Waiting for Evolution: My Experiences Trying to Reform the Brooklyn Democratic Party

Speaking at the 2018 Brooklyn Democratic Party County Committee Meeting. Photo by Tsubasa Berg

We all sometimes stumble into opportunities that, if we accept them, change our entire lives. For me, that moment was attending my first New Kings Democrats meeting in 2014, where I first found my voice in local Brooklyn politics.

I was politically minded and involved since high school and I felt drawn to leftist politics early on. But after that meeting, my personal and professional life has been defined by trying to wrestle power away from uncaring political institutions and to make them more transparent, accountable, and democratically accessible to the powerless. That’s what drives me, and it’s why I decided to listen to my local political community’s advice to run for New York City Council in District 39 in Brooklyn, where I live.

This work started in 2014, when I showed up to a monthly meeting of the New Kings Democrats political club in the basement of a now-defunct co-working space in Williamsburg. I had signed up for their email list on a whim a while back, and after receiving their emails for long enough, I thought I should just go. The room was filled with around 30 millennials — mostly a mix of white folks, but also some Black and brown organizers. People passed around PBRs. There was a pile of CareBear stuffed toys on the side of the room against the wall, and an oddly-placed tapestry of a tiger on the wall. I sat next to the pool table. Someone, who I later learned was Debbie Medina, spoke and thanked everyone for their support in her race, despite coming up short in her attempt to challenge State Senator Martin Dilan. Outside of her heartfelt speech, at first the space felt a little inaccessible for me.

Then, a Black man introduced himself as Theo and stood up and engaged in a confident and hilarious takedown of how the Brooklyn Democratic Party was structured. He ranted about the reign of terror of party boss Vito Lopez, and the County Committee, a large and influential body within the party apparatus where people can represent their neighborhood’s 3- to 4-block radius and have sway over how the party functions. He talked about how often people don’t even know they are on it, and that the party leadership use proxy votes in order to control the entire operation of the party, sometimes with 600 to 700 votes being weighed at a time.

“This is what we do in NKD. All of you are running for County Committee.” I was told. It was on us to run for these positions so that the establishment could no longer control them. It seemed like something approachable I could do in my community. I was a nerd for democracy issues, then working in City government as a budget analyst, and I needed an outlet for more activism where I could feel and fight for myself.

Over the next six years, I went from joining NKD’s policy committee to being elected Vice President of Policy and Political Affairs, to serving as President for two years.

Before 2016, while we were getting people more engaged in local politics, there was always a confused pushback from many groups, including the county leadership:

“Why are you complaining so much during meetings?”

“Shouldn’t we be focused on other issues?”

“Why is this important?”

These efforts were important to us because we believed that everyday people need to be better organized on local issues, and we believed that bad politics creates bad policy. Some of this theory of change came because NKD was started by former Obama organizers. Regardless of whether the Obama legacy really upholds these ideas now, we all knew that the machinations of the party elite at the top of the pyramid eventually trickle down to the granular details and of how candidates get chosen to be supported by the party, what policies are supported, who becomes a judge in Brooklyn, and who gets a seat at the table of political power. Everything about how the party conducted it’s business was opaque and transactional. We knew needed to change.

During this work, I attended a Brooklyn Democratic party meeting at a hospital auditorium. It was one of the many transit-inaccessible locations where the county party decided to assemble. We were struggling to get our members to a south Brooklyn hospital on a weeknight with short notice, and with no knowledge what the agenda would be.

After a panel discussion, we pressed for an update about a rules change, from a committee that we weren’t even sure existed. We decided to wait till the end of the meeting to make noise about this, instead of holding up the entire meeting and seeming like bad sports.

Well, we still came off as bad sports and received some boos. Everyone else in the room wanted to just go home. I remember sitting a row behind the President of NKD at the time, who was trying to argue with Jeff Feldman, the longtime Executive Director of the Party, who was the holder of all the information and internal workings. The women sitting next to me sighed and commented to their friend this was a waste of time. There weren’t enough of us to barge through the front door of the party or to effectively show with strength why the Brooklyn Democratic Party needed to change, and the County party establishment was happy to keep it that way.

After that meeting, my fellow organizers and I launched a years-long effort to build a coalition with other reform clubs, political groups, and community leaders. Our thesis? It’s important to understand the way the Brooklyn Democratic Party operates, take part in it, and shape it.

We focused on a simple truth: People want to be engaged with their party. We went through a multi-year process to ask people what they wanted from their local politics, in the form of the “Vision Project,” where community members help envision a better future for the Democratic Party. We shared and offered the results of this process. As a result, we created Rep Your Block, a massive volunteer campaign to make it easier to run for County Committee and to learn how the local party works.

We did all of this to make a case for how the party could evolve. So this is what happened next.

In 2018, our coalition decided to run people for party leadership roles for the first time in the modern era, and to force an actual election. More often than not, those in leadership were not involved in the party’s functioning, which explained why there were no records, and the party was in debt.

I ran for party chair with a group of community activists. In response, the County party spread disgraceful rumors about our effort. They sent their people door-to-door to canvas for proxy votes, claiming to be from NKD, but actually taking votes for the establishment- and County-aligned candidates. They even sent out mailers to members requesting their proxy votes, falsely implying that they were sent from local elected leaders. Some of these mailers had my name and a fake signature.

In an auditorium in one of the most isolated locations in the borough, with hundreds of people in the room but many more hundreds of proxies held in county party pockets, we watched as they shut down the election we wanted. Two years of organizing fell short, but we were close. 2020 would be different, we said

And 2020 was indeed different — things got worse! Today, I’m reflecting on this work because of the recent two-day, 25-plus-hour, Zoom meeting from hell hosted by the Brooklyn Democratic Party executive committee. That experience felt like an absurd political exercise, which feels appropriate for a year full of preposterous failures at the local and national level.

There is too much play-by-play from that meeting to fully account for. But essentially, under leader Rodneyse Bichotte, the party used the pandemic as a reason not to hold meetings — and on top of that, to automatically transfer voting power from county committee members to a much smaller group of executive District Leaders, usually establishment figures. They followed that up with obstruction, leading to many lawsuits, and finally that zoom meeting, which lasted 25 hours over two days, one week apart.

But reformers had the votes. We outnumbered those supporting the County establishment. After we finally got the committee to approve modest reforms to hold meetings, end proxy abuse, and open up the party’s operation at the end of day one of this meeting, County then used a perverse interpretation of Robert’s Rules on day two, a week later, to wipe out these reforms on a questionable technicality a week later. There was a mass virtual walkout in process.

Want to raise a point of order? Nope.

Want to see how they calculated the vote totals? Nope.

Want to voice concern that they chose the temporary chair against the party’s own rules for line of succession? Nope.

All I can think of is the repeated refrain from former Democratic party boss Frank Seddio saying that he supports “evolution, not revolution” when pressed with attempts to change.

What is “evolution” to the Democratic Party? I think it’s safe to say the Brooklyn Democratic Party doesn’t want to evolve.

But evolving is what political parties should do. They are not unions or cooperatives. They are not massive political organizations run by members, led by decisions made at regular conventions, like DSA. They are repositories of power. Now, they are used as a place to wage influence over others, in support of electoral goals, and not the goals of rank-and-file Democrats, but the goals of people already in office.

That’s why some within the county party, to this day, support members of the IDC, a renegade group of Democrats in the state legislature who caucused with the GOP, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, and held back progressive reforms for years. The DNC is like this, and county parties often are like this, but especially in one-party cities with consolidated party power, like New York City is.

It’s no mistake that the IDC happened here in New York City. It’s no mistake that Andrew Cuomo rules with an iron fist in New York State. It’s no mistake that New York lags towards the bottom of voter participation, and why political leaders within the Brooklyn Party fought aggressively to stop Rank Choice Voting. This scenario is what consolidated power looks like and how the system works.

Sometimes, it can feel like this is just all a waste of time. But you can’t advocate for the world you want if you don’t have an idea of what it should look like. Since 2016, people have risen to build power locally. We’ve seen the DSA grow into one of the most vital political powers in the state. WFP blew past its needed goal of votes to stay on the state ballot. The case is being made by many progressive forces and figures that people are tired of the status quo and want to build independent political power on the issues that they care about. This scenario is the “revolution” that Frank Seddio feared, but in reality, it’s the only response you’d expect from a climate and an institution that rejects evolution and clings to the status quo and its power.

If you’ve ever led a group of people towards a larger goal, you know it’s not something you can always fully control. It’s something you as an individual can try to guide and help provide the information and support for the group to decide what they want to do. Collectively, you hope to all make the best decision and go from there. That includes a lot of mistakes along the way. That’s part of organizing.

But that’s not how political parties work. At a larger level, it is more advantageous for them to wield power behind the scenes, strategically, opaquely and efficiently. That way, you can keep important players happy and involved. It’s how you make sure the money is flowing. And it’s a lot less messy and confusing for voters– “just vote down the ticket, folks!”

At best, this system disenfranchises members, and at worst, it perpetuates dangerous and stagnant political climates that won’t change until it’s past too late, ensuring that we all perish from climate change inequality. These systems and the people running them don’t want to evolve. This is why revolution tends to cycle in historically over and over again.

I can’t say that having enough votes coming into a county committee meeting will ever be enough to stop the County establishment from obstructing the process in order to stay in power. There is no accountability for them, so there is no reason for them not to do it. There is too much money at stake for them not to fight to keep it this way. But, I do know that political parties aren’t disappearing either. And local parties have an immense impact on people’s daily lives. At some point, we will have to deal with the Democratic Party, even if every effort to build outside political power is successful.

But “evolution” or “revolution” can only happen by engaging everyday people in forming a vision for what they want. Something that is working-class-led. Something that people can understand and be a part of. Something that they don’t need money in order to have influence over. Something, inevitably, a lot more messy and unpredictable — but more real and honest as well.

As a Black man who leads what was a predominantly white political organization at the time I was involved, I had to have a lot of tough, real, and honest conversations. I have seen all predominantly white organizations struggle with considering white supremacy and being anti-racist. BIPOC folks have a reason to be wary of affluent people taking up political capital. People who aren’t most impacted by inequalities struggle to advocate for the needs of everyday people actually impacted by that disadvantage. They remain ineffective because their understanding of their communities is limited. Politics should be thought of as less a hobby and more as building power for the marginalized.

Over the past few years, we’ve moved from a point where opposition to the county committee, which seemed like a purely academic issue, is now an issue covered by the New York Times, and there is almost unanimous agreement outside of party leadership that this system is an embarrassment. We’ve seen political ideas, and the word “socialism” go from an establishment insult to a rallying point for voters and leaders. We’ve seen Black organizers, including myself, put their lives on the line in the streets. We’ve seen “defunding the police” become an issue that pulls an over 50% approval rating in New York City. We’ve seen an emphatic rebuke of the political machines, and we’ve seen a refreshing bench of new leaders building an engaged following.

A vision for the future is forming. It looks and feels increasingly more revolutionary. The Brooklyn Democratic Party, as well as the national party, is only going to lose relevance if it continues to deny this growth. Anyone who wants to make a good faith effort to build political power for working people should be included. And yes, the vision we want is messier, and less easy to control and predict. But I can’t say that I will ever mourn the loss of what we have now.