Campaigns & Elections

Party loyalist wards off challenge to Queens Dems’ grip on Surrogate’s Court

Cassandra Johnson, who was backed by the county party, beat insurgent candidate Wendy Li in the first contested surrogate’s court election since 1962.

Cassandra Johnson (third from left) and Rep. Greg Meeks (second from right) speak at Johnson’s election night party on June 25, 2024.

Cassandra Johnson (third from left) and Rep. Greg Meeks (second from right) speak at Johnson’s election night party on June 25, 2024. Max Parrott

The Queens Democratic Party fended off a challenge to its influence over the county’s judicial elections this week, with county-backed candidate Cassandra Johnson claiming victory in a hotly contested race for Queens County Surrogate’s Court judge.

In the first primary race for the post since 1962, insurgent candidate and Manhattan Civil Court judge Wendy Li lost her bid against the Queens Democratic Party’s pick for the position. Johnson ran a campaign that emphasized her connection to the borough through her experience as a Queens Civil and Supreme Court judge.

“It's so important to connect and make sure that families stay whole and are able to survive after a loss,” Rep. Greg Meeks, chair of the Queens Democratic Party, told the crowd at Johnson’s election night party. “You want someone that's there, that's from the community, that understands the community, that understands the families that are under duress.” 

Li, a Manhattan Civil Court judge who started her legal career in China before immigrating to America where she built a resume at a host of elite global firms, turned the race into a referendum on the influence of the county party over the obscure court, which functions as a moneymaker for one partner of the three-man legal team that act as power brokers within the Queens County Party. 

Li’s campaign faltered after both the Queens and New York City bar associations deemed her unqualified, and she ultimately failed to mobilize enough voters in progressive parts of the borough to her cause – potentially due to her connection to the political club of Hiram Monserrate, the disgraced former state Senator who was kicked out in 2010 for assaulting his girlfriend and later pled guilty to misusing campaign funds. Li employed Monserrate’s campaign consultant Michael Nieves.

For decades, the legal trio of Gerard Sweeney, Michael Reich and Frank Bolz have steered the county party from behind the scenes and held onto the lucrative legal position that manages ​​the estates of Queens residents who die without wills. The previous two surrogate court judges, who were backed by the county party, had appointed Sweeney as counsel to the court’s public administrator, a legal position that rakes in millions of dollars in legal fees yearly. Li’s victory in the race would have ended this lucrative arrangement.

Though she had to refrain somewhat from criticizing the party’s political influence in keeping with judicial impartiality, Li made it clear in interviews that she would appoint a new public administrator and that public administrator would not retain Sweeney as counsel.

“She's always found it outrageous – that no lawyer in private practice should be earning millions from pure patronage from the government,” said Ethan Felder, a Queens political operator who acted as Li’s campaign manager.

Party affiliates and Johnson’s supporters, on the other hand, have argued that Sweeney earned his keep as the counsel to the public administrator, handling a massive caseload that generates a lot of revenue for the local government.

“I think that under Sweeney, things have been better. I think they’re very good at the job and they serve the county well,” said Ali Najmi, a Queens election lawyer who worked on Johnson’s campaign. “It’s not an easy job.”

Sweeney himself, who was at the election night party, declined to comment to City & State. 

Sweeney’s professional reputation and the county party’s tendency to endorse judicial candidates from underrepresented backgrounds may explain many Queens lawmakers’ support for Johnson. She racked up an impressive list of endorsements, which went well beyond party insiders to include former insurgents like state Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymembers Khaleel Anderson and Ron Kim. 

Although Li won the Flushing and Bayside districts by a considerable margin, she was unable to match Johnson’s huge turnout in three Southeast Queens Assembly districts. Results in Western Queens, which tend to vote in favor of insurgents opposing the county party, suggest that Li also failed to win voters’ trust in progressive strongholds. 

Over the past two legislative election cycles, Western Queens has become a hotbed of progressive organizing. Candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America have won  election to state legislative seats, while grassroots activists have built a reform movement aimed at winning enough hyperlocal party positions to wrest control of the county party away from its current leadership. But Li was unable to take advantage of this progressive momentum. She lost in Assembly District 36, the Astoria district represented by DSA-backed Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, and only narrowly won in Assembly District 37, the Sunnyside and Ridgewood district that DSA-backed candidate Claire Valdez overwhelmingly won on Tuesday.

The county party pointed to the fact that a significant number of Li’s top donors came from outside New York City, while Maria Kaufer, a reformist Queens County Committee member, told City & State that there was serious concern among progressives and reformers about Li’s connection to Monserrate.

“My issue is, is she going to put in a new machine?” Kaufer asked. “We don't know, but I'm like, ‘Well, she's probably the best chance we have of breaking up the current one.’ And maybe she will be true to her word. You just don't know.”

Another early contender for the judicial post, Donna Furey, an elder law attorney, had garnered organizing support from progressives and reformers when she announced her candidacy, but she failed to make it on the ballot after the Queens Dems challenged her petition signatures in court.

Among voters without a close understanding of the internal political stakes of the election, it’s likely that the NYC Bar Association’s decision not to approve Li hurt her chances considerably. The organization doesn’t explain its ratings process, but Li claimed that the decision was politically motivated. The group recommended her when she ran for Civil Court in 2018 and she has since avoided ethics or disciplinary issues.

Reich, Sweeney’s partner and the executive secretary of the Queens Democratic Party, said the party’s decision to support Johnson was a marker of its integrity.

“We supported the one candidate that was qualified. And that's a big deal. That says something about us. We wouldn’t just go and pick out some hack. We picked out someone who was qualified,” he said.

As to the question of whether Johnson will keep the current public administrator in charge and effectively rehire Sweeney? She hasn’t made it clear. 

In her election speech at Queens Bully, a gastropub on Queens Boulevard near the party’s Forest Hills headquarters, she made a point to thank both Meeks and the party’s legal triumvirate, but she said she’s waiting to decide any big changes to the office. 

“Congressman Meeks, not just for this position, but Civil Court, Supreme Court, in a way you’ve been grooming me to be here – getting us prepared,” Johnson said. She also shouted out Sweeney, whom she joked was “hiding in the back” of the crowd.

She made no bones about party loyalty, but at the end of the event, Johnson suggested to City & State that she would be open to spreading out the legal work to other lawyers. That would be similar to the way surrogate’s court is handled in other boroughs, where the court’s public administrator cycles through different legal teams. Johnson said that she will only make a final decision after she is able to assess the inner workings of the court in the period before the general election in November.

“I’ve looked at how other counties have done things,” Johnson said. “I’m open. But I don’t want to just say ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”