New BOE Counsel is a Boundary Breaker—and a Shrewd Political Choice

New BOE Counsel is a Boundary Breaker—and a Shrewd Political Choice
Hemalee Patel at a political event in 2020. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

Last week, the city’s Board of Elections named Brooklyn attorney Hemalee Patel as its new General Counsel, replacing scandal-laden Steve Richman as the Board’s top lawyer.

The BOE’s appointment of Patel, a 20-year court system veteran who is the first South Asian woman to hold the role, was a win for those looking to elevate women of color in government. But the appointment was also notable because, after a year in which both the BOE and the Brooklyn Democratic Party that partially controls it were pummelled with accusations of corruption and incompetence, it represented a broadly popular decision across the borough’s fractured political landscape.

“Almost everyone distrusts the Board of Elections for some reason or another,” said Nick Rizzo, a former Brooklyn Democratic District Leader and a local political consultant. “But now in the position of ‘main arguer,’ they put in someone everyone in Brooklyn politics at least likes and respects.”

The BOE, which oversees city elections, plays a crucial role in the city’s democratic life. But it also plays host to a political patronage system that is a vestige of the Tammany Hall era, in which not just the 10 BOE commissioners but also staff are chosen almost entirely by Democratic and Republican Party bosses. Critics say that system has led to a failed bureaucracy that has produced repeated, serious mistakes, including accidentally purging 200,000 voters from the rolls before the 2016 election and mailing nearly 100,000 defective absentee ballots last year.

When staffers leave the board, they are usually replaced by someone from the same party and borough—in the case of the General Counsel, that means a Brooklyn Democrat. The role is an important one: the counsel oversees all election-related legal issues and court cases.

Richman, the previous counsel, who retired last month in the midst of a Department of Investigation probe rumored to focus on sexual misconduct allegations, was often seated next to executive director Michael Ryan at board meetings.

Patel, who has worked in the court system for 20 years as a law clerk and special referee and who unsuccessfully ran for a civil court judgeship in 2017, was appointed through the same patronage system. In fact, in a message posted to her Facebook page announcing her new role, Patel shared “my thanks to the Kings County Democratic County Committee, our Madam County Leader and our Law Chair, who blessed this.”

The current head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party is Flatbush Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who has come under withering criticism in recent months for her handling of internal party divisions and racist comments by a former party executive committee member.

Asked for comment about how Patel was chosen, a spokesperson for Bichotte referred Bklyner to a public statement in which the Assemblymember called Patel “an esteemed progressive member of the bar” whose “determination and dedication will help bring essential reforms to the BOE in this pivotal election year.”

“As a woman of color, I applaud Hemalee’s historic appointment,” she said. “As a South Asian woman, she is a wonderful role model for greater diversity in government.”

But it’s not just party insiders that have nice things to say about Patel. Several election lawyers and political players, including those who have criticized the county party and the Board, praised Patel as a smart, competent pick.

“She’s previously sought judicial office and everyone on the political scene from across the spectrum likes her,” said an election lawyer who asked to remain anonymous because they work closely with the BOE.

“It seems like a good government choice. Like the party is doing it for appearances. I don’t think she has much election work experience, but she’s a smart attorney who learns whatever field she has to learn.”

Christina Das, president of the Brooklyn Young Democrats, which has clashed with the county party on numerous occasions, called Patel “a widely respected legal professional and civic leader with decades of public service experience” and a record “of valuing fairness, justice and transparency.”

“Hemalee’s story and career are also an inspiration to South Asian women in law and public service,” Das said. “We are excited about Hemalee’s appointment as BOE’s general counsel and know she will welcome change.”

Patel was born in India and moved to Queens when she was five. After relocating to Brooklyn to get a JD from Brooklyn Law School in 1991, she worked on landlord and tenant cases before moving to a general practice firm on Court Street in Brooklyn, where she handled matrimonial cases. She also represented women during divorces and family court appearances through the now-defunct Westside Battered Women’s Legal Project, according to a 2017 Brooklyn Eagle profile.

In 2001, Patel became a law clerk in the New York State Unified Court System. Then, in 2012, she became a special referee in Richmond County Supreme Court in Staten Island, again handling matrimonial cases. She also chaired the transportation committee Brooklyn Community Board 2 in Downtown Brooklyn before relocating to Bay Ridge with her family.

In 2017, she ran for a civil court judgeship in the city’s Sixth Municipal District, which includes a large swath of central and southern Brooklyn. In that race, she was endorsed by some reform-minded politicos and clubs, including Council Member Brad Lander and the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, but she ultimately lost to Elena Baron. (Some sources speculated that Patel’s appointment might in part be designed to prevent her from running against a party-backed judge in a future election).

Throughout that time, Patel joined several bar associations and, sources say, cultivated relationships with a variety of Brooklyn politicos. That variety is reflected in Patel’s political donation history. The State Board of Elections’ contribution database shows that, in the last decade, Patel has contributed $6,250 to various campaign accounts and political clubs.

In recent years, she gave to accounts associated with party stalwarts like former Brooklyn Democratic Party chair Frank Seddio; District Leaders Lori Knipel, Henry Butler, Charles Regusa, Walter Mosley, Josue Pierre and Ari Kagan; progressive clubs like the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats and Muslim Democratic Club Of New York; and elected officials like State Senator Andrew Gounardes, Assemblymember William Colton and Council member Justin Brannan.

A query of the city’s Campaign Finance Board database showed Patel also gave $25 contributions to Lander’s comptroller campaign and to the Brooklyn Borough President campaign of Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, who also endorsed Patel’s 2017 run. She also gave $25 to north Brooklyn Council candidate Lincoln Restler, and two contributions totaling $50 to Flatbush Council candidate Josue Pierre.

At the BOE, Patel will undoubtedly have her work cut out for her; the Board will be overseeing the implementation of ranked-choice voting across the city for the first time, in addition to dealing with the multitude of legal challenges that come with running a major election during a pandemic.

The General Counsel can play a powerful role in shaping the Board’s function and decisions, election lawyers said. Richman, Patel’s predecessor, was notoriously adversarial, sometimes kicking candidates off the ballot for relatively minor technical infractions or pushing back against language-accessibility initiatives.

“Whoever is the lead attorney for this crazy system can do a lot to make things a little more modern in terms of reporting and transparency,” Rizzo said.

Patel did not respond to a request for comment from Bklyner about her appointment and what her focus areas might be. In her Facebook post, she called the Counsel role a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

“I have always believed that the quality of our lives is deeply and directly impacted by people who serve the public,” she wrote. “And I have considered myself a public servant, doing my best to work with integrity, and in a thoughtful, patient, and compassionate manner – to inspire trust in our courts.”

Still, Patel is only one person, and the BOE is structured around a complex interplay of party politics, patronage, and personal relationships. Many believe real reform won’t be possible without an amendment to the state constitution that makes the BOE nonpartisan and its hiring process merit-based.

Perhaps that attitude was best captured in the terse statement sent to Bklyner by the political club New Kings Democrats. The club has been a persistent critic of the county party system, and last year it published an explainer on the ongoing problems at the BOE.

“We congratulate Ms. Patel on her new position,” said Tony Melone, the group’s communications director, “but NKD continues to have concerns about the Brooklyn Party Chair’s influence on the hiring of professional staff at the Board of Elections.”