The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the ways New Yorkers engage in politics. Restrictions on in-person gatherings have forced town halls, organizing meetings, and even legislative sessions to go virtual.
County Committee meetings—the massive, sometimes chaotic gatherings where hundreds of delegates vote on the rules, leadership, and finances of their local political party—are no exception. Across the state, parties have moved the meetings online, or organized hybrid events with both in-person and virtual attendees.
The Brooklyn Democratic Party took a different approach: it canceled the legally-required meeting entirely.
A group of County Committee members sued, arguing the party’s decision to cancel the meeting without offering a virtual alternative violated state election law and was made for “illegitimate, undemocratic reasons.”
Yesterday, a Kings County Supreme Court judge ruled in the members’ favor, adding a new chapter to an ongoing battle between reformers and the party establishment over how one of the country’s largest Democratic county organizations should be run.
In his decision, Judge Edgar Walker ordered the party to find a way to safely proceed with the event within 45 days, and wrote that leadership’s argument that a virtual meeting would exclude County Committee members who don’t have access to technology was “merely a ruse for the leadership of the Executive Committee to retain their authority, and is insufficient to insulate KCDCC from its obligation to comply with the Election Law mandate” of holding the meeting.
“Democracy has been restored in Brooklyn,” Ali Najmi, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said. “The party leadership cannot just ignore the Election Law and undermine the rights of County Committee members. It is shameful to have used the pandemic as a guise to thwart democracy.”
The party says it will appeal the ruling.
The digital gap is real. And it’s a serious issue, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to limit voters participation. Not holding ANY meeting would exclude ALL county committee members of participatory democracy, while a digital meeting could have non-digital accommodations. https://t.co/Gf3oTlHF3b
— Samy Nemir-Olivares (@Samynemir) October 28, 2020
County Committee is the most local level of party governance in New York. Members cast votes to elect the county party’s leadership and approve its budget. They also consider party resolutions, choose local judicial candidates and select the Democratic nominee for any special elections.
State election law requires County Committees to convene every two years between September 17th and October 6th. Because coronavirus restrictions have made such large, in-person gatherings impossible, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing political parties to hold their committee meetings virtually.
But at a September 29th virtual meeting, the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s Executive Committee voted to indefinitely delay its own County Committee meeting, and in fact, explicitly prohibited meetings “via teleconference or video teleconference to prevent the disenfranchisement of members of limited economic means and/or without access to the internet or smartphone technology.”
The Executive Committee, which is made up of 42 elected District Leaders from across the borough, instead instituted a proxy system in which County Committee members’ voting rights are automatically transferred to the District Leaders themselves. To retain control over their votes, County Committee members must submit a signed letter to party headquarters.
In a press release announcing the change, Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte called the move “a progressive improvement from past practices.” But some County Committee members see the new rules as an undemocratic power grab.
“We get basically one meeting a year where we can all meet, talk to each other, see what’s going on, and be a part of this, and they took that away,” said David Goldberg, a petitioner in the suit and a County Committee member from Midwood. “And I think it’s fundamentally unfair as well as illegal.”
Goldberg and other County Committee members had produced a virtual meeting proposal they believe addresses accessibility concerns, in part by allowing members to call into the meeting by phone. The group submitted the plan to Bichotte and Jeffrey Feldman, the party’s Executive Director, but received no formal response.
“We sent it to the party right around the beginning of September and basically didn’t hear anything back for three weeks,” Goldberg said. “Someone happened to be talking to Jeff for some other reason and just brought it up. And he basically said ‘yeah, it’s just not gonna work because people can’t understand technology, so we can’t have it.’ And that was the end of the conversation.”
Neither Bichotte nor Feldman responded to requests for comment on this story.
Several District Leaders also criticized the new rules. Before the Executive Committee meeting, nine of them, along with Assemblymember Robert Carroll, had signed a public letter asking the party leadership to withdraw the proposed changes, arguing that “the answer to some members being unable to access the meeting should not be to prevent access to all.”
But as the Executive Committee meeting progressed, it became evident that the request had fallen on deaf ears.
“People were cordial, it wasn’t hostile,” said Julio Peña, a District Leader from Sunset Park who signed the letter. “But it just became very clear that this was not going to be changing. I don’t even think they were open to amending it. It was just like, ‘this is it. This is what we’re doing.’”
Ultimately, the Executive Committee voted to approve the new rules by a margin of 27-11, with one attendee abstaining.
Two days later, 11 County Committee members filed their lawsuit against the party in Kings County Supreme Court. They argued that neither state election law nor the governor’s executive order permitted the party to cancel the meeting and that doing so was itself an act of mass disenfranchisement.
“The purported reason not to hold the meeting as a way to prevent disenfranchisement makes no sense,” the members wrote in their filing. “Canceling a meeting of the County Committee does not enfranchise anyone.”
Judge Walker agreed with that argument. In his decision, he wrote that “while the court recognizes the need to protect and safeguard those members who face technological challenges, the amendment in fact has the contrary impact of disenfranchising all of KCDCC’s members, a vast majority of which probably do have internet access and would be able to participate in a virtual committee meeting.”
Bklyner reached out to several District Leaders who voted in favor of postponing the meeting and instituting the new proxy system, but nearly all of them declined to comment or did not respond.
One such District Leader who did respond, Nancy Tong from Bath Beach, wrote in a short Facebook message: “I think that during the pandemic it’s the right thing to do, but the rules must be reverted to what they were before when the current situation that we have is over.”
An ongoing struggle for reform
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an ongoing struggle between the establishment Democrats who control the Brooklyn party and a wave of progressive reformers who have pushed them to be more transparent.
“I think it’s because there are more people who are active,” said Janice Henderson, a County Committee member from Fort Greene and a petitioner in the suit. “They are not just names on a list. They really want to make some changes happen. And the Executive Committee doesn’t like that and so they’re trying to squash that activity.”
Before the pandemic, leadership had frequently located County Committee meetings in far-flung corners of the borough that could be difficult to access by public transit. The meetings themselves could be chaotic and confusing, lacking clear rules or agendas. Members were sometimes asked to vote on judicial candidate slates without receiving any information about the nominees; even if they voted in protest against the slate, they were often overpowered by the County Chair, who controlled hundreds of votes by proxy.
In January, the party’s Executive Committee voted to reduce the number of annual County Committee meetings from two to one, and to remove the County Committee’s ability to pass resolutions that compel party action. That vote was widely seen as a response to a successful 2019 resolution, put forward by reformers, that forced the party to be more open about its finances.
“Even when the County Committee was able to meet in person and members could question party leaders, the process could hardly be described as transparent,” said Christina Das, President of the Brooklyn Young Democrats (BYD).
Das’ club is the official youth arm of the Brooklyn Democrats, but even she has clashed publicly with the party’s leadership. Earlier this year, Das and fellow BYD member John Wasserman were removed from the June primary ballot as judicial delegates in what they call an act of retribution for pushing back against party leaders who had asked them to canvass during the pandemic.
“I think if you’re following this pattern, it doesn’t feel like we’re going in a direction that really encourages participation and is very forthright with information,” said Jesse Pierce, a District Leader from Boerum Hill. “Especially on the inner-workings of the organization.”
Pierce is a former member of New Kings Democrats (NKD), a club that has often been at the center of these disputes with party leadership. Several of the petitioners in the lawsuit are affiliated with NKD, and all five of the club’s endorsed District Leaders, including Pierce and Peña, voted against the new rules.
NKD’s activism has generated antagonism from some establishment Democrats, who have at times accused them of engaging in “political gentrification.” But NKD’s leaders and affiliates insist their goal is public engagement, not confrontation.
Each County Committee seat represents an area of only a few city blocks, and the role is often an early stepping stone for residents looking to get more involved in local politics. But efforts by the Brooklyn Democratic Party leadership to enlist members have been anemic; of the party’s 5,488 existing County Committee seats, just 2,137 are currently filled.
“Once you have someone who’s put in the effort, knocked on doors, gotten neighbors’ signatures, that opens the door for them to continue in the world of politics and advocacy,” said Goldberg. “And you sort of squash that enthusiasm when you cancel the meeting and say we’re not going to do anything.”