Author’s note: Over the past year, I have been an intermittent participant in the New Kings Democrats, a political organization that hopes to change the character of Brooklyn politics by working through the unlikely mechanism of the Kings County Democratic Party, long home to backroom urban bossism. This article is thus something between participant-observation and reportage, and is sympathetic to but still critically engaged with the New Kings’ mission.
ON A bucolic evening in mid-May, Matt Cowherd, a twenty-something attorney, stood at Matt Tuoy’s Bar in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, chatting city politics with a beer in hand. His assessment could have been heard in a thousand bars at any point over the past century in New York City: local politicians weren’t accountable to the citizenry, largely because the labyrinthine system of rules and regulations governing political participation seemed designed to generate apathy and de facto disenfranchisement. The bums, in 2011, are still bums, and we’re still looking for the will and the way to throw them out. Who needs a drink?
As president of New Kings Democrats (NKD), Cowherd wasn’t just bloviating over a brew, but talking to a group of like-minded locals about his organization’s summer campaign, “Vote Local,” an ambitious effort to register 2,500 voters as Democrats in Kings County—better known as Brooklyn—in time for the 2012 Democratic primaries. If the plan seemed premature, Cowherd noted, it was necessarily so: Voters in Kings County, with the exception of those who have never been registered in New York state, must register their party affiliation thirteen months in advance in order to cast their vote in a primary. Registration is easier for the general elections, but in Brooklyn, where Democrats hold a seven-to-one majority over their Republican counterparts, most of the decisions, particularly at the local level, have been made by the time November rolls around. In an era when disillusionment with both parties runs high, Cowherd and New Kings push Democratic registration as a matter of pragmatism. Self-identified independents might enjoy their moral position, but their vote has precious little power to influence Brooklyn politics.
While Cowherd spoke, Democratic State Committeeman Lincoln Restler made his entrance with a broad smile. A vice president of New Kings, Restler helped put the fledgling organization on the map in 2010, winning a closely fought election for his position, in which he represents New York’s 50th Assembly District to the Kings County Democratic Party. Much has been made of his youth (he was twenty-six when he won) and his boyish, bespectacled visage, but in the past year, it has become abundantly clear that Restler is a gifted and tenacious politician, one who has done much to bring community members and elected officials alike into the New Kings conversation. Restler was enthusiastic about the summer campaign. “Twenty-five hundred new democrats will shake up local races and help us elect a new crop of progressive leaders,” he said. “Informed, invested, organized voters can and will change Brooklyn politics.”
Working the same event, with warm introductions from Cowherd and Restler, was Jesus Gonzalez, a community leader and staff member of Make the Road New York, a community organizing outfit. Gonzalez, a lifetime resident of Bushwick, was, at the time, mulling a run as an independent for the 54th State Assembly Seat (vacated by Daryl Towns upon his appointment as Commissioner of New York State Homes and Community Renewal by Governor Andrew Cuomo). Two weeks after their strong show of support at Matt Tuoy’s, NKD met and voted to endorse Gonzalez against the Kings County Democratic Committee’s chosen candidate, Rafael Espinal. On June 18, Gonzalez announced his candidacy, and since then he has rolled out an impressive slate of endorsements from a variety of progressive allies across the city. For New Kings, Gonzalez presents a new opportunity to challenge Brooklyn’s Democratic machine, something they have been increasingly successful at doing since their founding in 2008. But New Kings doesn’t want to scrap the machine entirely. They want that machine to work, even if it never has before.
DEMOCRATIC “MACHINE politics” have been a force in New York City since the nineteenth century, when Boss Tweed played a king-making role in everything from the election of U.S. Senators to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, taking a little off the top at every turn. (Tweed famously charged the city $41,000 for mops and buckets while supervising the building of the courthouse that still unofficially bears his name.) In the twentieth century, “Silent” Charlie Murphy controlled the city from Tammany Hall for decades before Fiorello LaGuardia’s republican-populism defeated him.
To many New Yorkers, this all sounds like ancient history. High-profile mayoral and gubernatorial elections since the 1960s have seen the machine play a much smaller (though not always insignificant) role. However, the machine, or, more accurately, the borough-based machines, have not exactly faded away. Pushed out of the top-of-the-ticket limelight by crusading opponents and their own excesses, old-guard Democrats over the last few decades have settled into backroom fiefdoms that continue to wield an immense amount of political clout, albeit behind the scenes. By controlling the County Committees (more on these structures in a moment), today’s bosses retain assorted powers that include nominating judges, directing party spending, and, perhaps most problematically, nominating party candidates for special elections.
This last power sounds, at first blush, rather limited, but in a heavily Democratic borough and a state with no term limits, Democrats don’t often lose elections. Instead, they get promoted, as Daryl Towns did, resign in disgrace, as Anthony Weiner did, or die in office—all circumstances that require special elections. Primaries are not held for special elections. The Democratic Committee picks one candidate, the Republicans pick another, and anyone else is free to run as an independent. But the Democrats don’t lose elections. They face primary challenges every four years, but they do so with incumbency and the party’s funding, manpower, and top brass in their corner. As of this writing, eight of the nineteen State Assembly members whose districts are wholly in the borough of Kings came to hold their current posts in special elections (a number that will rise to nine after September). As NKD members often say, an incumbent Brooklyn Dem is more likely to be indicted or die in office than to be defeated in a primary or general election.
This was the decades-old state of affairs in 2008 when NKD came onto the scene. Energized by their work on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as part of Brooklyn for Barack, a group of young Dems that included Cowherd and Restler put their passions and talents to work locally. As Restler remembers, “We felt that it was necessary to provide ongoing outlets for people to make a difference in our politics and our communities.” Under the guidance of David Plouffe, the Obama team successfully developed a sophisticated grasp of local Democratic Party structures and politics, which helped them defeat frontrunner Hilary Clinton despite her wins in big states like Texas, California, and New York. Though they don’t cite this influence directly, it comes as no surprise that when NKD’s founders initially sought to get involved in local politics, they went to the Kings County Democratic Party. Perhaps they could make use of their expertise to register voters, or to educate them on key issues, or to increase turnout for party events and primary elections, all of which might help push a progressive, Democratic agenda in Brooklyn and New York City.
Judge, legal scholar, and former Congressman Abner Mikva tells a story about showing up to help out at a Democratic campaign event in his hometown of Chicago and being asked, “Who sent you?” When he replied, “Nobody,” the Cook County Democratic Committee official who had asked him screwed up his face and told the young Mikva, “We don’t want nobody who nobody sent.” The Obama veterans who approached the Kings County Democratic Party received essentially the same reply from its current president, State Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez. Join one of your local political clubs, Lopez suggested, or make a donation. The system is just fine as it is, and we’ve got all the help we need. We don’t want nobody who nobody sent.
It would be incorrect to suggest that the NKD members were naively unaware of Lopez’s position as Brooklyn Boss, or that they assumed he would welcome them with open arms. What is unusual, however, is the road they followed after this first meeting. Rather than find other things to do until 2012, or create or join an independent political club or party to level criticism at urban bossism from afar, as the good-government “goo-goos” once did, NKD picked up a copy of the Kings County Democratic Bylaws, the soporific tract that governs the machine that is the County Committee, and went to work. As they knew, but the public did not and still, largely, does not, County Committees are party structures intended to parallel local elected offices. They are supposed to be composed and run democratically. Every election district, each of which is only a few blocks in size and a few thousand people at most, can elect one man and one woman to serve as representatives to the County Committee, and every Assembly District can elect a District Leader to represent the whole district both to the County Committee and the Executive Committee, which elects the party president for Kings County from among its own. According to party bylaws, these two Committees should act as a lower and upper house of the county party, meeting regularly to debate issues and determine party stances on them, to plan party initiatives and form committees to carry them out, and, when the case arises, to nominate candidates for special elections and for the bench.
In practice, very few people run for County Committee, or even District Leader, without the support of those in the know. Moreover, it falls to District Leaders to appoint people to serve on all of the vacant County Committee seats in their district. Typically, District Leaders either hand these out to party faithful or, failing that, choose other people, often seniors, who receive a piece of mail that looks like a cross between a parking ticket and a solicitation letter. This document informs recipients that they are summoned to appear at the biannual meeting of the Kings County Democratic Party, unless they sign and return the postage-paid stub that allows Vito J. Lopez to act as their proxy. Many recipients likely discard these cards, while those hoping to avoid the repercussions that the wording suggests will sign and return the form. The end result, of course, is that the biannual meeting resembles the court of Louis XVI more than an institution of American democracy. Proposals from allies and opponents are decided predictably by the committee of one, Lopez, who waves his proxies in the air and decides every vote.
In 2008, New Kings helped to organize sixty-something like-minded folks to run for open seats on the County Committee, “not fully appreciating,” Restler noted, “how influential County Committee could be.” Most of their candidates won, but Cowherd, who lives in Lopez’s Assembly District, was defeated after Lopez, State Senator Martin Dilan, and City Council Member Erik Dilan (Martin’s son) circulated mailers supporting Cowherd’s opponent. Clearly, New Kings had hit a nerve. Opposition to the machine was one thing, but unsolicited participation was another. The biannual meeting was “farcical,” as Restler noted, but it gave the NKD a closer look at the power wielded by the County Committee and afforded them opportunities to partner with several longtime independent Democratic groups and individuals who also held seats.
Last year, NKD put together a more targeted approach. They encouraged politically engaged individuals (including this author) to run for County Committee in every district of Brooklyn, and in the 50th and 53rd Assembly Districts (Lopez’s home district), they recruited heavily behind the efforts of Restler and Esteban Duran to run for District Leader positions. Duran, facing an expectedly more comprehensive blitz from the machine than Cowherd did, lost, but Restler won, by 121 votes. The election was an expensive one (Restler spent over $60,000) for an office that is practically unknown to most New Yorkers, but it also, as Restler noted, helped bring out nearly 7,500 voters in the district—90 percent of the total that participated in the high-profile city elections the year prior—when the average district in Brooklyn turned out closer to 2,000. This achievement was, in and of itself, a victory for NKD, drawing hundreds of first-time voters to the primaries and educating them about the power of the County Committee and the role that it does and, more importantly, could play in their everyday lives.
At the 2010 County Committee meeting, New Kings and their allies held a press conference on the steps of Borough Hall and packed the small auditorium where the meeting was held. (It’s telling the party reserves a 700-seat theater for the event, when there are 5,000 members of the Committee.) They brought carefully worded proposals—a regular quarterly meeting schedule, the creation of committees for voter registration and education as called for in the bylaws—and roared their disapproval at every proxy-supported vote for Lopez. This, and Restler’s victory, garnered some glowing praise for New Kings and some additional bad press for Lopez, who was already facing allegations that he misused funds and abused his relationship with the nonprofit Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens’ Council, which he showers with support in exchange for its work on his, and the machine’s, behalf. Perhaps even more telling, Lopez’s allies successfully introduced a measure to the County Committee to create eleven “at-large” District Leader positions (to be appointed by the president) in addition to the forty-two elected ones, to join the Executive Committee. This is a blow for democracy within the Democratic Party, but it’s also a sign that Lopez is concerned about NKD strategy and is taking steps to ensure that he retains power even if independent District Leaders like Restler begin to win elections across the borough.
THE KINGS County machine, it is clear, fears an active electorate, whether within the party or in local elections, and seeks to retain power through inaction, nonsensical rules that keep voters out of primaries, mailings intended to keep people from attending meetings, and a strategy of driving away involved, talented young leaders who come to them seeking to further the progressive cause in Brooklyn.
There was a time in American politics, however, when urban machines were expressly designed to get out the vote and build participation among the urban electorate (to what ends, of course, is another matter). No less an expert than former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley made the case for urban machines by saying, “The rich guys can get elected on their own money, but somebody like me, an ordinary person, needs the party to get elected. Without the party, only the rich could get elected to office.” Daley was politicking, of course, but he was also right: for all the Tweed clones they promoted, machines also helped well-respected politicians like Al Smith rise from the Fulton Fish Market to the governorship. The current Brooklyn machine has put forth several competent, well-liked, and successful candidates. Machines, at their best, cultivated participation and gave ambitious, gifted leaders the means and resources to represent the interests of their communities.
It is this aspirational vision of urban, Democratic politics that New Kings seeks to make its own. Cowherd, Restler, and company do not want to dole out patronage jobs and send their candidates to easy victories like the bosses of old, but they do want to make use of the machinery that exists to engage and promote the interests of Brooklyn communities—whether those needs are employment programs, improved education, or equal access to city services. What makes them “New” is their desire to see this process democratized. This means recruiting participants at every level, from the first-time voter to the County Committeeperson to the candidate for statewide office. It also means doing the legwork of voter registration, voter education, and community engagement, so that the channels of communication flow both ways and the party becomes responsible to those who turn out, seven-to-one, in its favor each November. It is a progressive vision of urban politics, but it is also an old-fashioned one, and its appeal and potential are not hard to understand in a city run by a billionaire whose surprisingly narrow victory in 2009 was won largely along class lines.
Over the past year, NKD has sought to realize this mission without the support of the machine, hosting events to educate voters on everything from gerrymandering to affordable housing, conducting a large-scale voter registration drive, and helping to launch the campaign of a progressive Democrat for elected office. With a broad reform-minded coalition that includes the Working Families Party (a “fusion” party that often co-endorses Democrats, and which had an extremely successful year, albeit one where they did not battle the machine, in 2009) and their affiliated unions as well as several independent elected Democrats coalescing behind Gonzalez, NKD and their allies are in prime position to hit the machine with more than just bad press when September’s special election rolls around.
Gonzalez seems poised to put up a good fight next month. He recently announced an impressive quarter of fundraising, and is helped both by his connections to Make the Road New York’s vast network and a factional fight within the machine between supporters of Espinal, the nominated candidate and Erik Dilan’s chief of staff, and Deidre Towns, the sister of vacating Assemblyman Daryl Towns and daughter of longtime Congressman Ed Towns. Gonzalez thinks that voters might also draw a connection between the Brooklyn machine and ineffectual politics in Washington. “A lot of folks on the left are very angry right now because they feel like the Democrats in Washington aren’t doing enough to fight for a more just and fair society. The truth is that folks in Brooklyn have felt that way about our elected officials for a long time.”
In truth, Brooklyn has been changing far too fast, and in too many different directions, over the past two decades for a machine like Lopez’s to last in the face of persistent challenges. Ambitious progressive candidates before the NKD came around have broken with Lopez and still won, from City Councilwoman Diane Reyna to Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who is now angling for Towns’ seat in Congress. But by moving from support of specific races to a strategy for reforming the County Committee itself, New Kings has proposed something unique: a fully operational machine that does not what it always had, but what it always should. It is a model for reform that, if NKD keeps up their winning ways, could have implications for urban politics across the nation.
Next week, Dissent’s blog Arguing the World will feature a post by Juravich on his experience running for County Committee in a gentrifying neighborhood.
Nick Juravich is a graduate student in the history department at Columbia University. He blogs about the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn at www.ilovefranklinave.blogspot.com.
Image: Boss Tweed on a tobacco label, 1869 (Library of Congress)