You could be on the Bronx Democratic County Committee and not even know it

You could be on the Bronx Democratic County Committee and not even know it

You could be on the Bronx Democratic County Committee and not even know it
December 5, 2016

A 62-unit building just south of West Fordham Road in University Heights appears to have an unusually sizeable portion of its residents on the Bronx Democratic Party’s 1,653-member county committee, according to the organization’s documents.

On paper, 17 county committee members live at 2401 Davidson Ave., which would amount to a party official residing in one out of every four apartments.

Such a clustering seems to go against the spirit of county committees, which were created so that New Yorkers have a say in the decisions of their political parties. State law envisions these organizations as so democratically run that New Yorkers vote for their county committee representatives at the election district level – the few-block units Assembly districts are carved into when assigning people to voting machines. The two to four representatives in each election district are called county committee members, and collectively they form the county committee, which has the power to decide who will lead the party locally and under what rules – as well as which candidates the party will run for public office if a special election is called without enough time to hold a primary.

But within the halls of 2401 Davidson Ave., this representative vision seemed lost. There were no apartment numbers included with the address on the Bronx Democratic Party’s list of county committee members to help neighbors locate their representative. And several residents seemed unaware of the concentration of political clout in their building.

When Liza Ash heard her neighbor Diobelka Sosa was a county committee member, Ash called Sosa. Sosa walked over and said she, her sister and her daughter did not know they were members of the committee.

Ash asked how Sosa could be removed from the county committee, and Sosa nodded.

“I’m not very politically involved,” Sosa said.

Sosa and her family were not alone. More than a dozen other Bronxites were similarly bewildered to learn that they had wound up a county committee member in 2014 or were candidates for a committee position in 2016, according to a class action filed in federal court Aug. 15, about a month before the 2016 Democratic primaries. In the lawsuit, which was first reported on by Mott Haven Herald, plaintiffs accuse the Bronx Democratic Party of "misappropriating" their identities and conscripting people unlikely to discover they were county committee members and embrace the role. When some of these so-called straw candidates were brought to the Bronx Democrats’ meetings, they were allegedly led to believe they had been invited to a social event, as opposed to arriving at a meeting where they were entitled to participate and vote.

The lawsuit claims the Bronx Democratic Party carried out the scheme by collecting fraudulent petitions, including allegedly adding candidates to petitions that voters had already signed. After the Sept. 13 primary, the Bronx Democratic Party submitted a roster to the city Board of Elections that names its county committee members, which election district they represent and where they reside. The list includes a number of people who previously made it clear in court documents that they never intended to be a candidate for the county committee seat – let alone represent it. And according to election attorneys who discussed City & State’s analysis of the roster, the document contained a handful of prohibited moves, like having one person represent multiple election districts, and irregularities, such as a tendency to find more than a dozen county committee members in one building, as seen at 2401 Davidson Ave.

What is a county committee? How is it run? Find out here.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Donald Dunn, has a history of opposing petition papers for the Bronx Democratic County Committee, often colloquially called the Bronx Democratic Party. One of Dunn’s clients mounted an unsuccessful campaign against incumbent Bronx Assemblyman Luis Sepúlveda, and another has publicly described herself as unsatisfied with the party’s leadership. They claim in court papers that the county committee has disenfranchised Bronxites by transforming a democratically elected body into an “authoritarian farce” that picks the delegates who select judges and endorses candidates – all but assuring their victory in a deeply Democratic borough. County committee seats are often filled by active members of clubs and district leaders. Elected officials typically maintain their county committee positions. Some have found a political springboard in the Bronx county committee. The Assembly chose the Bronx Democratic Party’s last leader, Assemblyman Carl Heastie, to serve as speaker. And the current executive committee chairman, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, sits on a task force that helps craft redistricting plans.

Despite the lawsuit’s focus on the Bronx Democratic Party’s vacant seats, its roster is fuller than the Democratic organizations in other boroughs. The Democratic organizations of both Brooklyn and Queens appear to barely have the minimum number of county committee members required under state election law. Some see the vacancy rates as a reflection of drops in political participation seen nationwide. Others view it as the consequence of limiting committee membership to loyalists, even if the self-defeating instinct threatens their survival.

“It’s a mess. To me, it looks like a lot more than just a few typos.”

– Attorney Sarah Steiner

Plaintiffs contend that the Bronx Democratic Partyhas survived for years by installing county committee members without properly putting them before voters. The lawsuit claims Bronx party officials told both state Sen. Gustavo Rivera and Assemblyman Michael Blake in 2016 that they and their lawyer were not allowed inside the party’s headquarters when their petition paperwork was being processed because they did not use the organization’s longtime lawyer, Stanley Schlein. Sarah Steiner, the attorney for the two lawmakers, had her clients’ petitions photocopied before handing them over to the county organization. She then compared those to the documents the Bronx Democratic Party submitted to the city Board of Elections and saw that county committee candidates had been added to the petitions. For instance, City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson and Miriam Green, who appears to live in Gibson’s building, were allegedly placed onto a petition sheet for Rivera and other candidates in the 77th Assembly District while the paperwork was in the county organization’s hands. Because there weren’t enough candidates to require a primary, Gibson and Green did not appear on the ballot and were instead automatically elected to county committee seats, as is fairly common for low-level party posts.

“People talk about they’ve been doing this, but I’ve never seen any proof that they did it before, and because it’s such a huge violation of the law to change something on a petition after the petition’s been signed by the witness, I didn’t really believe that it happened,” said Steiner, who is also the outgoing chairwoman of the New York City Bar Association’s Election Law Committee. “The fact that it’s a county committee member doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant just because it’s a small office.”

Rivera said his lawyer’s deposition spoke for itself, and declined to comment further. Through a spokesman, Blake declined to discuss the case.

In a phone interview, Green acknowledged that she was a county committee member before saying she knew nothing about the lawsuit and hanging up. Gibson did not respond to a request for comment.

The Bronx Democratic Party also allegedly took steps that prevented people from learning they had been named candidates for county committee positions and later won the seats, according to the lawsuit. For the past several elections, Mark Lindsay said in court papers, he worked as a poll coordinator at sites near his Crotona Park home, where he lives with his father, Phillip Lindsay, and mother, Henrietta Lindsay. The trio appeared on the 2014 primary ballot for county committee seats in their Assembly District, but further away in another election district. Mark Lindsay said this prevented him from seeing their names while working at the polls. State law does not require county committee members to live in the election district they represent, just the larger Assembly District. The Lindsays’ street name had also allegedly been misspelled on petition paperwork. The lawsuit suggested this inaccuracy prevented them from receiving legally required notices mailed to them stating that they had been elected county committee members and were now entitled to attend the party’s organizational meeting.

“My wife has Alzheimer’s disease and I am her primary caregiver,” Philip Lindsay said in court papers. “Because of the progression of her disease, she has not been capable of serving in any elected position since well before 2014. I am certain she has no knowledge whatsoever that her name and identity were being used as a candidate for member of the county committee.”

A substantial portion of the county committee candidates’ addresses were inaccurate or incomplete, according to the lawsuit.

The court case depicts most of these straw county committee members as vulnerable, unsuspecting residents. For instance, Patricia Jones attended a post-primary party at Eastwood Manor with her daughter in 2014, which she believed they had been graciously invited to until she heard from the plaintiffs’ attorney, Donald Dunn, according to court documents. Dunn informed Jones she and her daughter had been elected county committee members, which entitled them to represent local Democrats at the organizational meeting by voting for the party’s new leadership slate. As Jones learned more, she questioned her district leader, according to the suit. Jones said in court papers that the district leader told her this year that she would not be permitted to work at election polls unless she helped gather signatures on petitions, the same documents Jones contended were used to propel her to the party position without her permission. Jones worried that without income from the polls, she would not be able to finance holiday celebrations for her grandchildren.

The county Democratic Party also appears to have targeted the politically savvy, including retired Assemblyman and former Bronx Democratic County Committee parliamentarian Michael Benjamin. “I was never asked to be a county committee member, and I was surprised when I got a postcard making me aware that I was invited to the county committee meeting,” said Benjamin, who won his old Assembly seat in 2003 by helping appoint loyalists to the county committee and then receiving its nomination ahead of a special election. “I did reach out to the county leader and made him aware that I got the postcard, and he said he would look into it.”

Crespo, the current county leader, did not respond to a request for comment about the case or the conversation with Benjamin.

Where are committee members clustering? What are they like in other boroughs? Click here to find out.

Borough political parties cannot run candidates for any position without their consent, according to election attorneys. But lawyers note that there isn’t one clear standard for getting this permission. Aaron Maslow, an election lawyer who has not represented the Bronx Democratic County Committee and who started “cleaning petitions” for U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer before Schumer was elected to office, said he had petitions for Brooklyn Republicans seeking seats on the state GOP committee deemed invalid in the 1990s because county committee candidates were put on the paperwork without their permission. Similarly, Martin Connor, formerly the state Senate Democratic minority leader and now an election attorney, said that in 1980s he threw an incumbent assemblyman, Albert Vann, off the Democratic line because petitioners had put county committee candidates from a rival political club on Vann’s paperwork without their knowledge. Vann won on the Liberal Party line. After that, Connor said his political club always gets written consent from such candidates.

Schlein, the Bronx Democratic Party’s longtime lawyer, declined to talk about the lawsuit. The party’s executive director, Anthony Perez, and counsel, Marissa Soto, did not respond to requests to discuss the case. The lawsuit describes Schlein as the chief orchestrator of the county committee’s alleged wrongdoing, but Soto is also accused of altering petition paperwork and submitting fraudulent documents. She is listed as the lead attorney for the Bronx Democratic Party in the lawsuit. In court filings, Soto and Schlein argued that the lawsuit contained a lot of hyperbole and personal attacks. Once these dramatics were set aside, they said the federal courts should not have jurisdiction over the matter, given that the federal lawsuit was really “a New York State Election Law proceeding in disguise.” Dunn had already argued many of the allegations in the state court system and lost, according to the county organization’s court filings.

While Dunn did not respond to requests to discuss the lawsuit, in court papers he said state law only allows candidates who claim they have been treated unfairly and voters who live in the election district in question to challenge a petition. He said this narrow criteria prevented the plaintiffs from having their cases heard, particularly because some were listed as candidates in election districts where they do not reside.

The attorney urged the court to intervene before the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. Dunn requested that, until the 2018 primaries, the court order the Bronx to be governed like areas that lack county committees, where the state party committee fills that role. He also asked that candidates slated to compete in most Democratic primaries and all otherwise qualified Democratic contenders be placed on the general election ballot. Finally, he argued that an appropriate amount of financial compensation for his clients should be determined during the trial.

In early September, Judge Kimba Wood did not grant Dunn’s requests. But Wood said she could order a new election later, if evidence showed it was appropriate, according to the Daily News.

After the Sept. 13 primaries, the Bronx Democratic Party gave the city Board of Elections a list of the new county committee members, which appears to include 10 individuals who, in court papers, had previously indicated they were listed as county committee candidates without their consent. The documents also had other irregularities. In at least a dozen instances, the party appears to have one person representing multiple election districts, according to a City & State review of the roster and related voter registration cards. Election attorneys said an individual may only serve one election district. At least five county committee members have residential addresses listed on the roster that suggest they do not live in the Assembly district containing the election district they represent, as is required. Though completely permissible, the party appears to have many of its county committee members clustered in certain buildings and parts of Assembly districts, likely leaving other parts of the district with relatively few representatives. Maslow, an election attorney who has never represented the Bronx Democratic County Committee, said the volume of apparent errors seemed as if it could be accidental. But Steiner, the lawyer who represented just two of the Bronx legislative candidates, disagreed.

“It’s a mess,” she said. “To me, it looks like a lot more than just a few typos.”

Both attorneys said they were surprised the city Board of Elections did not flag these issues during a customary review of the petition paperwork for obvious shortcomings or errors. The Board of Elections disqualified 360 other county committee candidates during its administrative review of the Bronx Democrats’ documents, according to a court declaration from Crespo. The Board of Elections did not respond to requests for comment.

Dunn’s complaint contends that the Bronx Democratic Party sought to make some candidates solely county committee members on paper, making their seats functionally vacant. The numerous vacant seats show the Bronx Democratic Party’s leadership assumed privileges bestowed on county committees without welcoming and engaging truly elected representatives of their constituents, as state law requires, according to the suit. Indeed, the laws that spell out the powers of county committees also state that at least a quarter of their county committee seats must be filled through biennial elections.

Read the court documents and other evidence here.

Outside of elections, the Bronx Democratic Party and its counterparts in other boroughs may fill vacant county committee seats at their meetings. The Bronx organization’s bylaws say the district leader – or other party officials representing the area where a seat is vacant – can nominate qualified Democrats to assume that seat. County committee members who join this way are not considered elected, according to election attorneys. In contrast, those who wind up on the county committee by filing an uncontested petition or by winning a primary are viewed as elected.

Although the lawsuit emphasizes there are many vacancies in the Bronx, the borough is outperforming New York City’s other Democratic organizations. About 66 percent of the Bronx Democratic Party county committee seats were filled through an election, according to the 2016 party call listing internal party positions open to Democrats and the 2016 roster it submitted to the city Board of Elections before the organization met and had the opportunity to fill vacant seats. The Manhattan Democratic County Committee had 57.3 percent of its committee seats filled through an election; the Staten Island Democratic County Committee, 47.6 percent; Queens (28.5 percent) and Brooklyn (27 percent) appear to be approaching the elected member minimum written into state law, according to the most recent party rosters they filed with the city Board of Elections.

When asked to comment on the lawsuit, irregularities in the organization’s paperwork and its occupancy rate, consultant George Arzt, in a statement representing the Bronx Democratic Party, touted the organization’s relatively high percentage of elected county committee members.

The Bronx Democratic Party is committed to its grassroots approach of campaigning and engaging the Bronx community in an effort to politically empower Bronx residents so their voices are heard on citywide, statewide and national levels. The Bronx Democratic Party believes there is no better evidence of our successfully meeting our goals than the actual Election Day results,” Arzt said. “The Bronx Democratic Party has the highest percentage of elected county committee members in New York City, the highest turnout out of any county in New York state for the eventual 2016 Democratic presidential nominee in the primary election, and some candidates who have won the general election with 98 percent of the vote. The Bronx Democratic Party is proud of the work that our local political clubs and hundreds of volunteers have done with the leadership of our elected officials this year and we plan to continue to collaborate, support and promote the Bronx electorate and its interests in 2018 and beyond.”

Some election attorneys said they were surprised by the abundance of vacancies in Queens and Brooklyn, although they were aware of county committees’ waning influence. Maslow said reforms over the past 15 years have limited the patronage powers – and, therefore, the strength – of Democratic county committees. Others attributed their decline to the governor calling fewer special elections, which empower county committees by allowing them to forgo a primary and pick their party’s nominee, or to a broader decline in political involvement.

In Brooklyn, people pointed to the 43rd Assembly District, an area the Democrats lost to the Working Families Party amid internal county committee strife. In 2015, a perennial candidate named Guillermo Philpotts petitioned himself and a handful of allies onto the committee. The district leaders who typically spearhead the county committee’s efforts to elect county committee members apparently failed to do so. Despite county committee leaders’ attempts to negotiate with Philpotts, he and the small group of committee member allies nominated him as the area’s candidate when then-Assemblyman Karim Camara resigned to join Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, according to published reports. But Philpotts did not hand in paperwork that was required for him to appear on the Democratic line, leaving it blank. Ultimately, Diana Richardson won the Assembly seat on the Working Families Party ticket.

Nonetheless, Jeff Feldman, the executive director of the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee, said he did not view the vacancy rate as a threat – or a test of party strength. He said party leaders worked to fill seats and the vacancy rate may show a drop-off in participation on a “grassroots level.” But Feldman contended the 25 percent threshold would likely be meaningless if challenged in court. “The United States Supreme Court has, on numerous occasions, drawn a bright line to say that the Legislature is disinterested, legally, from attempting to enforce their will on the internal management of political parties,” Feldman said. “No one has taken the trouble to particularly contest this statute under the election law.”

Others say Feldman is missing the message. In an argument that echoes the Bronx lawsuit, Anusha Venkataraman, president of the reform-oriented New Kings Democrats political club in Brooklyn, said county leaders seem interested in limiting or controlling who joins the committee so their incumbency is not threatened. She said the Brooklyn Democrats could attract more people if they were open to those with ideas that might challenge their traditions or willing to democratize their operations.

“They need to let go a little bit to allow it to evolve or else the party’s going to die in Brooklyn and maybe beyond,” she said, noting that this year New Kings Democrats and other groups urged about 100 people to petition for county committee seats and that many were successful. “And it’s a great sign that there are people in the room who’ve petitioned to be there that want a change. They don’t want to ditch the system entirely, but want to make it better.”

In the lawsuit, which was first reported on by The Mott Haven Herald, plaintiffs accuse the Bronx Democratic Party of “misappropriating” their identities and conscripting people unlikely to discover they were county committee members and embrace the role. 

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Sarina Trangle