Early in the morning on Monday, March 11, dozens of Democratic district leaders shuffled upstairs to the county clubhouse, perched above a shuttered C-Town grocery store in Forest Hills. Before the workday started, they rubber-stamped the predetermined outcome: Rep. Gregory Meeks would be the new Queens County Democratic Party chairman.
The Queens Democrats are an insular group, often criticized for acting like an exclusive fraternity – you’ve got to know someone to get in. There wasn’t any sort of a public process to elect Meeks, and the meeting wasn’t publicly announced. The roughly72 district leaders didn’t sit through any debates among the contenders – in fact, there weren’t any other contenders, since nobody but Meeks admitted to having an interest in the job.
For the rest of the 800,000 registered Democrats in Queens, here’s the process of picking a new county boss: 1) Former Rep. Joseph Crowley resigns as county chairman to focus on his new lobbying job with the Washington, D.C.-based Squire Patton Boggs. 2) A few outlets report that Meeks is the leading contender to replace him. 3) Word spreads that Meeks will be elected. 4) Meeks is elected. The Queens Machine works.
Meeks does represent change for the county party, but only in certain ways. He’s the first black man to lead the Queens Democrats, and he’s the first boss from the traditionally black, middle-class neighborhoods of Southeast Queens. But the breakthrough is not enough to quiet critics of the county party. Meeks is the establishment, a party line insider who has been in office with county support for more than 25 years. He’s a capitalism-embracing moderate, and he has fended off numerous allegations of corruption over his years in office. If the county party wanted to signal political change, he would be an odd choice.
Yet change is already coming for the Queens Democratic Party. The borough, or at least its western reaches, is the physical epicenter of the capitalism-skeptic wing of the Democratic Party. It’s where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Crowley last summer. It’s where committed activists, fearing gentrification and furious over secretly negotiated subsidies for a hugely profitable corporation, defeated Amazon’s HQ2 plans. And it’s where the seven Democrats running for Queens district attorney are arguing over who can jail the fewest people.
This growing crop of voters might leave Meeks no choice but to reform the county party. But he said he’s not that guy.
“I still don’t use the term, necessarily, ‘reformer,’” he said when asked if that description would apply to him. “I say now, what I want to be is a bridge builder.”
Meeks’ domain is far from the country club set in Forest Hills, and even farther away from the growing progressive influence of Western Queens, where some elected officials say they barely know the congressman. Meeks is now the county boss of those neighborhoods too, but he was already the de facto boss in Southeast Queens. Meeks has been organizing monthly breakfast meetings, inviting all the elected officials whose districts overlap his: state legislators, New York City Council members, district leaders – a couple dozen in all. (New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, the sole elected Republican in the deep-blue borough, is not invited – though he gets along well with Meeks.) Such geographic cohesion is relatively rare in politics, where the brassy horns of competitive elections can often drown out the soft strings of cooperation. “My colleagues are like, ‘You guys do that? You guys talk to each other?’” said New York City Councilman I. Daneek Miller, a frequent attendee.
Soon after meeting Meeks, you get the impression that the answer to that question is no – the congressman does all the talking. Meeks, 65, is a gregarious, backslapping politician who talks as loudly as he dresses – often in double-breasted suits with busy shirts and bold ties. That recipe has made him a favorite on cable news, where he has been appearing frequently in recent months. While he’s dynamic on screen, he’s even more animated to an audience of one. A week after he was elected county chairman, we met at his district office in Jamaica, Queens, and talked about his plans for the new job.
“I’m scheduling!” he said with a mirthful laugh. “I’m scheduling to meet people, to get to some of these events. I’m trying to get out and to reach people.”
Those “people,” Meeks made clear, are mostly elected officials, particularly the district leaders who picked him from among their ranks. Meeks said he’ll rely on elected officials to share their neighborhoods’ concerns.
“Politics is about organization and being organized,” Meeks said. “And the county organization, if they’re not organized, how are you going to organize someone else? It’s a team concept.”
It’s an open secret that Meeks has inherited a weakened county party. A county endorsement means less than it once did, as a shrinking number of party regulars lend their hands petitioning and canvassing. It’s a party that couldn’t even get its own boss, Crowley, re-elected.
But the organization still wields influence. Its ability to coordinate the borough’s council members helped Crowley play a central role in elevating Corey Johnson to the council speakership last year. The borough’s overwhelming Democratic voter enrollment advantage lets the county party effectively pick the winner in every special election. It has also maintained a hold over the judicial system. As journalist Ross Barkan documented in 2017, judges as a rule only get elected with the party’s blessing. The law firm of Sweeney, Reich and Bolz, a trio of Long Island attorneys who have held top positions in the Queens Democratic Party, raked in some $30 million over a decade administering cases in Surrogate’s Court. Gerard Sweeney, Michael Reich and Frank Bolz also serve as election lawyers for county-endorsed candidates, successfully kicking opposing candidates off the ballot.These three white male partners have been a powerful force in the party since the 1990s, when then-county Chairman Thomas Manton worked in the firm. The Democratic Party in one of the most diverse counties in America was, until last month, effectively run by four white men, which critics say doesn’t represent the borough.
“There’s no discussion, there’s no debate, there’s no chance for debate,” said Jesse Rose, an attorney from Astoria who serves as treasurer and de facto spokesman for the New Queens Democrats. The group, known as NQD, was spun out of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Like the New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, NQD is the latest entrant in the centuries-old practice of reform Democratic organizations decrying the clubby atmosphere of “regular” county organizations and demanding more access from the Boss Tweeds of their day. “We live in an age where it’s really easy to foster debate, communication and come to a consensus,” Rose said. “But the Queens County Democratic Party is not moving into the age of information.”
The New Queens Democrats’ stated goals are all about increasing transparency and participation in the party,but the reformers’ real goal appears to be moving the party to the left. NQD shares some membership and political interests with other groups that want to see political change in Queens, such as the Queens branch of the Democratic Socialists of America and the newly formed Queens United Independent Progressives. The three don’t overlap perfectly – many Democratic Socialists of America members in particular are skeptical of working within the official Democratic Party structure at all – and there’s some of the petty infighting expected in any political organization. The three groups are all working hard to harness the political energy around Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, along with progressive stalwarts the Working Families Party,have endorsed Tiffany Cabán, the leftist, queer, Latina public defender in the June primary for Queens district attorney. Meeks and the Queens Democratic Party, by contrast, endorsed a more mainstream Democrat: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.
Same as the old boss?
Rep. Gregory Meeks succeeded former Rep. Joseph Crowley as the leader of the Queens County Democratic Party. Both men represented Queens in Congress for years, but that’s not all that they have in common.
Electing Katz will be Meeks’ first real test as county chairman, and he said it’s his main focus until Election Day on June 25. But that could be a challengewith a weakened machine, New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer told City & State.
"The center of gravity is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and her microphone is louder than anyone else’s in the borough.” – New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer
“The central Democratic figure in Queens right now is a woman from the Bronx! The center of gravity is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and her microphone is louder than anyone else’s in the borough,” Van Bramer said. Ocasio-Cortez has yet to endorse in the race for district attorney, and since entering Congress, she has largely avoided county politics. But she’s still seen as the heart of the county party’s opposition, which Van Bramer said poses a real threat to the Queens Democratic Party.
“You have one of the most prominent and powerful elected officials – not just in Queens, not just in New York City, but in the country – who is decidedly and declaredly opposed to the county organization,” Van Bramer said. “So where is the influence to get other elected officials and other people on your side?”
There are stark differences between the two congressional colleagues. AOC is the vanguard, representing what is new and exciting about the Democratic Party. She symbolizes resistance and taking power away from those who have traditionally held it. Ocasio-Cortez represents the opening up of electoral politics to anyone, even bartenders. Many of her supporters hardly followed politics before Donald Trump was elected president and had never dreamed of going to a meeting at their neighborhood political club.
“Clearly, I’m not a socialist. I’m a capitalist. I think that’s good.” - Rep. Gregory Meeks
Meeks, by contrast, is the old guard, representing seniority and stability in the Democratic Party. He symbolizes hardworking union families who became New York City homeowners. He is about letting corporations and Wall Street thrive, lifting up New Yorkers with their prosperity. Meeks represents working your way up in local politics, paying your dues and gaining influence. Meeks was in office when Ocasio-Cortez was still a toddler.
Ocasio-Cortez’s office declined to comment for this story, and Meeks said there wasn’t any personal tension between him and his congressional colleague, even if they weren’t particularly close. “We’ve never had any conversation directly about the county organization. I presume that we will,” Meeks said.
But there are stark disagreements. “Amazon (is) one of the big ones,” said Meeks, who backed the tech giant’s plans in Queens. “Clearly, I’m not a socialist. I’m a capitalist. I think that’s good.”
Meeks’ congressional career has featured the endless mingling of money and power. Meeks got a job as an assistant district attorney in Queens after graduating from Howard University School of Law. It was a solid public servant post that helped Meeks and his family move out of the public housing development in East Harlem where he was raised, and into a house with a yard in Far Rockaway, Queens. Like many political upstarts, Meeks got into politics by challenging the Queens Democratic Party, backing Simeon Golar’s failed bid against county-backed candidate Joseph Addabbo Sr. in a 1984 congressional primary. Then Meeks himself tried running, challenging the party’s candidate, Juanita Watkins, for City Council in 1991. Meeks lost that race, but impressed the county machine. He won the 1992 Assembly race with county’s backing and has been in their good graces ever since. When former Rep. Floyd Flake resigned from Congress in 1997, Meekswas essentially handed the seat in a closed-door county party vote. He hasn’t had a serious electoral challenge since. Meeks still listens to Flake preach at the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral of New York on Merrick Boulevard.
Meeks is one of the manypoliticians who claimshe can’t be defined politically: “I don’t want to be in anybody’s box,” he said. He’s a consistent Pelosi-aligned, anti–Trump vote in Congress, and is a proud member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has traditionally backed liberal policies. But he’s also an honorary co-chairman of Third Way, an organization for centrist Democrats. And with his seat on the House Financial Services Committee, he’s a notable opponent of legislation to tax financial transactions. Many progressives love the idea of taxing Wall Street, but Meeks said the bill would hurt New York. He’s “listening” to ideas to introduce a single-payer health care system, and backed the resolution to support a “Green New Deal.” In a pair of CNN appearances, Meeks proudly endorsed reparations for African-Americans and American Indians, but he’s absolutely not on board with Sanders’ presidential campaign, saying he “should run as an independent.”
While candidates like Sanders are obsessed with courting small-dollar donors and a growing number of Democrats are rejecting corporate donations to avoid even the appearance of possible corruption, Meeks is raising money the traditional way. His list of campaign donors could be mistaken for a list of Fortune 500 companies. Just about every financial and insurance firm you’ve heard of gave him money last year, presumably hoping for kind treatment on the Financial Services Committee. Bank of America, KPMG, Deloitte and BlackRock all gave him campaign donations during the 2018 cycle, when Meeks faced only token opposition. Some firms doubled up, like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Goldman Sachs, which gave money both to Meeks’ campaign committee and his leadership political action committee, Build America PAC. Meeks used that PAC to support many candidates who needed a boost, including Anthony Brindisi, who won a House seat in Central New York, and Dana Balter, who failed to unseat Republican Rep. John Katko. Meeks crisscrossed the country to raise money, flying to Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Minnesota and Las Vegas on the PAC’s dime.
Meeks’ backyard has a hard-earned reputation as an unethical cesspool. In the past six years, an assemblyman, a city councilman and twostate senators representing Southeast Queens have been sent to prison on corruption charges. Meeks has never been implicated in any crimes, but he has walked on the edge of the muck since his early days in Congress. The Federal Election Commission fined him $63,000 in 2008 for using campaign funds for personal expenses. He has reportedly been the subject of at least four federal or congressional investigations. One into the alleged misuse of funds by a local development nonprofit co-founded by Meeks. One into a campaign donor who built and sold Meeks a St. Albans mansion at an apparent $200,000 discount. One into a congressional junket to Azerbaijan paid for by that country’s government. And one into a $40,000 loan allegedly masquerading as an illegal gift from Queens businessman Edul Ahmad, who was later sentenced to prison in an unrelated mortgage fraud scheme.
None of the cases resulted in charges or sanctions against Meeks, but they left a lingering stench.Google “Greg Meeks,” and the third result reads: “Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) Named One of the Most Corrupt Members of Congress.” It links to a 2011 report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning think tank that, until 2014, published an annual list of “the most corrupt members of Congress,” Republicans and Democrats alike. Meeks made the list again in 2012 and in 2013. The reports detail many alleged ethical missteps, but maybe none as interesting as Meeks’ favor forR. Allen Stanford, the financier who was sentenced in 2012 to 110 years in prison for running a massive Ponzi scheme. Meeks was not reportedly involved with the scheme in any way, but he admits to traveling to Venezuela in 2006 to talk to then-President Hugo Chavez as a favor for Stanford. “‘Hey, can you help out my company?’” Meeks said Stanford asked him at the time. “Of course I’m going to help an American company. … That’s my job!”
None of the allegations have been proven, Meeks said, blaming some of them on the National Legal and Policy Center, a right-leaning ethics watchdog that has kept a close eye on Meeks for more than a decade. Meeks said he isn’t embarrassed by the lengthy list of corruption allegations. “No,” he said. “Because it’s not accurate.”
Despite the years of allegations, Meeks has never faced a serious challenge for his seat. In a telling moment of Southeast Queens politics, state Sen. James Sanders Jr. briefly launched a primary challenge to Meeks ahead of the 2016 election on an anti-corruption platform. But Sanders dropped his campaign after Meeks’ campaign accused him of corruption, reportedly leaking a story that Sanders had solicited a bribe from a nonprofit. The claims against Sanders were never substantiated, and he ended up getting re-elected to his Senate seat, despite the Queens Democratic Party backing his opponent.
Meeks faced only token opposition in the 2018 Democratic primary but could face a more energetic challenge in 2020. A Democratic Socialists of America-aligned candidate is rumored to be weighing a run against Meeks. Anybody challenging Meeks would face an uphill battle. He’s not just the county chairman. Even critics admit that Meeks has his finger on the pulse of the district, where the typical Democratic voter is more moderate than those in Western Queens. As New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, who also represents Southeast Queens, put it, “the Ocasio-Cortez effect means nothing in our district.”
“Oh, I’ve got to change some things. Joe is great. My friend. But I’m not Joe!” - Rep. Gregory Meeks
Meeks knows he’s tempting fate by taking over the county party, raising his profile boroughwide while shouldering the institution’s baggage. But he said he’s eager to take on the tough job of uniting the borough politically. In doing so, is he putting a target on his back? “If that means I have to debate folks on my positions, et cetera, I’m willing to do it!”
But Meeks doesn’t just have to protect his own seat now. He also has to protect the power and reputation of the Queens County Democratic Party. And after the disaster of Crowley’s 2018 defeat, both allies and critics are expecting some party reforms from Meeks. “Oh, I’ve got to change some things,” Meeks said. “Joe is great. My friend. But I’m not Joe!”
That means bringing more young people into the party and reinvigorating the borough’s system of district-level political clubs, Meeks said. He’s setting up meetings with groups that aren’t represented in the county party, and sitting down with reformers. He’s open to calling more meetings for the county party, and even advertising that online. Would he loosen up Sweeney, Reich and Bolz’s hold over the party, opening up Surrogate’s Court opportunities to other law firms? “I am going to look at that very closely. I haven’t had the chance to look at everything, but I am going to look at all of that,” he said. “I’m going to look at what the people are saying and asking for.”
Meeks is the patriarch of apolitical family. His mother was a tenant association president, and his sister, Janella Meeks, works at the New York State Nurses Association. Meeks’ wife, Simone-Marie, is an assistant commissioner for New York State Homes and Community Renewal. One of their daughters, Ebony, works for Johnson, the council speaker. Another, Aja, is in New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. Meeks’ youngest daughter, Nia-Aiyana, is still in college.
“If anybody was to run against them, then you’re running against the team. It’s my job to protect the team.” - Rep. Gregory Meeks
The congressman has long been the patriarch of another political family made up of his fellow elected officials in Southeast Queens. “Some people I endorsed when they first ran. Some people I didn’t. But once the election was over, we had to work together!” Meeks said. That doesn’t just mean cutting ribbons and passing bills. It means supporting incumbents. “If anybody was to run against them, then you’re running against the team! And I’m going to protect the team,” he said. “It’s my job to protect the team!”
Today, that political family has expanded, featuring a borough president, six House members, seven state senators, 18 Assembly members, 14 City Council members and all those district leaders who elected him. Some are conservative. Some are more moderate, and others are progressives. One congresswoman is even a democratic socialist. Some of them will soon get challenged by candidates representing new perspective, new voices. Meeks is stepping right into the middle of it.
“It’s inspiring to see the kind of debate that we have here,” Meeks said. “Some good for me, some bad for me! Let’s have it.”