New York State

What do district leaders do?

The gateway to New York politics. Sort of.

What do district leaders do?

What do district leaders do? Alex Law/City & State

Entry-level pols

Since Excelsior’s launch, there have been countless requests to unpack what district leaders do. No, seriously. Countless requests.

It’s understandable why so many of us are confused about these low-profile political posts, considering district leader campaigns barely garner as much attention as other races for elected positions, such as mayor, borough president, City Council, state Senate and Assembly. While the position doesn’t hold much power, they do have control over their party’s activity in their district and play a small but important role in the city’s overall political ecosystem.

Unlike other elected officials, district leaders are part-time and they don’t get paid for their work. The role is intended to be an entryway into politics for people who may not have other avenues to break in, such as an abundance of cash or good connections. Each term is two years and there are two district leaders per Assembly district, one male and one female – more on this outdated requirement to come! – but in some boroughs, such as Manhattan and Queens, certain districts are divided in half, thirds and sometimes in quarters and are denoted as “A,” “B,” “C” and “D” districts.

District leaders in the city also operate a little differently than a district leader might outside of the city. According to state laws, the city is required to have “party positions of assembly district leaders” or one district leader and one associate district leader per Assembly district. Outside of the city, however, the existence of district leaders is dependent upon whether or not rules from the county committees permit them.

District leaders are expected to be the voting arm for the community and to be present at county meetings. Each Assembly district is represented in the county committee, which is made up of district leaders and other party members. District leaders are expected to facilitate their party’s activity within their district, get more members of their party elected, appoint election workers and help elect the county chair. They also play an important role in selecting judicial nominees for their district.

Oftentimes, county chairs outside of the city will adopt the term district leader, but they have much different responsibilities that can blur the lines a little bit when it comes to the role. And then there are school district leaders, who have a completely different set of education and school-related responsibilities, further confusing things.

By the numbers

The district leader download

  • 0 term limits
  • 150: the number of signatures prospective district leaders need to get on the ballot, down from 500 signatures prior to the pandemic
  • $500 - $10,000: The range of cash needed to run a district leader campaign, according to New Reformers, a group that’s aimed at getting progressives elected to district leader roles in Queens

Mini history lesson

The origins of the district leader

The importance of district leaders dates back to the 1870s. Back then, the city’s district leaders were selected by party county committees rather than local residents, and they also played a sizable role in shaping public policy, which is not the case today. In the 1950s, district leaders were still chosen by their party’s county committees, but they could be challenged during primary elections.

The two roles for male and female district leaders were created in 1920, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the New York League of Women Voters are largely credited with this now-arcane setup. Roosevelt, who had joined the league that year, felt that women had a well-rounded understanding of their communities and would be valuable additions to the state’s political world. With the help of the league, Roosevelt pushed to create a stipulation that there be a district leader position specifically designated for women. A revolutionary concept in 1920, not so much in 2021.

The new reformers

Tension between party chairs and district leaders

For a long time, county committees and their members were all relatively on the same page and hardly ever faced challengers – that is, until nonmachine newbies started challenging – and defeating – more established district leaders in recent years. Pushback from party outsiders has led to a growing tension between progressive newcomers and the establishment.

After Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic congressional win in 2018, more political novices felt empowered to pursue their political ambitions and attempted to get into the most entry-level position there is in the city: district leader. This became clear in Queens, when a Democratic group called New Reformers decided to challenge establishment district leaders in the 2020 elections. “I just feel like we really need people, especially progressives, who care about changing the system to run for office themselves,” Moumita Ahmed, a co-founder of the New Reformers who is now running for City Council, told Gothamist in 2019.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, who is the Queens County Democratic Party chairdenounced the growing number of progressive challengers in the county, which has 72 district leaders. During a Queens County Democratic Party gathering in October 2019, Meeks made it clear that he did not approve of the new progressive challengers and asked guests attending the event to help find more incumbents to fill district leadership posts in the upcoming elections.

Since much of what a district leader does has to do with how its political party is run within their district, a lot of established politicians also serve as district leaders, in what some reform-minded district leaders construed as an attempt to have greater control over their district – and, in some cases, to squash community power.