Gotham Gazette

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To Stop the Red Wave in Brooklyn, Democrats Must Invest in Young People


Brooklyn Young Democrats getting organized (photo: @BKYoungDems)

Last month, progressive and reform-minded Democrats celebrated two major wins in the Midwest. In Chicago, progressive Brandon Johnson beat several more conservative candidates in a hotly-contested mayoral election. In Wisconsin, Janet Protasiewicz beat out conservative Dan Kelly in a race for State Supreme Court, giving the court a liberal majority that could overturn the state's abortion ban and end the use of gerrymandered legislative maps.

In carving a path to victory, both Johnson and Protasiewicz relied on an often-overlooked but crucially important demographic: young people.

In Chicago’s mayoral runoff election, the Johnson campaign aggressively courted young voter organizations, and youth turnout in the mayoral runoff election jumped 32% from the initial vote in February. In Wisconsin, unprecedented turnout by college students helped push Protasiewicz to victory. This jump in youth voter participation and activism is part of a national trend: turnout among young voters for the 2022 midterm elections was the second-highest in 30 years.

As ostensibly-deep-blue Brooklyn still reels from a November red wave that flipped three Southern Brooklyn State Assembly seats to the GOP and led to the closest gubernatorial election in a generation, Democratic leaders could learn a thing or two from their counterparts in the Midwest and elsewhere.

One key lesson: to remain viable, the Brooklyn Democratic Party must invest in Gen-Z and Millennial voters and organizers.

The Brooklyn Democratic Party was largely absent during the competitive November elections, failing to provide support to vulnerable candidates despite the clear threat posed by Republicans. As early as 2020, our club, the Brooklyn Young Democrats, alongside Southern Brooklyn elected officials, had publicly and repeatedly warned that our party was losing ground in Southern Brooklyn. But despite the fact that we are the county party’s official youth arm, party leadership has spent the last three years not working with or investing in us but instead trying to de-charter and destroy us.

The Brooklyn Democratic Party’s failure to invest in young people extends beyond its lack of support for BYD. While our organization has mobilized to register youth and other voters in swing districts and to build up young political talent, there's no indication the Party has done the same, despite having substantially more funding.

That's a shame, because young people here are doing the work. During election season, BYD hit the streets, knocking on thousands of doors and making calls to voters. Just as in Wisconsin, young people in New York are leading the fight against workplace inequalities by unionizing Starbucks stores from deep blue Williamsburg to purple Bensonhurst. On the policy front, college students have led the charge for a New Deal for CUNY, and young housing activists recently protested the Rent Guidelines Board’s preliminary proposal to raise rents in the midst of a deep housing crisis.

The Brooklyn Democratic Party has been silent on these issues. That’s a sharp contrast from Chicago, where Johnson made education a galvanizing issue for young people by slamming his opponent Paul Vallas for Vallas’ role in privatizing Chicago schools, and where Johnson made strong commitments on the economic development and housing issues that drove young voters to the polls.

Young people represent an immense opportunity for Democrats: Millennial and Gen Z Americans will make up the majority of the electorate by 2028, and unlike past generations, we aren’t getting more conservative as we age. Youth voter turnout in New York has actually grown in recent years, but remains well behind two dozen other states, including those where Democrats made important inroads in 2022. To follow the lead of organizers in the Midwest and win legislative seats in Southern Brooklyn, our local Democratic party must empower the young people doing this work, not shut us down.

Across the country, Republicans' authoritarian tendencies pose an existential threat to democracy. We can fight back locally by making New York a beacon of democratic engagement and participation. As we prepare for competitive elections this year and next, the Brooklyn Democratic Party has two choices: embrace the energy of young Democrats and join us in that fight, or get left behind. 

Hunter Rabinowitz is the President of the Brooklyn Young Democrats. Billy Richling is the club’s Communications Director. On Twitter @HuntRabinowitz, @billyrichling, & @BKYoungDems.

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