New York City

What happened at the Brooklyn Democrats’ 13-hour meeting

Carlo Sciussura

Carlo Sciussura Ali Garber

Think you’ve got it bad with a few hours of back-to-back Zoom meetings? That’s got nothing on the 13-hour marathon virtual meeting of the Kings County Democratic Committee on Wednesday, which was plagued by delays and incorrect vote tallies. But by the end, a group of reformers had won their first-ever county committee vote victory, a watershed moment for the group and for the county party.

The county committee approved a new slate of rules proposed by the reformer group New Kings Democrats, which has been advocating for over a decade to make the Brooklyn Democratic Party more transparent and, in their view, democratic. It’s a sign that the Brooklyn Democratic machine, which has long controlled the county’s politics with leaders and kingmakers, may be losing its once-firm grip on local political power. 

But to an outside observer, the flurry of criticism on Twitter and details about the inner workings of the county organization can be confusing. To understand what happened at Wednesday’s meeting, and its significance for the Brooklyn Democratic Party and the borough’s political landscape as a whole, requires a step-by-step explanation.

A 13-hour meeting? What happened?

The meeting did not officially begin until four hours after its supposed start due to preliminary procedural measures, including making sure enough members were present. Then the first vote of the meeting was to renew last years’ rules. The motion was favored by traditional party leaders and opposed by reformers, who argued they were trying to push through the old rules without allowing proposed new rules to be considered. The renewal passed by a margin of four votes out of 2,205. The only problem? That vote total included 26 more votes than there were committee members. Reformers and allied district leaders said that no other vote could take place until the discrepancy was explained. Hours later, committee chair Carlo Scissura, who was running the meeting, and county party chair Rodneyse Bichotte said they would rescind the vote and moved to adjourn with the intention of holding a new vote at a later date. But the reformers refused to allow the meeting to end, demanding to see the vote data Scissura had refused to provide for hours. He finally relented and provided the raw data, which revealed one district leader had more proxy votes, which are cast on behalf of absentee committee members, than she should have. Under party rules, a district leader is allowed to vote on behalf of committee members in their districts who cannot come to meetings in person. It apparently showed that traditional party leaders did not have the votes to control the meeting. However, a final accurate tally for transparency with all discrepancies accounted for is still being determined. It would not change the fact the vote on renewing last years rules was nullified.
Finally, with the raw data released and the initial vote thrown out, Mariana Alexander, president of the New Kings Democrats, moved to vote on her group’s proposed rule changes and to reconvene later to vote on party officers and to fill committee vacancies. The motion passed.

What are the new rules that got approved?

The County Committee approved a slate of six new rules aimed at reducing the power of party leaders and spreading it more evenly among the over 2,000 county committee members currently serving. One will bring back the second annual meeting of the committee – right now, the full committee meets only once a year. Two would address the issue of proxy votes, which have long been used as a way for party leaders to consolidate votes among loyal and allied district leaders in order to get their agendas passed. A handful of district leaders voting on behalf of absent members have allowed party leaders to block rule changes in the past. This notably happened in 2018 despite record turnout at the committee meeting. This has been controversial in other counties too. In 2018, party leaders in Queens ran candidates for the county committee without telling them, in order to guarantee members who wouldn’t show up – thus bolstering their own number of proxy votes. One rule would limit the number of proxy votes any district leader can have to just 20, with the goal of preventing any one person from controlling too many votes. Another would allow committee members to choose who will vote on their behalf, rather than the vote going to their district leader by default. According to the New Kings Democrats, the changes are meant to decentralize power away from party leaders and empower committee members.

Why is this a big deal?

Until now, changes proposed by the New Kings Democrats got shot down by the county committee’s leadership. “(This is the biggest victory) essentially ever,” New Kings Democrats Secretary and Vice President for Policy Jessica Thurston told City & State. “And I don’t say that lightly.” It is a culmination of years of work and getting new, reform-minded leadership into county party positions. Several recently elected district leaders like Samy Nemir-Olivares, Julio Peña III, Jesse Pierce and Kristina Naplatarski were among those who took center stage in Wednesday’s fight, pushing for transparency and refusing to leave despite the meeting’s length and many delays. “And... finally, after 13 HOURS, some HISTORY was made,” Nevir-Olivares wrote on Twitter. “Tonight, was FIRST time ever that Kings County (BK Dems) wasn’t able to control a vote to their favor…” The morning after the meeting, Rep. Nydia M Velázquez praised the reformers’ success on Twitter as well.

This is related to demographic turnover as well: New Kings was founded by young professionals in North Brooklyn, and its membership skews towards younger progressives, whereas the current party establishment tends to be older, more concentrated in in southern, eastern and Central Brooklyn.

But this isn’t just a story of one borough, as it’s indicative of a shift in power away from party machines across the city. The end of the party bosses sped up dramatically when now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Queens County Democratic Chair then-Rep. Joseph Crowley. That same year, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie unseated the party-backed former state Sen. Jesse Hamilton in Central Brooklyn. And this year, Assembly Member Diana Richardson, who has worked closely with Myrie and was critical of the party leadership on Twitter Wednesday night, fended off a challenge from Hamilton, which was seen by some as the county party’s attempt to unseat a rival and regain some power. Other challengers have knocked off county-backed candidates in Brooklyn and Queens, including Jabari Brisport, who defeated Assembly Member Tremaine Wright this year in the primary to replace outgoing Brooklyn state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery. 

Now, Wednesday’s vote indicates that county leaders are losing control of their strongest bastion of power, the county committee. “Basically, it’s trending towards a Manhattan-style county committee,” Marcos Masri, a Democratic consultant and founding member of the New Kings Democrats, told City & State. The Manhattan Democratic Party, which was overtaken by reformers in the 1980s, is not nearly as powerful as it used to be in Tammany Hall’s heyday and its leader has less influence in its borough’s decentralized power structure. “It’s a whole new ball game, I don’t see them holding it,” Masri said. 

Bichotte’s spokesperson Sabrina Rezzy said in an email that Bichotte is working towards the same goals as New Kings. “Assembly Member Bichotte is a reformer,” Rezzy wrote. “Her goals stepping into the role of Chair have been to make the party as diverse and transparent as possible. Change is never easy and we look forward to working collaboratively to help the people of Brooklyn live better lives." Rezzy also forwarded an unsigned email sent to committee members from the county party. The party apologized for the error in the vote tally, attributing it to the new virtual format and a mistake by a third-party vendor collecting the votes. “We set out to have an honest, transparent and inclusive meeting, but what transpired did not meet that goal,” the email reads. “We are working with organizers throughout our wonderfully diverse borough, including the New Kings Democrats, to assess what went wrong and find a practical solution before the meeting continues.”

Why does this matter?

County party leaders can have incredible influence over local politics, handpicking political candidates for judgeships and special elections for legislative seats, and quashing the efforts of those who opposed them. County organizations can mobilize voters, help to run campaigns and so on. The local county parties pick election commissioners, who run the races that these candidates run in, leading to accusations of politicization of elections run by insiders. In special elections for the state Legislature, county leaders handpick the Democratic candidate, who nearly always wins in New York City. 

Reformers have long decried the special election process, charging that it allows lawmakers loyal to the party to handpick their successors without an open primary if they resign before their term is over. Rule changes like those adopted by the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee would put more power in the hands of committee members, reducing the power of a single party leader and those loyal to them. 

Haven’t I heard other things about the Brooklyn Democrats recently?

Very likely, you have. The county party has been the subject of two recent lawsuits brought by reformers to oppose moves made by Bichotte and party leadership. In the first lawsuit, a judge in October ruled that the county organization must hold a full county committee meeting this year, as is required by state law. Bichotte had originally cancelled the meeting due to the pandemic and planned for only the executive committee (which is made up of 42 district leaders, rather than the 2,100 committee members) to vote on rule changes, party officers and the filling of vacancies. The ruling led to the virtual meeting that lasted 13 hours on Wednesday.

A second lawsuit came about when party leaders adopted an amendment that they used to allow the executive committee to fill some 2,400 vacancies – as well as four newly created at-large positions for gender-nonbinary Brooklynites – unilaterally, without getting input from the full committee. A judge declared this illegal and said that none of the appointed members are actually committee members. Those vacancies will be filled on Dec. 23, when Wednesday’s meeting will continue.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that a final corrected tally of the nullified vote and accounting of all discrepancies is still being determined.