Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn’s time as Brooklyn Democratic leader may be nearing its end
Facing a legacy of division, the history-making Assembly member hasn’t said whether she will seek another term in September.
Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn’s brief and conflict-filled time as the Brooklyn Democratic leader may be coming to an end.
The Assembly member who took the helm of the state’s largest county organization in 2020, told City & State she’s not stepping down right now – but said she’s been busy, and left the door open to giving up power at the party’s organizing meeting in a couple months. “Those are rumors. I’m not stepping down,” Bichotte Hermelyn said. “We’ll just see what happens in September.”
If she did step down, it might not entirely be her own choice. The faction of progressive reformers aligned with the New Kings Democrats has been emboldened by a strong showing in the June primary. And while they do not have a majority on the 44-seat executive committee, there are a growing number of “regulars” who have also grown frustrated with Bichotte Hermelyn, and are talking about starting anew with a leader less eager to pick fights within her own party.
“Probably Rodneyse is reading the writing on the wall that she doesn’t have the votes or the numbers to continue being party leader,” said one district leader, who asked for anonymity to talk about private discussions. Now, reformers are talking with county-aligned district leaders about regime change. “There are a lot of people who are happy to work with other people just because they really dislike her. And that’s the reality of it.”
However insiders say there’s no obvious successor to lead the county organization, and it isn’t clear whether any candidate aligned with the New Kings Dems – the progressive alliance that’s been slowly building power since 2008 – would be able to win enough votes. A compromise candidate from the mainstream wing of the party could be next, or Bichotte Hermelyn may decide to stay and try to shore up support. She’s got a little time – insiders may want to avoid a shakeup before the second August 23 primary, not to mention the judicial convention in early August. Bichotte Hermelyn indefinitely postponed the party’s big fundraiser at a Williamsburg banquet hall that had been scheduled for July 14. Politicos speculated that she didn’t want to get party members together in a room where they could plot her downfall. The boss herself said too many people were going to be out of town, and it’d be better to have it after the primaries were over anyway. “No other county leader, in the past, or currently, has better events than I do,” she said. “We’d like to continue our reputation of great parties.”But can she organize her own party, the county committee? Asked if she has the votes, the leader said: “Definitely. If I decide to maintain, whatever, run again, yes, definitely.”
Some observers aren’t so sure. “It’s coming down real fast,” longtime Brooklyn political observer and election lawyer Howard Graubard said. “It’s changing by the minute. I think the one thing we can safely say is that Rodneyse is history.”
The Kings County Democratic County Committee does business as the Brooklyn Dems. It represents the 1 million registered Democrats in the borough. Thousands of hyperlocal county committee members are chosen and get a vote at the biannual meeting. But the decisions really get made in the executive committee, made up of 42 – and soon, 44 – district leaders, who are also members of the Democratic state committee. And the decisions are really made by the chair of the executive committee, often known as the county leader or the boss. It can be a role of great influence – choosing the Democratic nominee (read: the winner) in special elections for Congress, state Senate and Assembly; appointing judges; steering work to favored political vendors; directing resources in elections; having the ear of the governor, the mayor and anyone else. In January 2020, the executive committee elected Bichotte Hermelyn to that position, the handpicked successor to Frank Seddio, who stepped down midterm. Once an insurgent who challenged the county, as The City recently reported, she had followed the well-worn path to becoming an insider.
The Assembly member from Flatbush entered with high expectations. Here was the first woman to ever lead the party, a highly qualified Black woman at that. As a Central Brooklynite, she could bridge the gap between northern and southern Brooklyn, and her relatively progressive voting record, plus a long working relationship with progressive figures like New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, meant even reformers could be cautiously optimistic.
But simply put, Bichotte Hermelyn was not a unifier. As one Brooklyn political insider put it, “she’s created enemies where one needn’t exist.” Another called her “a bridge burner.” Whether you were a progressive reformer or a moderate insider, she would cut off communication if there wasn’t loyalty. “Even with Frank you could work with him. Open channels all the way,” said one party regular. “Right now, I don’t think anybody feels listened to… the second anybody disagrees with her they’re facing a primary.”
Just two and a half years into her term, there is neither the time nor space to litigate all the intra-party battles that Bichotte Hermelyn has been involved in – and in fact, many of those battles have been quite literally litigated, in court cases. A few telling examples would be refusing to charter the party’s more progressive youth arm, the Brooklyn Young Democrats, then creating a new organization called the Brooklyn Young Democrats that was loyal to her, and threatening to sue if any candidate claimed the endorsement of the original, established Brooklyn Young Democrats. Bichotte also tried to cancel the required biannual organizing meeting in 2020 – ostensibly due to the pandemic, but more likely because she did not want to give New Kings Dems a chance to introduce their desired rules reforms that could take away power from the county leader. The reformers sued and won, and Bichotte Hermelyn convened a remote, virtual meeting in December. It lasted 13 hours, but reformers got some of the key rule changes they wanted. A week later, Bichotte Hermelyn convened a second meeting. It lasted another 13 hours, and some of the biggest changes were reversed. This year, Bichotte Hermelyn broke the usual courtesies and endorsed candidates running against at least four incumbent district leaders who weren’t aligned with her. Her candidates won two and lost two.
Bichotte Hermelyn dismisses this all as “part of politics.” From her perspective, she’s protecting the interests of the county party against a group of progressive outsiders who are in it for themselves. “It’s never been about rules. It’s never been about transparency. It’s never been about who’s the boss,” she told City & State in July. “It’s always been about power.”
The reformers have always been quick to defend against the accusation. “It’s not just about power, it’s about making tangible changes that are going to be better for everybody,” New Kings Dems spokesperson Tony Melone told City & State, insisting the group isn’t plotting the leader’s ouster – at least, not just yet – and is playing wait-and-see. But Bichotte Hermelyn hasn’t been the only one escalating the long simmering war between reformers and regulars. After Bichotte Hermelyn’s husband, District Leader Edu Hermelyn, sang a crude Spanish song lyric in an online meeting last year, reformist district leaders and their allies seized the moment and held a rally in Bushwick calling for her ouster. Not long after, New Kings Dems, (the real) Brooklyn Young Democrats and the Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn launched the Brooklyn Can’t Wait slate of 20 reformist district leaders, in its most ambitious attempt yet to gain influence in the party. Powerful outside allies, like Rep. Nydia Velázquez and Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, endorsed them, in another repudiation of Bichotte Hermelyn’s leadership.
The boss became a general and put the party on a wartime footing. All in all, there were 19 contested races for district leader in the June election. Without seeking a vote from the executive committee, Bichotte Hermelyn personally bestowed an official Brooklyn Dems endorsement in every one of them, making the battle lines clear. She ended up with a losing record, winning nine races, and losing 10. That included her husband Hermelyn, now a vice president at the influential consulting firm Mercury. She had appointed him to the open role in 2020, and in his first election, he lost to Akel Williams, who ran as a part of the Brooklyn Can’t Wait slate. Bichotte Hermelyn herself was unopposed in her reelection as district leader.
“The Edu thing is interesting because he got beat, and he got beat by a landslide when his running mates won comfortable victories,” Graubard told City & State. “So it’s a personal repudiation tied into the county leader. That one spoke volumes more than a bunch of other ones combined.”
It’s a rare opportunity to leave one’s role as Brooklyn county leader with one’s dignity intact. Clarence Norman resigned after getting convicted on corruption charges in 2005. Vito Lopez resigned in 2012 after victims of his alleged sexual harassment came forward. The job – unpaid – is difficult even for the most ethical leaders. You’re a target of criticism, making decisions for a group of other unpaid political leaders who, as a rule, love to gossip and love to debate.
Even Bichotte Hermelyn’s critics appreciate that she’s opened up the books and gotten the party on sound financial footing, after Seddio left it nearly broke. And even while some regulars disagree with her tactics, they’re glad she didn’t give up the farm to the reformers – who many county-aligned forces deride as North Brooklyn gentrifiers. Bichotte Hermelyn has been laying the groundwork to leave the position, telling politicos she isn’t sure she wants the job anymore. She’s busy – a full time Assembly member, who is also finishing her second year at Brooklyn Law School as she works to add yet another degree to her collection of two master’s degrees.
“I’ve been telling people I’m busy because I am,” Bichotte Hermelyn said. “I think the fact that I am multitasking a lot, people think I can just be Wonder Woman. I don’t know if I want to be Wonder Woman.”
Superhero or not, she still has committed allies in the party. But even they are hedging, saying the decision is up to her, rather than begging her to stay.
“She has my support and my vote,” state Sen. Kevin Parker, a newly elected district leader, told City & State. “If she runs again, she certainly has my vote, in whatever way she handles herself both politically and personally.”
Frank Carone, now Mayor Eric Adams’ chief of staff, struck a similar tone. “Whatever she decides, I’m supporting her,” he said. “If she decides to stay and she has the bandwidth and the desire to continue, I would support her, if she decides it’s time to go in another direction. I would support that as well.”
Carone was once the party’s law chair, and while he doesn’t have any formal role with the party anymore, he remains influential – including in his role as a proxy for the mayor, who has stood with Bichotte Hermelyn amid the turmoil.
Adams is just one of the Brooklyn power players who would expect to have a say in who becomes the next leader – among Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Velázquez and Seddio, to name a few. Insiders from all corners of the party can agree there’s no heir apparent, were Bichotte Hermelyn to step down, but there are a handful of district leaders’ names being whispered, who all have their various pros and cons attached.
Assembly Member Maritza Davila has been a leader among the reformers, but if that alone doesn’t sink her candidacy, the fact that she remained in former leader Vito Lopez’s orbit for too long could do her in. State Sen. Roxanne Persaud, a Black woman legislator like Bichotte Hermelyn, has avoided controversy, but might be seen as too close to Seddio. Ditto Assembly Member Nikki Lucas – who some might think is too close to Jeffries. Tori Kelly Burhans, chief of staff to state Sen. Andrew Gounardes, could be acceptable to both reformers and regulars, but the party might be hesitant to elect a white leader in diverse Brooklyn.
Whoever would take over, many politicos, driven by their love of the borough, are ready to turn the page in Kings County. “Our party should be so much stronger,” said one Brooklyn Democratic consultant, listing off the power players from the borough including Adams, Williams, Jeffries and Attorney General Letitia James. “The Bronx is stronger than us. Queens is stronger than us. We should be the powerhouse, and we’re not. … She’s so busy arguing with the New Kings Dems she’s not getting shit done.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included the wrong date for the August primary election.
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