lawyer representing New Kings Democrats. “The rules are the rules, even when Ali Najmi and his allies use a registered Republican to challenge Democratic petitions. If there is some difference between what Ali Najmi and his allies do in challenging petitions, and what others do in challenging petitions of candidates he is getting paid to represent, maybe someone can explain that,” Bichotte Hermelyn said. “The Brooklyn Democratic Party is a diverse and unified party, expanding representation through opening up County Committee membership to non-binary Democrats, while New Kings Democrats-affiliated groups in North Brooklyn challenge whether mothers can also run for state senate, an outrageous and sexist action that they have yet to fully denounce.” (The statement referred to a Zoom endorsement meeting of the North Brooklyn Progressive Democrats in which two members questioned Francoise Olivas, a candidate for Senate District 17, if she could handle being in office and the responsibilities of being a mother. The organization later tweeted that the comments did not reflect the opinions of their executive committee.)

New Kings and Najmi said the party’s response was misleading in parts and even outright false. The petition challenges against Muslim candidates for county committee took place in Assembly District 44, represented by Assemblymember Carroll, and neither New Kings nor Najmi were involved. The registered Republican that the statement referred to was one of the objectors to petition signatures filed by Sabrina Rezzy, a staffer for Bichotte Hermelyn’s Assembly office who was attempting to run for district leader in Assembly District 64. Najmi said he did not pick the objector and that they had filed a change of party registration from Republican to Democrat, which had yet to be processed. Nonetheless, Rezzy failed to qualify for the ballot.

“To me personally, [ballot] objections in and of themselves are not inherently bad,” Najmi said in a phone interview. “But I take exception to those objections that are not real objections, that are products of fraud and forgery. So that's the distinction.”

Melone of New Kings also insisted that most of the rules reforms they want have been rejected, citing the December 2020 meeting. The only rule change that has been successful is allowing nonbinary and transgender candidates to run for county committee seats, which were previously split between male and female representatives. “On the one hand, they're including more folks, but on the other hand, they've taken away all the opportunities for those folks to make any meaningful impacts,” Melone said.

In the end, the party chair said the reform movement is not about improving the party but a mere power grab. “Let’s be honest. This is not about rules. This is about power. The so-called ‘reformers’ want it. This is resolved at the ballot box. We will meet them there,” she said, in part echoing what the late Brooklyn county leader Meade Esposito once said, that “today’s reformer is tomorrow’s hack.”

“We want a party that is inviting people in and encourages people to participate and is open to having elections,” said Comptroller Lander, a reform-minded progressive Democrat who previously represented parts of Brooklyn in the City Council and was at the Brooklyn Borough Hall rally, in a brief interview with Gotham Gazette. “That's what a democracy is.” 

“When you have a machine, a party organization that exists, that is going to file objections against any challengers, that's objectionable to begin with. But to be willing to do it fraudulently is no good,” he added. “The way the Brooklyn Democratic Party is currently operating is not consistent with small-d democratic values.”

Melone said that Bichotte Hermelyn has been, at minimum, “divisive, for sure.”

“There were times when there was some give-and-take and there were some compromises. It was few and far between, but in the past, there have been times when county committee members have been able to work out some compromises with party leaders, but that really hasn't happened in the past few years,” he said. He noted that under former county chair Seddio, the party changed rules to hold county committee meetings twice a year and made changes to proxy voting forms to reduce Seddio’s hold over it. “It feels like party leaders are very much in the mode of consolidating power right now. And that's how it's been for the past few years through the pandemic.”

Melone noted that party loyalty has been rewarding for its members, particularly under Mayor Adams’ administration with Carone as a top aide. Edu Hermelyn, Bichotte Hermelyn’s husband, was given a plum position within the administration with a $190,000 annual salary, though he soon resigned so he could keep his unpaid district leader seat, indicating how important it is to the couple that they retain more power in the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Edu Hermelyn was also paid $81,000 for consulting work he did for Adams’ campaign.

“A lot of it feels like the old fashioned patronage system,” Melone said. “And I think that you see it even more in the court system, where people who want judicial positions have a history of contributing money to the party and promoting district leaders in hopes of eventually getting picked for a judge.”

Insurgent Candidates
Akel Williams and Naomi Hopkins are among the “Brooklyn Can’t Wait” slate of candidates who are challenging incumbents allied with the county. In interviews, each of them shared similar complaints about the party as they outlined their reasons for running this year.

Williams is running for male district leader in Assembly District 43 in Central Brooklyn against Edu Hermelyn in likely one of the most challenging district leader races for New Kings to win in the primary.

Williams said he became active in his local political scene in 2018, when there was a groundswell of Democratic activism and insurgent candidates running for office in response to the Trump presidency. Williams knew little of how the political system worked and over time, he “started to realize there's a lot of cronyism and things that are in a way that they shouldn't be,” he said. He tried to run in a primary for district leader in the same district in 2020 but was kicked off the ballot after the incumbent challenged some of his ballot petition signatures before the BOE and was successful. That incumbent, Geoffrey Davis, abruptly resigned weeks later, allowing the county party to appoint Hermelyn to replace him.

Williams, like the other challengers, wants to make the county party more representative of a broader array of voices. “We generally believe in the Democratic Party where dissenting voices should be allowed,” he said. “The way how things currently stand with the current leadership is if you have a different view or a different opinion and you speak up, they find ways to silence you, challenge you or do something to get rid of you.”

“I would go on the record to state that I will support a change in the leadership of the [Brooklyn] Democratic Party, because at the end of the day, I personally believe that I want a party chair, not a party boss,” he said.

“We have not had a district leader race in my community where I live for decades,” said Hopkins, who was chief of staff for then-City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. Hopkins is running for female district leader in Assembly District 59 against State Senator Roxanne Persaud in Southeast Brooklyn. The district’s prominent political power is the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, co-led by former county boss Seddio and Assemblymember Jaime Williams.

Seddio, who did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article, is the male district leader and Williams recently became the female district leader, appointed after the previous one left for a community board job. Hopkins and Persaud are running to replace her.

Hopkins expressed exasperation with district leaders running unopposed for their positions, effectively being appointed by county leadership rather than competitively elected, as was the case with Williams.

“I am stirring the pot…but I'm not attempting to make trouble. I just want people to be aware of what is possible,” she said, insisting that the district’s representatives have failed to pay attention to the issues affecting their communities such as rising housing unaffordability, increasing home foreclosures, and an uptick in scams aimed at the elderly.

Of Williams, Hopkins said, “She's also not moving the needle in any direction. She's just kind of there, faithful for the Democrats, all is well, status quo. She again is not a person that ever is going outside of the box and engaging with anyone that doesn't engage with them first.”

“We don't talk about the role of the state committee or district leader because the status quo is very happy to continue to utilize them to push a corrupt agenda,” she added. “All of this is corruption. And that's a really big word and folks don't like to use it, but I'm using it. I have literally nothing to lose in speaking truth to the powers that be and that's what it is.”

Update: The 'Brooklyn Can't Wait' campaign ran 20 candidates for district leader who pledged to reform the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Thirteen of them, including incumbents, won their races in the June election. This gives reformers significant leverage, but likely not a majority of District Leaders, as the party moves into its next phases. The winners include: Akel Williams, Emile Bazile, Jacqui Painter, Julio Peña III, Lydia Green, Aaron Ouyang, Maritza Davila, Felix Ceballos, Robert Camacho, Shaquana Boykin, Mike Boomer, Joanne Seminara, and Mark Hanna.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated. 

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