On Thursday, Twitter erupted with photographs of a letter Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte sent to Brooklyn poll workers. The letter urged employees to support three party-backed candidates.

The comments continue to decry the Brooklyn Democratic Party, as do a string of other tweets with photographs of the letter.

“I got this too! Gross,” replied @stainedandlit. Another comment reads, “This is reprehensible,” to which another user replied, “and also totally predictable, sadly.”

The party responded on Twitter by denying they sent the letter. They did not say who did.


It was yet another scandal to plague the Brooklyn Democratic Party, after it kicked candidates off the ballot in last year’s District 37 interim race, illegally cancelled a September meeting, and recently decided not to renew the Brooklyn Young Democrats’ charter

Regardless, the party pushes on, a massive 150-year old organizing machine that plays an impossibly large role in Brooklyn politics.

“What I think is unique about our situation in Brooklyn is that it’s really a one party town,” said Tony Melone, Director of Communications for reform group the New Kings Democrats. “Republicans are not winning hardly anywhere in New York City and don’t have any significant chance of taking power, so then the party becomes the whole game. All the power is transferred in the democratic primary here.” 

There are over 1.2 million registered Democrats in Brooklyn.

People talk about the power and corruption of the party, but it’s hard to understand exactly what that means.

How we got here

The Brooklyn Democratic Party is the stuff of high school history textbooks. Having emerged alongside the infamous Tammany Hall, it became notorious as a den of corruption. 

It’s cited as early as 1875 in a strongly worded New York Times article attacking its first party boss and the institution of the Brooklyn political machine: “Can we afford to see Republican institutions practically abolished by allowing the concentration of political power in the hands of just one man?”

The New Kings Democrats was established in 2008 with the goal of reforming the Brooklyn Democratic Party (also known as the Kings County Democratic Party).

“There’s just such a long history of machine politics in New York City. That’s our particular problem here,” said Tony Melone, Director of Communications for the New Kings Democrats. “I think the national party has its own problems to work out, but I think here, we need to break down the systems of patronage that still exist, where it’s basically been people handing off these jobs and these positions to their friends and their relatives for decades.”

But, the Brooklyn Democratic Party does more than just endorse candidates. 

The Board of Elections

The board is made up of ten people— a Democrat and Republican from each borough. “It ties into the Democratic Party here in Brooklyn because it’s a real old-fashioned sort of patronage system where basically the party leaders just pick who’s going to be in all the positions in the Board of Elections,” Melone said. 

“These days, it’s very technical work— it’s counting millions of ballots and it’s managing computer systems. But there’s no competitive hiring process for these, it’s all just county appointments and we’ve seen problems in it every year,” Melone added.

Back in September, the Board of Elections misprinted and incorrectly mailed the ballots of nearly 100,000 voters (mostly in Brooklyn), thereby rendering the ballots ineffective. 

Special Elections

As evidenced last year here in the District 37 election, the party can strongly influence the outcomes of special elections.

After City Councilmember Rafael Espinal stepped down, candidates had twelve days to turn in 450 petition signatures to the Board of Elections in order to get on the ballot.

Members of the Brooklyn Democratic Party filed a complaint to the Board of Elections stating that party-backed Darma Diaz was the only candidate to receive the required 450 petition signatures, even though the signature-gathering period occurred at the height of the pandemic.

Due to public health concerns, Governor Cuomo lowered this number to 270. Sandy Nurse attained 339 signatures before the deadline, but the Board of Elections still upheld the 450 signature rule.

In the end, Darma Diaz ran unopposed.

Some of last year’s ousted candidates— Sandy Nurse, Rick Echevarria, and Misba Abdin among them— are running again this year. The New Kings Democrats have endorsed Sandy Nurse.

State Judges

Candidates for state judgeships are determined at Democratic Party nominating conventions. In theory, the delegates who go to the convention are elected by voters, but in reality, these delegates are chosen by the party and may not even show up on your ballot because they run unopposed. At the convention, the delegates follow the party leadership.

The Executive Committee comprises the Chair and the District Leaders. The Executive Committee nominates people for offices, represents Brooklyn at the statewide convention to elect state officials, vote on party rules, and choose which candidate to endorse in special elections. There are 42 district leaders, two from each of the 21 assembly districts.

Each of Brooklyn’s 21 assembly districts is divided into election districts. Election districts are small— they could just be a few blocks. 2-4 County Committee members come from each election district. 

“Not a lot of people know about the party offices like County Committee and District Leaders, and I feel like once a few more people know about this, that could really turn the tide and make a difference here,” Thurston said.

Among other responsibilities, the County Committee makes amendments to and votes on party rules, ratifies the party’s selection of a candidate in special elections, and passes the budget. Now there are around 4,400 County Committee members.

However, there are about 5,000 county committee seats in total, so many seats are empty. Less are empty now than in past years.

In December, the County Committee was able to pass reforms by outvoting the party leadership and their proxy votes, but the vote was deemed illegal. “When we did get some reforms voted on and passed, they went around and threw them all out by some parliamentary maneuvering,” Thurston said.

I don’t know the last time County Committee members won a vote against the party leader,” said Melone.

In response, party leadership filled thousands of County Committee seats.

“So many of those 4,400 members never ran for a County Committee seat, were never invited to join the meeting, and may not even know they were appointed to County Committee,” said Thurston. “Existing leadership and assembly members controlled the seats. They just supplied— and they still have been across a lot of Brooklyn— a list of people they know that live in their district, some of whom might not even be alive still.”

Proxy Voting

The party leadership is able to retain control over this enormous body through proxy voting.

“People don’t even know they’re on the County Committee,” said Thurston. “They’re sent a proxy form in the mail. They see it’s from a District Leader they know, or it just seems like some official Democratic Party form, and they’re like ‘Alright, I’ll fill this out.’ They don’t even know what this is most of the time.”

“Then all of a sudden, the assembly member in that district, or whoever, turns those over to the party boss and then Frank or Rodneyse would walk into these meetings controlling the vote. With enough proxy vote envelopes in their pocket to outweigh any people in the room,” said Thurston.

“It’s just the politics of low information and capitalizing off of little to no involvement,” said Thurston. “That’s why so many seats were empty— thousands of seats were empty and the Chair would just vote with the strike of a pen and have like 600 votes.”

Reforms

The New Kings Democrats launched a campaign called #RepYourBlock, an initiative to mitigate the effects of proxy voting by encouraging Brooklynites to run for seats in the County Committee.

The New Kings Democrats have also proposed direct reforms to the proxy voting system, including notifying proxy-givers that there is a scheduled vote, limiting the number of proxy votes an assembly member can hold, and disclosing the amount of proxy votes an assembly member has at the start of a meeting.

The group advocates for a variety of other reforms as well, like barring District Leaders from being related to judges and prohibiting campaign donations between judges and District Leaders.

The Changing Party

There are other groups working to change the party, too, some of which include the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, the Lambda Independent Democrats, and the Southern Brooklyn Democrats.

They’ve had some success in getting District Leaders from outside of the party machine elected. 

“I definitely saw a change last year,” Melone said. “The party was afraid to have a meeting, which hasn’t really happened before. I’ve been to County Committee meetings and it was just routine, we would show up and make some noise but the party boss would walk in with 700 proxy votes and there were only 500 people in the room, so we knew how everything was gonna go. And at this last meeting, in December, the outcome was uncertain. And that’s why it dragged on for 12 hours.” 

“I think things are starting to change,” Melone said. 

“Ultimately, the more eyes that are on this process and the more people are aware of this nonsense that the machine continues to pull— that’s how change really happens. We want everyone paying attention, but we want to make it easy for people. The system is designed to make it not easy for people,” Thurston said.


Top image credit: Daniel Latorre licensed through Creative Commons

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