I am not a politician. I have friends who are politicians and city planners, and I’m endlessly fascinated by (and perhaps a bit scared of) the part of each of them that is an elected official, or a lobbyist, or a person who makes decisions that will affect hundreds or thousands or even millions of people.
In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—I decided this summer to run for the lowest-ranked office of the Kings County Democratic Party, County Committee. My electoral district is two square blocks, and even that I share with another County Committee member.
Like many reform-minded non-politicians, I spent a few days this summer picking up petitions from my State Assemblyman Robert Carroll’s campaign office and walking door to door in my two blocks gathering signatures to get my name on the ballot. This was actually almost fun—I took my daughters along, got the people I knew to introduce me to people in their buildings, and finished with a deeper connection to my election district, also known as my neighborhood. I was unopposed, so once I got the signatures I had successfully petitioned my way onto County Committee. It felt good.
I’m not officially connected to any of the many Kings County independent democratic clubs that have built a coalition to challenge the ways the Democratic Party establishment uses County Committee, though I found support in the process through the Rep Your Block movement by New Kings Democrats (NKD), perhaps the most central club in the coalition. In preparing many of the new County Committee members for their first meeting, they said first that they couldn’t predict with certainty how it would go. County Committee, after all, is composed of over 3,000 seats representing every assembly district in Kings County, and has generally functioned through mechanisms developed by the party establishment—currently represented by Frank Seddio—to get a minimum number of members to attend to establish a quorum while getting as little input from them as possible.
Despite their uncertainty, NKD could make a few educated predictions, every one of which turned out to be accurate. The party, in accordance with established bylaws, would be required to hold two County Committee per year, the first being held within twenty days of Democratic primaries. I would receive a letter roughly two weeks before the first meeting, which would discourage me from attending. My notification would include a proxy card to send instead of attending, which essentially gives my vote to the party leadership.
This last prediction is the central justification County Committee reformers give for filling seats and attending meetings. A proxy voting bloc dilutes the democratic part of the local Democratic Party in the same way a superdelegate bloc dilutes the national Democratic Party: by forcing a false consensus. In the same way a large bloc of superdelegates can essentially veto even a large-scale grassroots movement, a substantial chunk of proxy votes cast by members who chose not to fulfill their elected duty can nullify even an auditorium full of committee members who actually attended. This is an obvious way that the Democratic Party, even if it leans progressive, is essentially undemocratic.
With these discrepancies in mind, my mission going into my first County Committee meeting was twofold. The first was simply, along with what turned out to be a huge bloc of reform-minded new County Committee members, to simply attend, listen, and vote. The second, and my reason for writing this, was to document, so that even if we were steamrolled by a bulldozer of proxies the process, which has been kept intentionally opaque for decades, would get some exposure to the world outside the Democratic Party elite.
I was as surprised as anyone to see the city media give County Committee some exposure over the two weeks leading up to the first meeting. Gothamist’s Yasmeen Khan wrote a piece addressing the question “What’s Up with NYC’s County Committees?” that was helpful even to me in understanding why I’d received an obviously-fake letter from my District Leaders encouraging me to just send the proxy in, something two of them had asked me in person not to do. The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Seddio himself in which berates and discourages the reform movement, to which Errol Louis convincingly responded in the Daily News.
The meeting location, Kingsborough Community College, was probably remote enough to keep some County Committee members from making the commute, and deficient enough in space not to fit the 700-800 members who did come. Correctly estimating the deficiency of the commuter bus that is the only way to get there via mass transit, NKD had set up a bus shuttle from the F and Q lines.
Once I got through the commute and check-in, I took my seat with Assembly District 44 and waited with the rest of the attending County Committee for two hours while Seddio and his people counted proxies. Toward the end of the wait, an old man at the podium apologized for the wait and blamed NKD, whose representatives were observing the process and making sure NKD proxies were accounted for. Someone passing by District 43 wryly remarked, “Democracy in Brooklyn—‘We’ll start the meeting as soon as we have the votes.’” Soon after that, the crowd started chanting, “START THE MEETING NOW, START THE MEETING NOW!” And it seemed to work—they started the meeting!
A bald man who didn’t introduce himself—I later learned he was former State Senator and IDC lawyer Martin Connor—began by lecturing committee members on why County Committee exists and why it must be held within twenty days of Democratic primaries. He then stated that the proxies had been counted, and listed them as 555 for Frank Seddio and 130 for NKD. These numbers changed throughout the night, with the Seddio proxies eventually ballooning to over 700 as they needed them to defeat the vote of members who actually participated.
A quick word on Martin Connor, based on some day-after research. Perhaps most importantly: yes, that IDC. Connor was retained by the Independent Democratic Conference in 2014, providing legal advice and speaking on their behalf to media. It seems relevant and disturbing that the representative of the party establishment to County Committee has spent at least some of his time and energy directing and supporting the group of Democratic State Senators responsible for undermining the party at the state level, all of whom were voted out of office less than a month ago. Perhaps more importantly, though, I think this affiliation explains his determination to undermine popular vote in favor of false consensus. I would guess that this, after all, would probably be how he would explain his determination to find creative ways of ignoring nearly every County Committee member in the auditorium.
Connor did this primarily though Robert’s Rules of Order, which he wielded like a club. I wish I’d had the time and forethought to count how many times he shouted, “You’re out of order!” I soon got the sinking feeling that the only people in the room who could crack the lock and get him to listen were the lawyers.
One such lawyer was Robert Carroll, Assembly Leader of District 44, who stepped to the podium past numerous people who were shut down while shouting demands to make perhaps the most important motion of the night: to change the use of proxies. I forget the exact wording—I’m not a lawyer—but the gist of the motion was to effectively decentralize proxies by allowing each one only to be used within the district of the person giving it over. Even Frank Seddio, despite being party boss, technically resides in one district, so if this motion passed he would no longer be able to solicit proxies wholesale throughout Kings County. Josh Skaller, District Leader of AD 52, seconded the motion. Everyone in the room affirmed it, which seems even more astounding considering the committee members attending hadn’t yet felt the full force of those proxies tucked in Seddio’s pocket.
The next motion, the one that ended up being the flashpoint that set to flame all semblance of quorum or consensus, was brought, I believe, by newly elected District Leader Doug Schneider, who incidentally was one of the three leaders whose name was forged (and misspelled!) by Seddio in pre-meeting requests for proxies. His request seemed rather simple. The primary order of business for this meeting was to elect members of Executive Committee, the subcommittee of County Committee that actually conducts city-related business outside of coming to two of these meetings each year, and Schneider requested that each candidate on the pre-selected slates be allowed sixty seconds to speak before County Committee voted.
Of course, this motion was not simple; in fact, it threatened Seddio’s centralized power directly. Once Executive Committee is elected, they then nominate and approve the leader for the next election cycle. In order to retain stability and predictability, party insiders nominate a slate that agrees to then re-nominate the party boss, in this case Frank Seddio. The directive in asking for sixty-second pitches before the vote was twofold: 1) putting on display the suspicion many County Committee members have that the members of the proposed slate did not expect to have to win it (and in fact in many of their cases hadn’t even shown up to the meeting), and 2) allowing candidates from outside the party establishment a legitimate chance of being elected to Executive Committee and assuming real power in the party.
After hearing the motion and challenging its validity, former State Senator Connor agreed to take the motion to a vote. The vote was almost unilaterally in favor of allowing the sixty seconds for each candidate. Connor then pulled the number of proxy votes out of his pocket, which had then somehow increased in number to over 700, and declared all of the Seddio proxies to be against the motion. With those cards on the table, he revealed not just a majority-proof, but a consensus-proof proxy bloc. This was when the room erupted, and when my faith in the democratic part of our local Democratic Party withered.
Connor called the meeting into recess, and many committee members assumed this meant the meeting was over. But nobody wanted to leave, and after one district was called behind the curtain to elect their Democratic nominee for an open judgeship it was announced that the vote count on Executive Committee nominations had been challenged.
When Connor returned around 10pm after what ended up an almost two-hour recess, he announced that he would read the results of the vote count, to a roomful of boos. “What are you complaining about?” he said, obvious flustered. “You don’t even know the results yet!”
“You knew the results before you voted!” I yelled. Even I was surprised at myself.
By then, though, the energy was sucked out of the room. Looking at the agenda and seeing we had only gotten three out of eight items of business done, I saw that it was 10:15 and knew we only had the auditorium until 11pm. I couldn’t help thinking that this was the plan all along.
I got the feeling that Connor in particular by this time was just wanting the meeting to end. A resolution was passed that the new Executive Committee should vote in Kings County Democratic Party members publicly directly after the meeting was adjourned, and a number of committee members grumpily asked what the alternative was.
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen it,” he said, then laughed, “I’d like to see it!”
Someone made a motion to reconsider a vote we took earlier on something relating to the Executive Committee, as a number of committee members around me yawned.
“Did you vote for the Bova slate? Because—” And here he stumbled over some intricacy of Robert’s Rules of Order, then admitted, “Ok, I made a mistake!”
And for one glorious and satisfying moment of consensus, the audience erupted in shouts of derision and laughter. By then, though, I don’t think any of us even knew what exactly we were laughing at.