Pack Up Your Clubbles

In the spring, it is said that a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. In New York City politics, however, the change of seasons is more likely to bring upon thoughts of endorsements by political clubs. In reality, the young man’s fancy is less likely to be focused upon hearts and flowers, and more likely to be concentrated upon the ways and means of getting laid. In reality, the political club’s focus is less likely to be implemented by means of elevated debates about the great issues of public policy and political philosophy, and more likely to be focused upon the necessity of packing club memberships to ensure the desired results. In both scenarios, the likelihood is that someone is going to get screwed.  

Memberships in clubs which hold endorsement votes (a lot of “regular” clubs do not) fluctuate like mercury in a spring thermometer. In 2001, when term limits opened up the floodgates of vacant city offices, so many folks, including a few Orthodox Jews, were packed into Brooklyn's gay club, Lambda Independent Democrats (LID), that it became a local joke:

Q: Name the demographic subgroup in Park Slope which contains the highest percentage of heterosexuals?
A: The membership of Lambda Independent Democrats.

Every year, clubs across the City engage in internal debates and finger pointing about the process. In many clubs, club-packing efforts are regarded as a way of boosting income from dues, and recruiting new members, although most people so recruited never show their face again, not even to carry petitions for the candidates they’ve supported. Former IND President Greg Atkins once called club-packing a time-honored tradition (although he apparently did so to a large chorus of boos and catcalls). Of course, even for club-packing’s defenders there is a caveat; club packing is regarded as OK as long as the local incumbents are not its target. Little things, like an endorsement for President, Mayor and Governor are considered fair game, but keep your freaking hands off my Assemblyman!

Every year, some grotesque effort at club packing somewhere in the City attracts so much attention it becomes this year’s poster child for change. In 2006, honors go the Brownstone Brooklyn’s Independent Neighborhood Democrats (IND) based in the 52nd AD (Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, DUMBO, and parts of Park Slope and Gowanus).

To sum up, in order to prevent club-packing (or at least provide it a level playing field), IND’s by-laws require someone be a member for 60 days before they can cast an endorsement vote. This year, IND’s executive board scheduled its endorsement meeting and some candidates took careful notice. What happened next is the subject of some dispute, but the differences in details do not change the substance of what occurred all that much, so I’ll go with the combination I find most credible: At nearly the last possible minute, when it was too late to respond, Marsha Borenstein, a paid staffer for Congressman Major Owens, who seems to spend the balance of her life as a “volunteer” for the Congressional campaign of the Congressman’s son Chris, dropped off membership applications and checks to pay for the membership of approximately one hundred new members, nearly doubling the club’s existing membership. The applications were almost all from people associated with the anti-Ratner group, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), and many, if not most, came from residents of the next-door 57th Assembly District, not IND’s 52nd. Most of these folks also joined Brownstone Brooklyn’s other two “reform” clubs, LID and Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID), at the same time. That these folks were likely to vote for Chris Owens against David Yassky for Congress was a matter of some concern. That they were likely to vote for insurgent Ken Diamondstone against IND stalwart Marty Connor for State Senate was a matter of alarm. IND’s executive board responded by rescheduling the endorsement vote so that these people would be ineligible to participate.     

(Perhaps DDDB's next step will be a coup attempt at the Brownstone Republicans. It would be much easier, and they'd get invited to better dinners. Might actually meet Bruce at one of them.)  

There has always been a great debate among the “progressive” cognescenti about whether IND really qualifies as a “reform” club. For years, the club was run as Assemblywoman Eileen Dugan's personal fiefdom, with rewards and punishments meted out in an arbitrary and capricious manner, while she personally supervised who sat with whom at club dinners (this was a point of pride). New applicants had to be approved by an executive committee she kept in her back pocket next to the ring she required visitors to kiss.  The best that can be said is that she was a benevolent tyrant who had the implicit consent of the serfs she lorded over. These days, IND is mostly about supporting it's electeds, which it does with varying degrees of competence, depending upon who's paying attention. If one is animated by a desire for remaking America as a social democracy, then IND is probably the wrong place to hang your hat. If one is animated by the desire for “good-government” process “reform”, you could do worse; IND is animated by a desire for certain “reforms” at certain times, subject to change. They got all self righteous about supporting Margarita Lopez-Torres for Surrogate, but like Major and Chris Owens, they were also all gung ho for lifetime hack Mike Feinberg as well. They are usually pretty damned liberal, but they are full of “reform” in phases; the moon is sometimes full too. But, after its efforts this year, who can doubt that IND's clearly proven that they are “reformers”? Only a bunch of “reformers” could run such a circus. “Regulars” wouldn’t need to play such games to win a vote in their own club, if they even bothered to hold a vote at all.

This is all a bit silly. Chris and Major and their taxpayer paid retainer, Marsha Borenstein, joined by Ken Diamondstone and the entire cast of the Off-Broadway musical “Develop Don't Destroy" pulled a fast one. They deserve credit for their panache, especially the element of surprise. This was a professionally executed coup attempt (kudos to Kas Stolzman). I mean, in his prior attempts at elected office, Ken Diamonstone couldn't organize his way out of a paper bag. Brownstone electeds, including Bill DeBlasio and Jim Brennan, should take notice. Without the issue of Atlantic Yards, these folks would have had trouble mustering six extra votes to sign up. Two years ago,  (according to Erik Engquist), it took Carl Andrews' help and the posthumous collaboration of an executive board, which agreed to overlook the casting of ineligible votes,  for Major to win IND’s endorsement (how ill does moral outrage befit such hypocrites). Even if we concede, arguendo, that the Ratner opponents do not necessarily represent majority opinion in the area (and I think they might), they surely represent the majority of white folks who feel strongly enough about the issue to actually take some action. Even if Ratner was writing the checks, I doubt Bertha Lewis could muster this many folks to join IND without changing the complexion of the club in more ways than one.

Ironies abound. None of the folks targeted is much of a Ratner enthusiast (although they are clearly not strong opponents either), and Connor and Yassky would probably be more effective in efforts to downscale the project than Owens and Diamondstone. More ironically, Chris Owens probably blew a pretty good shot at taking the club without packing it. Millman and Connor have never trusted Yassky, and their support for him is pro forma at best (they wouldn't mind it if he blew his bankroll on a Congressional race before term limits set in and he starts considering other options). Now they are surely down with the cause and will pull out all the stops for David.

And Diamondstone's campaign seems born of obsession rather than rationality. He's been talking about it for years. Last time out he discovered at the last minute that there was a residency requirement to run. This time, he's rented an apartment in the district, but sent out a Christmas card letting folks know that his old place was still his business address. Has he hired John O'Hara as his legal advisor?

Diamondstone portrays himself as the great reformer, and he's no doubt sincere, but he's obsessed by visions of his own sainthood (although he may be right). Moreover, as of late, Connor and he have been on the same side in nearly every battle. They both were key players in Margarita Lopez-Torres' successful campaign for Surrogate. And Diamondstone was apparently a guest at Connor's infamous anti-Clarence 2003 “Counter Dinner” held the same night as County's event at the Marriott. Since being dumped as Senate Minority Leader, Connor has clearly been more of an insurgent than a reformer, sort of like the whorehouse piano player who left to join the Salvation Army Band; but in the last few years, he's been the brains behind nearly every successful anti-organization effort in Brooklyn. I myself have had mixed feelings about these efforts (Lopez-Torres is more overrated than Led Zeppelin or "The L Word"), but one must still wonder why Diamondstone is so obsessed. Perhaps he should consider that bringing about change involves building a larger consensus, which involves acquiring allies. Connor is not a reformer, but he's been the best ally the Brooklyn reformers have. If they jump ship on him now, for good or bad reasons, other potential allies, even ones who dislike Connor, will see that there is no point in making common cause with folks who'll stab you in the back at the first opportunity. Vito Lopez will certainly laugh all night long (since Yassky's been a less steadfast ally of reform, I can't say the same caveat applies to him).

The truth is this endorsement ain't worth that much. As a brand name, IND long ago lost most of its luster, and what little luster's left will be tarnished by this year's tainted process (and it won't be the first time that's happened). That will actually be a moral victory for Diamondstone and Owens (as long as one doesn’t analyze it too carefully). For Connor, losing would have been an embarrassment, but nearly two-thirds of the district's in Manhattan, where he's supported (and not just pro forma) by everyone from Shelley Silver to Rosie Lopez, I mean  Mendez. Plus he's got the Williamsburg Hasidim in that Brooklyn third. Owens had more to gain from victory, as a defeat for Yassky on Yassky's home turf might potentially lead to a Yassky withdrawal, or seriously weaken him. But, as I've pointed out, Owens might have actually blown victory by this fast and loose tactic.

While IND's signatures are good one, and usually come large in an even year (when things Joan Millman cares about are at stake); this was not really the issue. Connor will come large on petitions just on his Manhattan clubs, and Yassky's never trusted IND's operation for ballot access (he's had to endure their lame odd-year efforts). Owens also has probably seen fit to make plans to qualify regardless. If Diamondstone really thought he was going to get a petition windfall from an IND victory, he was truly dreaming. Past history indicates how Connor and Millman's allies, who are the majority of the club's active petition gathering members (rather than people who just sent checks in), would respond. Joan Millman and the District Leaders would refuse to run on the IND petitions (or at least those with Diamondstone). All the Millman loyalists would be called and told not to carry the Diamondstone petitions. There would be a separate petition operation for Connor-Millman outside of IND, made up of all of IND's old petition carriers, and the club, with its 90 new members and Ken Diamonstone, would likely be left to wither and die like WBID did in the 1980's (when something similar occurred). So, the only signatures Diamondstone would have gained would be the ones he was already going to get anyway through his diehard supporters. So now that that's clear, everyone can pull an Aiken, declare victory, and go home. The real battles will be settled by the voters, who couldn't care less about this inside baseball (more like spitball, actually).  Both sides look pretty scummy; both have a dubious but arguable moral case ("the rules are the rules and shouldn't change in the middle of a battle" versus "we're protecting the desires of the actual membership, who didn't join en masse the day before yesterday and will still be there the day after tomorrow"), if either side has the high ground, it's from the top of a dung heap, no one but the insiders care, and, in the end, it hardly matters. 

Club packing is sleazy and unseemly. Yes, the IND rules permit club packing, so even if club-packing violates the spirit of the rules, Owens and Diamonstone were in technical compliance with their provisions. Changing the rules in the middle of the game is also sleazy and unseemly. But, the IND rules permit changing the rules in the middle of the game, so even if changing the rules in the middle of the game violates the spirit of the rules, the Executive Committee was in technical compliance with their provisions. In a court of equity, one who seeks an equitable remedy (rather than a legal one) must come to the court with clean hands. In this case, neither side qualifies. Clubs have a right to ensure that its endorsement votes reflect the feelings of those who actually participate in the club's ongoing activities. That being said, rescheduling an endorsement meeting to ensure a particular result is playing it a bit fast and loose, but no more so than packing the club at the last minute was in in the first place. The scheduling change deserves to be condemned by all those who are without sin, but good luck finding anyone who qualifies. You can't excuse sleazy tactics as being within "the rules", and then complain when the same rules slap you upside the face. It is actually quite amusing to see DDDB, Owens, Diamonstone, et al hoisted by their own filthy petard, and those who’ve seen their own clubs invaded by outsiders who never bothered to stay after the damage was done are entitled to their schadenfreude. As to the Exec Board’s actions, I know someone will claim that condemning them equally with the "packers" is like blaming the Jews and Romans (or was it Greeks?) equally for Masada (or the Jews for the damage they inflicted on their adversaries during the Warsaw ghetto uprising). Nonsense; it was pros behaving like pros; only if the pros were really professional, they would have addressed the problem in advance. It is too bad someone had to win this fight.  

As a skeptic about the Atlantic Yards project, I certainly admire DDDB’s  level of commitment. But, once again, like so many anti-yards efforts, it was a blunderbuss fired at the wrong target. In all this time of controversy, Marty Connor got only two letters on the Yard project from his own constituents. Doesn’t anyone understand that if he got two hundred, he might have been more likely to stand up to the unions and the Borough President?  But this is hardly the first silly thing done by DDDB. They demanded that the MTA get a better price for the Yards; as a result, Ratner's costs went up and the project's scope was expanded to make up the costs. Thanks guys. The IND fiasco is another in a series of completely boneheaded maneuvers by the opponents of the Yards projects which have done nobody no good. Hell, Bruce didn't need to buy Bertha Lewis; it would have been cheaper just to create DDDB himself to lead the opposition on quixotic crusades to nowhere until he ran out the clock. That'll teach Connor and Yassky not to give him unreserved support.