Gotham Gazette Thu, 22 Apr 2021 23:13:41 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Toward a Binary Free NYC toward a binary

Emilia Decaudin, the author

For nearly 100 years, Democrats in the State of New York have elected one man and one woman per Assembly District to serve in the Democratic Party’s governing body, the State Committee. A rule change passed last month means that after 2020, this will no longer be the case.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the League of Women Voters pushed for gendered seats for party offices, which include State Committee, District Leader, and County Committee, in order to promote the participation of women in politics. In 2019, however, these rules mean that non-binary people—those who don’t identify as being exclusively either women or men—are, in most cases, barred from running for party office.

In order to solve this problem, I authored a resolution that passed at last month’s State Committee meeting that amends the rules of the New York Democratic Party in three important ways:

First, language that required two corresponding party officers, such as Secretary and Assistant Secretary, to be of “the opposite gender” has been changed to require they be of “different genders,” or both non-binary.

Second, language requiring gender “balance” on committee has been changed to not require members to identify as either women or men, while maintaining an equal number of the former.

Third, beginning on July 1, 2020, instead of electing “one male and one female” per Assembly District, Democrats will elect people of “different genders,” or who are both non-binary.

The resolution also adds gender and gender identity to the Party’s diversity clause and replaces gendered pronouns, such as “he or she,” with the singular “they.”

These changes will open up participation in the State Committee to a growing class of New Yorkers, while keeping in place the fundamental requirement for gender diversity that ensures that men don’t dominate party committees at the expense of women.

While this is important progress, this particular resolution only applies to the State Committee, which has no authority over the 62 County Committees in New York State. Many of those, including Brooklyn and Queens, have gendered County Committee seats, and all of them in New York City have gendered District Leader seats. These positions are arguably more important for the goal of inclusion, as most people break into the political party scene at the County Committee level.

Efforts are already underway in Manhattan and Brooklyn to remove gender requirements for District Leader and County Committee, respectively. (Manhattan doesn’t have gendered county committee seats, and Brooklyn District Leaders are coterminous with State Committee members.)

The first election for State Committee members under these new requirements will be in June of 2022. Before then, State Election Law must be changed in order to accommodate this new system. This is why I have also written a piece of legislation, sponsored by Assembly Member Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, who also sponsored the Gender Expression and Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), in order to amend the way the Board of Elections handles elections for party positions to do just that.

The bill, which is slated to be introduced next session in Albany, changes the way all party positions for all political parties appear on the ballot. If a party has two vacancies for an office with gender requirements, instead of voting for one person in the male column and one person in the female column, voters will vote for two people in one column. Whoever gets the most votes wins one seat outright. Whoever gets the next most votes and is of the “opposite” gender or is of a different gender than the first candidate (depending on that party’s rules) also gets seated.

All of these granular changes to the way we elect candidates for party offices may seem insignificant at first. But they serve the important function of opening the door to participation by non-binary people preemptively and proactively, rather than waiting for them to knock on the door loudly and long enough for us to begrudgingly turn the lock.

Even then, there is more work to be done. Binary language that either formally or implicitly excludes non-binary people can be found in a myriad of places in our city—laws, regulations, press releases, signage, forms, and more. To tackle this issue, I’ve started Binary-Free NYC, which will serve as an umbrella for both the work being done at the party committee level and in other public forums. With any luck, New York State will continue to be a leader on gender diversity and inclusion.

Emilia Decaudin is a student and activist in New York City. She is the youngest and first openly transgender member of the New York State Democratic Committee, representing the 94th Assembly District in Westchester County. On Twitter @e_decaudin.

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Toward a Binary Free NYC Mon, 09 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Manhattan Democrats Just Elected New County Party Reps, But Their Voices May Not Be Heard Until 2021 cm mathieu eugene housing

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

This past Thursday, the Manhattan Democratic Party announced its bi-annual “Organization Meeting” for this coming Thursday, October 3. This gathering of the party’s over 2,000 County Committee members is a critical moment when those newly elected representatives of Democratic voters set the course for the Democratic Party going into 2020.

Or so everyone thought.

Disregarding the exceedingly short notice, which is sent by mail and won’t reach most County Committee members until mere days before the meeting, nobody even knows who will be allowed to vote.

The 2018 elections were a watershed moment in United States politics, shifting the House of Representatives to Democratic control, but also many state legislatures; New York was a prime example. Here, activists worked tirelessly to unseat the former members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a group of State Senators who worked with Republicans to hold up a backlog of nearly 40 years worth of progressive legislation --and to flip several GOP seats to Democrats.

In that backlog were staples of the progressive agenda such as codifying Roe v. Wade and securing a better rent-stabilization program for New York City. Included in the changes that swept through Albany was a bill to merge the multiple primary election dates. The goal was to increase voter turnout by putting all our primary elections on the same day (except the presidential primary, which is in April). Because federal primaries couldn’t be made later due to federal law, state primaries were moved to June.

In the minutiae of election law is a simple provision - political parties must convene their county committees, which are elected in the primary, within 30 days of said primary. With the change to a June primary, however, that would put the organizational meetings in July. Manhattan and Staten Island, whose voters elected county committee membership this year, worried that nobody would be around. In response, the state legislature quietly changed the law to set the date of the organizational meetings between September 16 and October 6. It furthermore prescribed that the previous county committee holds power “until” the meeting while the newly elected committee assumes power “after” the meeting.

While Staten Island Democratic County Committee members met and their 2019 members elected new county party leadership without controversy, Manhattan faces a different situation. Contested elections for leadership, new ideas for organizing, and a controversial proposal to ban registered lobbyists from top party positions have led to arguments as to which cohort of the Manhattan Democratic County Committee will be allowed to vote - delegates elected by voters in 2017, or those elected this year.

With the Manhattan county committee organizational meeting and its elections just days away, the debate continues.

Since 2017, the number of people who did the work of gathering signatures to run for county committee has grown by around 600. Many got involved because of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and wanted to do more for 2020. It’s unlikely they’ll appreciate being cut out of Democratic Party decision making, but it’s not up to them. Though the bill authors in the state legislature and officials at the State Board of Elections have said the intent is for members elected in 2019 to vote in 2019, those local party representatives may have to wait until 2021 to impact how the Democratic Party does business.

Ben Yee is a civic educator and organizer in New York City. He currently serves as Secretary of the Manhattan Demcoratic Party and Democratic State Committeeman for New York’s 66th Assembly District. Chair. He is currently a candidate for Manhattan County Committee leadership. On Twitter at @yben.

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Manhattan Democrats Just Elected New County Party Reps, But Their Voices May Not Be Heard Until 2021 Mon, 30 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In Keeping Stranglehold, Brooklyn Democratic Party Bosses Further Sow Seeds of Their Demise bk cc new kings

Kings County Democratic Committee meeting (photo: James Boo, New Kings Democrats)

This summer I collected signatures from neighbors to represent my election district, an area of a few blocks, as a member of the Kings County Democratic Committee (KCDC), the Brooklyn denomination of the New York State Democratic Party.

I had signed up with the #RepYourBlock campaign, convened by New Kings Democrats (NKD), one-and-a-half years earlier for this purpose. I handed in my petitions in June and a few months later I received a postcard informing me of KCDC’s bi-annual rules meeting, on September 27 at Kingsborough Community College. This postcard let me know that if I signed and returned it to Frank Seddio, the Democratic County Chair, there would be no need for me to attend. Despite this “helpful” suggestion that I turn over my vote through this proxy before ever even participating in a meeting, I made plans to be there.

The hundreds of people gathered in the Leon M. Goldstein Performing Arts Center on September 27 ranged from newly-minted members like myself to people who had been attending for decades. From the beginning, it was clear that the party leadership was overwhelmed by the turnout. It was less clear whether that was by design or by incompetence.

We waited two-and-a-half hours past the posted start time for the meeting to begin. It was standing room only, and the people around me were palpably excited to participate in this most local form of government. When the meeting finally began, it got off to a contentious start. KCDC members heckled from the back of the room. The person leading the meeting, former State Senator Martin Connor, never introduced himself and was immediately defensive. Many of us had trouble following what was happening in a poorly-mic'd room with a lot of background noise.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting there had been heightening tension around the efforts of NKD, a reform club trying to increase the participation of everyday Brooklynites through the #RepYourBlock campaign. NKD had reached out to Democratic County Committee members encouraging them to attend the meeting and if they couldn’t, asking that they give their proxy to someone they know or one of the #RepYourBlock partners, in an attempt to counter the juggernaut of the party leadership proxy-collection machine. Many committee members received multiple requests for their proxy (a way to allow someone else to vote in your absence), including a misleading one from party leadership that purported to be signed by one’s state Assembly member and district leaders (many of whom claimed this happened without their permission). Partially in response to this, there was a proposal to reform the proxy system introduced by my own Assembly member, Robert Carroll, which was overwhelmingly supported.

Then the time came for the vote that is one of the only real roles for members like me – voting for the officers of the executive committee. This year an actual competitive election was possible, because an alternate “reform” slate had been proposed by #RepYourBlock. The voting began, and an already tense meeting unmistakably changed.

Because we didn’t even get the chance to vote!

It was over before it started. Party leadership had waited to start the meeting until they were sure that Frank Seddio had enough proxy votes to overrule anything that happened. The voting began with a vote on the complete executive committee slate, and motions for a vote on each individual position were overruled or just flat out disregarded. When the vote was called for the establishment slate, about 50 people stood up. Martin Connor said those 50 votes, plus the more than 500 proxies held by Frank Seddio, meant the establishment slate won.

Even when those numbers were questioned, or when it was pointed out that the numbers didn’t seem to add up, or when it was clear that the numbers being reported were actively changing as more proxies appeared with every challenge, we were told “It’s done” and the meeting moved on.

In that room there were hundreds of people like me who had petitioned to be on County Committee, some of whom had competed in primaries. Over 500 people had left work early, skipped dinner, planned for childcare, carpooled, rode a subway to a bus, or made countless other arrangements, all to come to Manhattan Beach on a weeknight and attend a five-hour meeting. And the overwhelming majority were not even able to stand up and be counted in favor of a candidate they supported. Their questions and requests for explanation or clarification were dismissed and they were scolded from the lectern for daring to even ask them.

When a motion was made to recount the vote, after a member pointed out that the numbers given did not add up to an establishment victory, the vote in favor of recount was overwhelming. That vote was also unsuccessful, as Seddio’s proxies still outnumbered those in attendance. But the room had shifted, and even people who had voted for the establishment slate saw what was happening as counter to a democratic process. NKD and #RepYourBlock had inspired us to show up and be a part of our local political process, and the Kings County Democratic Party saw us as an obstacle.

The Brooklyn Democratic Party leadership did more for reform with its actions in that auditorium than years of organizing could have.

It is a testament to the efforts of #RepYourBlock that so many people were there. And by being so entrenched, and so unwilling to allow for anything that might dilute their stranglehold on Brooklyn politics, party leadership ensured that the proxy abuse they are so reliant on is in its final days.

Nicole Hunt is a member of New Kings Democrats, on the Executive Committee of Brooklyn Voters Alliance, and a member of the Kings County Democratic Committee. On Twitter @msnicolemh.

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In Keeping Stranglehold, Brooklyn Democratic Party Bosses Further Sow Seeds of Their Demise Tue, 09 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Discouraged But Determined; Queens County Committee Will Change joe crowley panel

Queens County Democratic leader Joe Crowley (photo: @repjoecrowley)

This summer, the New York Times reported that candidates to become Democratic committee members in Queens were unaware that they were running for office and would be on the September 13 ballot. Queens Democratic Party bosses were nominating candidates without their consent for County Committee membership. You read that right.

Those party bosses, long-term incumbent elected officials also known as establishment Democrats, tried to prevent new, more progressive Democratic candidates from entering these local races. Their preference is, of course, to to maintain the status quo.

As a young Democrat passionate about public service, hearing about this corrupt electoral process happening in my backyard left me feeling discouraged. To live in an equitable society, establishment Democrats need to know not to partake in antiquated, exclusionary practices. In order to have a united Democratic Party there has to be a process where everyone can participate; wherein elections are open, transparent, and inclusive. By nominating candidates without their consent, establishment Democrats not only lose credibility, but they jeopardize the very foundations of our democratic process, the bedrock of our nation. They keep my home borough of Queens from progressing and marginalize people that actually want to get involved.

Many Democratic voters are beginning to support progressive candidates that distance themselves from the current establishment. I think back to the congressional primary win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June as well as the recent primary wins of progressives at the state level and feel encouraged that new candidates challenging incumbents approach their campaigns through a more just lens. New progressive Democrats are taking a stance that fights for economic, social, and racial justice for all and reject corporate PAC and corporate lobbyist money. This is a message to Democratic Party bosses that Democratic constituents will not wait for establishment incumbents to change unjust systems and practices.

Democrats who are too content with the status quo and sitting down on progressive issues will run the risk of not being reelected. While many establishment Democrats point at Republicans as the ones to blame for failing systems, mismanagement of funds, and the reason for many of the faults in our society, it’s easy to see that establishment Democrats are not much better. It’s time to look inward first. In order for current establishment Democrats to avoid strong primary challengers and continue winning elections against Republicans, they have to make sure that members of their party are engaged, included, and not being shunned by dishonest electoral processes. We need Democrats who ensure elections are just and not being controlled by the party bosses at the top.    

Although some establishment Democrats can tout years of experience and successes, if they have not done anything to change the electoral system, or have been too complacent, then many of their efforts are in vain. Winning campaigns through systemic malpractices does not make you an exemplary candidate. As we can see from the recent loss of seven Democratic incumbents in state Senate primaries, establishment Democrats have to be true to their Democratic electorates, take more action to change electoral systems, be more inclusive, and give a voice to more people in their communities. If they fail to do so, constituents from their districts will make sure to elect new progressive Democrats to take their seats.

As an aspiring professional in the field of public service, a Democrat, and a young person wanting to see change, machine politics do not interest me. Though discouraged by the practices of establishment Democrats, I am motivated to get more involved and work to change the unjust systems that currently exist, calling them out, and taking action. I urge my fellow Queens constituents and those around the city to elect the Democratic leaders that are transparent, honest, and committed to electoral integrity, from the local County Committee all the way up.

Giovanni Barcenes is an MPA Candidate at the NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and lifelong New Yorker born and raised in Queens. On Twitter @GioBarcenes.

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Discouraged But Determined; Queens County Committee Will Change Mon, 08 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Reimagining the Brooklyn Democratic Party voting brooklyn

(photo: Gotham Gazette)

The New York Times recently published a story about the Queens Democratic Party and how it stacked its Democratic County Committee with at least 21 people who had no idea that they were running for the position. One of the “candidates” actually lived in Florida. The Times article said, in part: “it is not entirely clear why the party would want to populate the committee with people who did not know they were on it.” In Brooklyn, it is totally clear.

For background, the Kings County Democratic Committee has a general membership of approximately 3,000 people. Every two years, in the September primary, each Assembly District elects both a male and female District Leader (officially called a “Member of the State Democratic Committee”). Collectively, the District Leaders make up the executive committee of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

Like Queens, the general membership of the Brooklyn Democratic Party is filled with people who are unaware they are party officials or who have no interest in serving the Party. The leadership of the Brooklyn Democratic Party exploits this ambivalence by holding County Committee meetings in hard to reach locations, inaccessible by public transportation, and then telling members that they can skip the meeting if they give the County Chair their proxy votes.

By collecting proxies from uninterested or unaware members, the Party leadership gets the votes they need to maintain full control over the direction and agenda of the Party. It gives the Party leadership the numbers it needs to beat back any reform efforts and to deny grassroots Democrats a voice in the selection of the Democratic nominees for State Supreme Court or to fill a legislative vacancy.   

The specific problems that exist in Queens have somewhat receded in Brooklyn. To his credit, when Frank Seddio took over as Chair of the Kings County Democratic Party, he agreed to adopt incremental reforms being pushed by the Brooklyn Reform Coalition. Many of these reforms are the ones that Queens reformers are still fighting for today. While there has been some improvement, Brooklyn still has a long way to go.

In the short term, the Brooklyn Democratic Party must end proxy abuse. No person, whether the County Chair, a District Leader, or a general member, should be allowed to hold more proxies than the number of County Committee members serving in their Assembly district.

Likewise, the Party currently will only pay for the County Chair to send a proxy solicitation to all members of the County Committee. District Leaders have no budget and lack the financial resources to individually send a similar solicitation. This imbalance can be cured by allowing proxies to be submitted electronically or by the Party funding a mailing for each and every District Leader who wants to solicit proxies.

The long-term goal, however, is to end governance by proxy.

There are over 1 million Democrats in Brooklyn. Certainly we can find a few thousand who are committed to building a vibrant, transparent, and inclusive Brooklyn Democratic Party. Every board or committee I have ever sat on had a rule against missing too many meetings. The same needs to be true with the Brooklyn Democratic Party. At the same time, to ensure a diverse and inclusive party, meetings need to be held at a variety of times and locations so that no one is excluded due to a serious obligation, such as working at night or childcare responsibilities.

All over the country, local Democratic Parties are vibrant, active, and impactful. They meet regularly, have subcommittees with important party-building responsibilities, and develop and promote a political platform. Brooklyn is the largest local Democratic Party in the country and does none of these things. Instead of being national leaders, we are lagging far behind. Implementing the reforms I’ve outlined here will allow us to grow into a national model of what a fighting Democratic Party can accomplish.

These are not revolutionary ideas. This is what local Democratic Parties do all over the country. Once Brooklyn’s rank-and-file Democrats demand these changes, these ideas will be impossible to stop and we will finally have the Democratic Party that Brooklyn wants and deserves.

Doug Schneider is a candidate for Member of the Democratic State Committee/District Leader in the 44th Assembly District in Brooklyn. On Twitter @DougSchneiderBK.

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Reimagining the Brooklyn Democratic Party Mon, 03 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Change the Political Status Quo: Run for County Committee volunteer

(photo: NYC Mayor's Office)

Today, throughout Kings County, aka Brooklyn, there are many low-income tenants, working class people, and people of color in desperate need of and clamoring for true progressive political representation in their Democratic Party and from their state representatives. Leaders throughout a number of communities are critically looking at our elected officials -- especially state-level politicians running in primary elections this year -- and asking if those officials truly represent their views.

Locally-focused, civic-minded Brooklynites are questioning whether these politicians show up to important meetings or rallies that involve our public schools, our rent-stabilized housing units, our transportation system, and more -- and whether they deliver on those key issues when representing our neighborhoods.  

I often scratch my head and wonder why newly-founded groups like New York Senate District 17 for Progress and Rise & Resist,as well as some longer-standing groups like New Kings Democratsexist. And I often arrive at the same clear conclusion: they exist because they’re tired of having centrist politicians representing them and their communities; they want their more left-leaning views represented in government. They want to hold their representatives accountable to the stances that they care about, and they’re fed up with the closed processes of our county system.

Every county in the United States has committees of Democrats and Republicans that help to determine the agenda and endorsements of their local parties. In Brooklyn, there are 21 Assembly Districts that altogether make up the Kings County Democratic Committee. Each Assembly District has many election districts (each of which consists of a roughly three-to-four square-block radius) and Democrats can choose to gather an estimated 40 petition signatures every two years to join the county committee and help mold the platform of their party.

Today, the leaders of our Kings County Democratic Committee could play a huge part in giving the voiceless a voice by expanding the party and ensuring that Democrats from each election district have a say in how they want to be represented through party leadership and what policies the Democratic Party fights for. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality.

Why is it that in the 21st century in the fourth-largest county in the country -- Brooklyn -- there are still about 500 Democratic County Committee seats open? Is it not the function of our local Democratic Party to build our party and ensure inclusion of many voices as we determine the direction we want our party to take when endorsing candidates or crafting policy platforms? There is a key solution for solving this problem: we must organize to reform our party and hold elected officials accountable to our progressive priorities.

Next month, in June, I along with more than a dozen other long-standing Bushwick residents and activists will be petitioning to get on the Kings County Democratic Committee in our Assembly District (AD54). Others should do the same where they live. This includes knocking on doors and collecting roughly 40 signatures of registered Democrats in a four-to-five block radius of your home, depending on the exact map of your election district.

Door-knocking allows for honest conversation with our neighbors about why we’re doing this. We’re tired of having a Democratic Party that is not doing the utmost to push the envelope on things that matter to us. In Bushwick that means fighting the everyday displacement taking place and strengthening schools that have been ranked in the bottom third since state testing has been used as a performance measure.

I am proud to state that these new groups of individuals running for County Committee in AD54 are community board members, organizers, educators, community gardeners, and low- to middle-class tenants. This is important at a time when many progressive organizations in Brooklyn are being dismissed because of how heavily white their memberships appear to be. As a group, we are tired of business-as-usual politics. We are tired of not seeing our Assembly member and state senator at important local meetings. We are tired of progressivism not being the mantle on our table.

As a result, we’ll aim to get some of our very own neighbors to also join County Committee during our door-knocking adventures so we can further build voting blocs that hold our elected officials accountable. It is time for us to be the change we wish see in our local Democratic Party. It is time for us Brooklynites to join en masse and bust open the closed doors of the Kings County Democratic Party.

Boris Santos is a community organizer for the office of City Council Member Antonio Reynoso and a former public school teacher. The opinions expressed here are his alone.

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Change the Political Status Quo: Run for County Committee Wed, 16 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
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.

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 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.

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 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.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Read the VID letter below:

June 27th, 2017 - Village Independent Democrats

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 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.

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