Interviews & Profiles

Bichotte makes the case for being a unifier

The head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party speaks out after a contentious 26-hour organizational meeting

New Brooklyn boss, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte.

New Brooklyn boss, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte. Office of Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte

After 26 hours split over two days, the 2020 meeting of the Kings County Democratic County Committee finally concluded in the early hours Christmas Eve. By the end, the gains made by a group of reformers in the Brooklyn Democratic Party during the first half of the meeting had been undone. At the Dec. 23 meeting, the party’s newly hired parliamentarian explained that an omnibus motion made at the tail end of the first Dec. 16 meeting to adopt new rules, recess the meeting (or technically adjourn it, time affixed) and set an agenda for the second half of the meeting was out of order, violating both the party’s own rules and a judicial ruling about the filling of vacancies. 

Reformers, many members of/or aligned with the political club New Kings Democrats, considered this an affront, questioning the merit of the decision and accusing those aligned with the party establishment of haphazardly adopting new parliamentarian rules during the meeting to override the will of the committee members from the first meeting. The parliamentarian, Rob Robinson, contended that the vote adopting the rules at the end of the Dec. 16 meeting was out of order no matter what happened at the Dec. 23 meeting because it violated the party’s own rules adopted under COVID-19 provisions. Reformers also took issue with a change in agenda – they said the agenda had been set so that the filling of vacancies came last but that the change was meant to allow party-aligned district leaders to get new proxy votes sooner to have greater sway in the meeting. Robinson said a judicial ruling ordering the full committee to fill membership vacancies meant that it needed to be the first order of business at the Dec. 23 meeting with no regard to politics.

Reformers disagreed with Robinson’s interpretations, as well as the elevation of Assembly Member Tremaine Wright as temporary committee chairperson on Dec. 22, and say they will file a lawsuit challenging the validity of what took place at the Dec. 23 meeting. 

The organizational meeting capped off a contentious first year for Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte as chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. She took over the role from former chair Frank Seddio, who was infamous for taking near total control of the party’s business with his use of hundreds of proxy votes to control meetings. Bichotte promised to reform the party to make it more democratic and transparent when she took over in January, vowing to unify the divided party. But since becoming chair, the party has been sued twice, losing both times. The first ruling declared the party broke the law by indefinitely postponing its legally mandated committee meeting and ordered the party to hold the meeting despite the pandemic. The second ruling found the party broke the law again by allowing the executive committee to fill membership vacancies. Reformers felt vindicated when Seddio, still a district leader, said at a Dec. 2 executive committee meeting that the party needed more members to “overcome these fucking progressives,” effectively admitting that establishment leaders were trying to stifle the voices of progressive reformers in the party. Some on social media, including Assembly Member Diana Richardson, have called for Bichotte to resign as chairperson and the New Kings Democrats say that the party remains opaque as leadership and party loyalists continue to consolidate power for itself under her command.

In an interview with City & State, Bichotte defended her tenure so far as the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s first Black woman chair, and the events of the controversial committee meeting held this month. She lamented the lack of structure at the Dec. 16 and earlier meetings, and called out what she called bullying at the organizational meeting by some members of the reformer faction who have been among her top critics. Bichotte characterized herself as a reformer who has worked diligently to change the culture of the party she inherited from Seddio. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So what happened at that 26-hour long meeting?

At the first meeting, there were a number of things that happened that were unforeseen because this was the very first time we had a virtual meeting. It was not in a situation where it was structured. Second, there was an issue with tabulation. I think both we and the third party vendor just probably were not equipped for that type of tabulation because of the complexities involved. We did ask for an adjournment or recess to tabulate the numbers correctly. Apparently, there was an opposition to that because people were very upset at the long meeting, the recess and not knowing what’s going on. And quite frankly, I understand. I understand when you’re anticipating a meeting that you’ve been wanting for some time, and then boom, you have this long meeting with hours of silence and not knowing what’s going on. Yes, it creates anxiety, it creates a sense of something going on in the background, there’s something hidden. And I can assure you that was not the case.

And the motion to adjourn and adopt new rules at the end of that first meeting?

People were confused in terms of, well, was this really adopted? Was this now the new rules or whatever? Obviously this was a meeting that had to continue. And typically when rules are adopted, there's a few things that have to go on, usually for each amendment. And that's when we had to re-educate everybody, what happened, what we did was out of order. Usually for each amendment, those amendments have to be argued and debated individually. And the county committee members have to actually vote on each and every one of them. We did the omnibus. There was not really a vote. We didn't do a thorough vote because people just wanted to adjourn. It short-changed everything. But quite frankly, the reason why it was that way is because there wasn't any structure. So during the course of the two meetings, we actually looked for a parliamentarian. We found someone by the name of Rob Robinson. Had no relationship with him, don't know him, he's not in politics. He's just a strictly professional registered parliamentarian.

You’ve come under scrutiny for holding a vote to appoint Assembly Member Tremaine Wright as temporary committee chair after Scissura stepped down in between meetings. Why didn’t you follow the line of succession?

The vote was needed because it was an actual vacancy. Usually the chain of succession is (when) the person is absent and a person from the chain of succession can come in. For this particular vote, the person had stepped down and it was a vacancy. And we were still in the middle of a pending meeting that hadn’t completed, which is the 2020 organizational meeting.

At the second half of this meeting on Dec. 23, some 100 committee members walked out part way through in protest of what was happening. How do you feel about that?

For one, we didn’t see that. That’s a narrative that’s out there that’s not true. When there was a walkout, we saw there it was like 40, 50 people who probably signed off, and then signed back on to participate in the voting. The 40 people who walked out were part of a faction, they were a part of New Kings. They had their coalition, which is fine, but that's not a representation of all Brooklyn. And you have to understand that. Yes, it's unfortunate, but in a lot of these meetings, you're always going to have people who are not going to be completely happy. I've been part of those meetings too where I wasn't completely happy. There's been many times when it was me and (Assembly Member Charles) Barron who were voting against the leadership. For me, when I was the only person in the room who's voting against the leadership, I said, well, that's life. That’s politics. Everybody's not going to be satisfied a hundred percent, but we have to find ways to work with each other.

What do you make of complaints about your party leadership and the workings of the county committee from self-described reformers and progressives?

I want to work with members of all factions of the party. But we should not work under stressed situations where people are bullying. Rob Robinson had gotten a number of very bad emails, saying “Fuck you, I’m watching you, I’m following you.” Even if you have a disagreement or if there's a thinking that there's some type of bad dealings, that is not how we, as the Democratic Party, should be communicating with each other. We should have a structured meeting, we should talk about the rules and then continue on with an agenda where people can talk about policies and inclusiveness. But this, all this attack and so forth, I don't know. I know for me, I try my darndest – I came in as a leader with a structure that was there. There wasn't any money, I had to raise the money. I had to raise the money for the Brooklyn Democratic party. And I actually walked through, line by line, with everybody to show transparency. And then talks about the Board of Elections, election reforms that we made. I literally helped redesign the envelope so that we don't have 21,000 people (have) their signatures invalid. And that envelope helped save the Democratic party. We introduced a task force of gender representation. The lawsuits that you mentioned? Yes, it was an interpretation. The judge ruled, we had the meeting according to the judge’s ruling, and we did the filling of vacancies. We had to move forward with the agenda. If you go back in history, I was one of the people who not only ran against county and won, but ran other people against party leadership. I was a beast, trust me. I do not have control of certain things that were said, I know Frank Seddio said what he said (at the Dec. 2 executive committee meeting). I know there was an unmanaged meeting that happened in my absence. I was really disappointed in that meeting. As a Black woman, I’m trying to save the party, I’m trying to be unified, but I’m trying to do the right thing. I consider myself a reformer, a reform county leader because that’s where I came from. I didn’t come from the establishment. I want to work with New Kings Democrats, I do. And I want every other group and clubs to work with each other and be more active.

What about the criticism of the recent rules change that states that all committee members’ votes automatically go to their district leader unless they proactively ask for their vote back or to go to someone else?

That was part of the COVID provision, knowing that it would have been very difficult. And typically the district leaders are the ones who are running county committees, staying in touch with their county committee members. They vote with their county committee members. I think this was particular for pandemic provision, especially in some neighborhoods, it just would have been hard for people to attend or people to be available or, to have access. So that's why that was there.

You spoke about what the success of this organizational meeting this was, the accomplishment of holding this virtually. But you needed a court order forcing you to hold this meeting after the executive committee initially voted to indefinitely postpone it.

I wanted to have this meeting, trust me. I wanted to have the meeting, I wanted to have it in the most democratic way that we can get the highest number of participation. We were confined to Zoom. I was hoping maybe a hybrid, but obviously with the pandemic that was not safe. I was happy that the meeting took place, I was happy that we were able to fix it so there was structure. 

So why did it take a court order to hold this meeting?

In the COVID provision, the thing was let’s postpone the meeting until we can have a live meeting in person. I guess at that particular point, we’re thinking that the pandemic was going to be over. (Bichotte’s spokesperson Sabrina Rezzy, also on the call, chimed in here to point out that the Kings County Democratic County Committee is much larger than any other county committee in the city and presented unique logistical challenges to holding an entirely virtual meeting.)

Was it not clear when the decision was made to postpone the organizational meeting that the pandemic would not be over by the end of the year?

When we made that decision, I think it was August or September (the executive committee voted on Sept. 29 on rules postponing the organizational meeting), we didn’t know that. It’s recently that we saw things closing down, which is why I said at the meeting that I was happy we had the meeting. But at that particular time, we didn’t know that. We thought the pandemic was going to go away pretty soon, the vaccine and so forth. I wanted to have a meeting this year. I specifically said that.

There are those who also questioned the impartiality of your parliamentarian Rob Robinson, who you have said you didn’t know before this and came highly regarded from multiple people of varying political backgrounds. A 2018 photo has emerged of Robinson with Assembly Member Tremaine Wright at a holiday party.

(Robinson, who was on the call as well, said the fact that he knew Wright was “not even germane to what transpired, because I was not responsible for Tremaine being elected.”) Nice and clean. Of course you see pictures of people who had relationships. It will look that way. “Maybe it was a conspiracy and everybody got together in a room and said that,” no, that wasn't the case. It was not the case.