Why All the Fuss Over New Kings Democrats?
Earlier this week during our state primary, in which there were only a handful of contested races around the state, I ran for a down-the-ballot seat that caused a supporter of my opponent to go to unheard of lengths to defeat me by sending sophisticated direct mail to the district’s voters and conducting phone banks. What was I running for? To be one of the 6,200 members of the Kings County Democratic Committee.
More than a year ago, I met Rachel Lauter, a fellow resident of Brooklyn, in the basement of Duryea Presbyterian Church in Prospect Heights during a community organizer meeting for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Because of what Dr. King called the "fierce urgency of now" for a new kind of politics on a national level, we were both drawn into the Obama campaign.
In time we looked at politics in Brooklyn and we saw a great disconnect between reform-minded individuals and the party leadership. People I came to know as volunteers on the Obama campaign, fellow residents of Brooklyn, felt alienated from the local party.
It dawned on us that we could and should channel the tremendous amount of energy and excitement swirling around the prospect for change. Together Rachel and I founded a group called New Kings Democrats in order to capture some of the excitement in the presidential election and focus it—taking a cue from Tip O'Neill—into something local. Our goal is rather simple: make and add hearty doses of accessibility and accountability to the Brooklyn Democratic Party—an initiative we thought would be largely embraced.
Who are the members of New Kings Democrats? We are a diverse group of individuals ranging from Mildred Gordon, an 86-year-old retiree in Brighton Beach, to Cyril Joseph, a 64-year-old Community Board 4 member who came to Bushwick from the West Indies in the 1970s, to Emily May, a community activist who started Hollaback NYC and is on the Board of Girls for Gender Equity, to Esteban Duran, a lifelong resident of Williamsburg and Community Board 1 member.
The recent history of the County Committee isn't pretty. Clarence Norman, the former Party Leader and Assemblyman, is currently serving a prison term of three to nine years after convictions of extorting money from judicial candidates. One might think the new Party Leader, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, would have moved swiftly to push for changes to the system and its culture of closed-door decision making that allowed for such malfeasance. However, Assemblyman Lopez took a different tack; during the 2006-2008 term, the only rules amended were those that give the Party Leader exclusive rule over the budget. Because there is no publicly available information on the Committee’s rules or its meeting minutes, it’s unclear what those rules looked like before. One thing is clear: the system is still broken.
The Committee’s own statement of principles, written in its rules, says "Public trust in party leadership is essential if the Democratic Party in New York City and Kings County is to achieve continued success and deserve it." We wholeheartedly agree with this vital goal of earning public trust, otherwise the party will continue to exist in the mold of Clarence Norman.
Today, quite unfortunately, the Kings County Democratic Committee as a deliberative and democratic body exists mostly just on paper. The traditional powers of the County Committee include nominating candidates for special elections in case of vacancies and, as illustrated by the Norman scandal, the selection of judges. The Committee is controlled from top to bottom by the Party Leader who holds the large majority of proxy votes from Committee members who are encouraged to sign their vote away. It holds ceremonial meetings every two years where the few members that attend witness a scripted meeting governed by Robert's Rules of Order, where nary an objection is voiced.
The County Committee has the potential to be so much more than a mere backroom machine. The wave of change captured by the Obama campaign is powered by individuals who seek to make an impact at the local level, much as our presidential nominee did between college and law school; this is the essence of New Kings Democrats.
In Tuesday's primary, 43 of our candidates ran unopposed and automatically won their seats, and at least seven more won contested elections. This was achieved with the shrewd assistance and expert advice of Grassroots Initiatives. We might have had more candidates except six were kicked off the ballot through legal challenges from the local party leadership. It's also worth noting that, 12 out of 14 of New Kings Democrats County Committee candidates appeared as the second of two names on the ballot—a disadvantage as voters unacquainted with either candidate tend to vote for whoever is on top. What are the odds of that?
As for me, I lost my election. But thanks to the "Friends of Vito Lopez" committee and an unprecedented amount of money spent on a paid campaign for one of thousands of unpaid County Committee seats (half of which go vacant), people are starting to pay attention. At least now I know the name of my County Committee representatives, and I look forward to holding them accountable to me and the other residents of my election district.
The ultimate aim of New Kings Democrats is to inject openness—and democracy—into the County Committee. That shouldn’t cause much ado, least of all among fellow Democrats who care about Brooklyn.
Matthew K. Cowherd
Co-Founder of New Kings Democrats
Post new comment