In the lead-up to New York’s state primary election on June 23rd, most Brooklynites were focused on the several close races for State Senate and Assembly seats or on whether the Board of Elections could handle a surge in mail-in ballots.
But one state official, Assemblymember William Colton, was paying attention to a much less prominent race.
In the weeks before the primary, Assemblymember Colton, a Democrat who represents parts of Bath Beach, Bensonhurst, and Gravesend, sent out three separate mailers endorsing candidates for Brooklyn Democratic Party County Committee seats in his district.
The mailers (Letter 1, Letter 2, Letter 3) encouraged voters to elect Yuzef Zlobinskiy and Nino Magali, who is the president of Assemblymember Colton’s United Progressive Democratic Club (UPDC), to County Committee seats in Bensonhurst’s 30th election district.
Colton accused Magali and Zlobinskiy’s challengers, first-time candidates Megan DiMotta and Peter Finnen, of being an “outside group which actually supports defunding of the police and eliminating of the SHSAT,” the entrance exam for the city’s specialized high schools.
The mailers, which were sent at the height of the protests following the killing of George Floyd, also raised fears of “conditions of looting and tension, which, so far, because of community support and cooperation with our police, our neighborhood has been spared.” Colton has criticized the City’s decision to reduce the NYPD spending in its most recent budget.
“I was surprised by how much of an attack it was,” DiMotta said. “We didn’t even know what the SHSAT was. We had to look it up. That was a complete fabrication.”
Colton referred to Zlobinskiy and Magali, meanwhile, as “strong community persons who support our police officers who risk their lives to keep us safe, who believe we should support our Specialized High Schools with an objective SHSAT to admit students on their merit and help support bringing us together to make a better neighborhood.”
The two are described several times as “our team” and “our neighborhood community team,” even though Zlobinskiy’s last name is spelled at least three different ways throughout the letters.
The first mailer was co-signed by District Leaders Nancy Tong and Charles Ragusa, elected party leaders who represent Colton’s 47th Assembly District. Two of the mailers were also co-signed by District Leader Ari Kagan, who represents the nearby 45th Assembly District.
In a typo-filled final sentence, one of the letters concludes: “We are all endorsing and urging you to look for their names on the ballot and vote for Nino Magali and Yuzef Zlobinkiy (sic) FOR NEW YORK STATE COUNTY COMMITTEE IN THE JUNE 23 DEMOCRATIC”. (sic)
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.
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.
The mailers were highly unusual because County Committee elections are often uncompetitive and receive little public attention from the press and elected officials. Efforts by the Brooklyn Democratic Party leadership to enlist members have been anemic over the years; of the party’s 5,488 existing County Committee seats, just 2,137 are currently filled.
Colton did not reply to a request for comment, nor did Tong. A spokesperson for Kagan declined to comment. In an email, the spokesperson wrote that “This is for a race in AD 47, so we refer to those Dem district leaders. Ari did not create or distribute this flier. He spent the 2020 election cycle working hard for the races in Southern Brooklyn.”
A call to the UPDC, of which Ragusa and Magali are members, went unanswered, and Zlobinskiy could not be reached for comment.
Colton’s motivation for sending out the mailers wasn’t immediately clear, but in recent election cycles, Republican opponents have been slowly chipping away at his once-sizable lead. He won 88.7% of the vote in 2016 but only 69.4% in 2018. On election day this year, Colton won 12,958 votes (53.4%), while his opponent, Republican Barbara Marino, won 9,896 (40.8%).
Of the 7,457 absentee ballots returned in the 47th Assembly District, 4,709 were from registered Democrats and members of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Colton. 813 came from registered Republicans and members of the Conservative Party. If those individuals all voted along party lines, Colton might win with about 62% of the vote, but we won’t know until those votes have been counted, and his margin may be the narrowest yet.
DiMotta and Finnen, who eventually won their elections, say they ran on a platform of increased voter turnout and engagement and didn’t focus on policing or education in their campaigns. DiMotta had been managing a Facebook page focused on progressive politics in nearby Gravesend, when a member of the neighborhood group South Central Brooklyn United for Progress encouraged her and Finnen, her partner, to get involved in the local Democratic Party.
“We’re really just locals to the area,” Finnen said. “And I wanted to show my friends and family how easy it was to get involved in the Democratic Party. Though it seems like we ended up facing a lot of pushback.”
After receiving the mailers to their door, DiMotta and Finnen said they reached out to Colton, Tong, and Ragusa for an explanation but received no response.
Though County Committee elections usually happen with little fanfare, in recent years, the body has become a focal point in an ongoing battle between progressive political clubs, particularly New Kings Democrats, who have pushed the Brooklyn Democratic Party to be more transparent and accountable, and a more moderate Party leadership that has resisted reform.
“Colton pushed back harder against us than he did against Vito Bruno in Andrew Gounardes’ race,” Finnen said. “It’s the same thing we’re seeing with more conventional Democrats who push back against groups like New Kings Democrats, who really are just desperate to be involved. And I wonder if we’re not shooting ourselves in the foot by fighting each other instead of working toward shared goals.”